March 24, 2014 was a day just like any other for 7-year-old North Arlington native Josh Piperato.
The youngster was having fun at his aunt’s home in Bradley Beach, doing what active little boys normally do. Josh was jumping up and down on the family trampoline.
That’s when disaster struck.
“My leg got caught and that was it,” Josh explains.
Emergency room doctors at a local hospital diagnosed Piperato’s injury first as a sprained ankle, but as it turned out, it was far worse.
“The pain he was having was so intense,” said Josh’s mother Ana. “He was screaming in pain.”
Josh also developed a fever that reached an astounding 108 degrees.
“It was bad,” Ana Piperato said. “He fainted in my arms. I kept asking him questions and he wouldn’t respond.”
A second trip to the hospital ensued. This time, the prognosis was more severe. Josh Piperato developed compartment syndrome.
According to the website, WebMD, Compartment syndromeis a condition in which increased pressure within one of the body’s compartments results in insufficient blood supply to tissue within that space.
It is most commonly due to physical trauma, but can also occur after blood flow returns following a period of poor blood flow. Treatment is by surgery to open the compartment completed in a timely manner, but if not treated within six hours, permanent muscle or nerve damage can result.
“Joshua was unconscious and in a coma,” Ana Piperato said. “He developed blood clots and his heart was failing. He was developing water in his lungs. He was so sick. I knew in my heart something was seriously wrong. I thought Joshua was gone. I saw a bunch of nurses rush in and there were wires going everywhere as they were trying to revive him. I was in shock. I was not expecting that to happen to him.”
Since Josh wasn’t treated immediately, it left doctors with no recourse.
They had to amputate Josh’s left leg from just above his knee in order to save him.
“You don’t think something like that could happen to your child, but it did,” Ana Piperato said. “It was so traumatic. It affected me and my whole family. I gave birth to a healthy baby boy and now this happens. The doctors said that they had to amputate his leg and if they didn’t, he would die.”
The days that followed were hard for all in the Piperato family, but especially young Josh.
“He was depressed,” Ana Piperato said. “He wouldn’t eat. He didn’t want to do anything.”
“It was hard for me, because I didn’t have a leg,” Josh Piperato said.
Ana Piperato had to put the pieces of her family, especially her young son, back together again.
“He was asking me a bunch of questions,” Ana Piperato said. “He asked, ‘Could I ever ride a bike again? Will I ever be able to run again? Will people like me?’”
And yes, even at such a young age, Josh Piperato wanted to die.
“He wanted to kill himself,” Ana Piperato said. “He tried to cut himself with a knife. He had a lot going on through his head.”
“I was sad,” Josh Piperato said. “Because I didn’t have a leg.”
After a while, Josh recovered from the injury and the surgery. He underwent intense physical therapy at the Children’s Specialized Hospital in New Brunswick, where he was fitted with his first prosthetic leg.
“Once he started walking on his prosthetic, he was a little better,” Ana Piperato said. “Once he got the hang of it, he was able to do more.”
When Josh turned eight years old, he had one request of his mother.
“He asked me about riding a bike again,” Ana Piperato said. “So I bought him a bike for Christmas. That made me feel so good.”
“It looked like fun,” Josh Piperato said. “I wanted to do it. I thought I could do it. It was weird at first and it was a little hard, but I did it.”
Ana Piperato said that once her son got on the bike, it was like she was finally getting her little boy back.
“There was a smile on his face,” Ana Piperato said. “And that made me happy.”
Soon after, Josh was fitted with what is called a “running leg,” a prosthetic that is used by athletes who compete in the Special Olympics.
“Once I got a running leg, I went running with my Mom at night,” Josh Piperato said. “It was amazing. It felt really good.”
“He was gone with the wind,” Ana Piperato said. “Watching him run, well, it felt like he was alive again.”
Riding a bike and even running is one thing, but then Josh wanted to do even more.
“I started watching football with my Dad (Chris Piperato) and then he showed me how to throw a ball,” Josh Piperato said. “I got pretty good at it and wanted to play.”
Josh was a Denver Broncos fan and followed Peyton Manning, but also roots for the New York Jets these days.
Liking football and wanting to play are two totally different things, especially for a youngster who is missing a left leg. But Josh wanted to play. He asked his mother to sign him up for the North Arlington Junior Vikings program.
“I got a little worried,” Ana Piperato said. “I didn’t want to discourage him, but I was worried. I had to give it some time to see if he was really interested.”
When the 2018 season approached, Josh Piperato, now 11 years old, still wanted to play football. So Ana relented and signed Josh up to play.
Josh was more than ready.
“I’m going to do it,” Josh Piperato said. “All my friends said I could do it. Football is fun. I play with my friends all the time, so I thought I could do it for a team.”
“He said, ‘No one is going to take my dream away,’” Ana Piperato said, quoting her son. “I didn’t want to let him do it. I was afraid of injuries. Is he going to get hurt, his head, his arms? But that was all he wanted to do. He wanted to be like the other kids. He was doing things like other kids, but was it possible to play?”
Enter Jay Leiner, who coaches the North Arlington Junior Vikings program and has done so since 1979.
“It’s the first time I ever had to deal with anything like this,” Leiner said. “I was concerned, because I didn’t know if there was any kind of ruling making him ineligible to play. I don’t think there’s ever been another case like this. I had to find out if it was legal. And there was no rules that prohibited him from playing.”
When Josh came down to Rip Collins Field for the first practice, Leiner was skeptical.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Leiner said. “But I’ve found out that Josh has the heart to play the game. And the leg is not holding him back. He’s running, tackling and blocking.”
Leiner said that because of Josh’s leg and instability, there are only a few positions where Josh could play, so Leiner has placed him on the offensive and defensive line.
“The line has turned out to be perfect for him,” Leiner said. “If he gets hit, he bounces right back up. He’s definitely motivating the rest of the team. He pushes the rest. He’s running laps and the others are trying to keep up with him.”
And Josh has become an instant teammate.
“The kids on the team all know him,” Leiner said. “They like him a lot. Once others play against him, they know he’s for real. You can see in his face that he knows the game. He’s very intelligent.”
“He’s very strong willed,” Ana Piperato said. “You can’t say, ‘No’ to Joshua. He doesn’t accept the no. It’s Joshua’s way or the highway.”
Leiner has been touched immensely by Josh’s dedication.
“In all the years I’ve been coaching, this is the best coaching experience I’ve had,” Leiner said. “We have won championships and this overrides all of it. Seeing a kid with a heart like this trying his hardest? Watching this kid actually stick it out is amazing and really inspiring.”
Josh Piperato will enter sixth grade at the North Arlington Middle School in a few weeks. He’s a normal 11-year-old who likes movies (Halloween and Deadpool are his favorites) and music (the rapper Juice WRLD is his fave). He also likes playing other sports like basketball and baseball, but for now, he’s a member of the Junior Vikings.
He’s a good student in school and an even better student about life.
“I’m excited about playing football and excited about the future,” Piperato said. “It’s what I do best. No one is going to stop me.”
Don’t dare mention the ‘H’ word to young Josh.
“I’m not handicapped,” Josh Piperato said. “I want to be just like everybody else.”
Only one problem with that. Josh Piperato is not like everybody else. He’s truly special and one of a kind.
“I always thought I could play,” Josh Piperato said.
“He’s amazing,” Ana Piperato said. “With everything he’s been through? He’s a survivor.”
Young Josh Piperato is giving his all as a member of the North Arlington Junior Vikings football team, despite losing his left leg in a tragic accident four years ago. Photo by Jim Hague