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TJ's multi-sport athlete works hard to remain healthy

| Wednesday, June 18, 2014, 3:32 p.m.
Ken Eber Photography | for the south hills record
Members of the Thomas Jefferson baseball team, including head coach Gregg Fouts, attended the event to support Jake and the walk at South Park.

Jake Benack maintains a busy, active lifestyle.

Benack, a senior at Thomas Jefferson in 2013-14, was a four-year varsity letterman in golf and three-year letterman in baseball.

He also earned four varsity letters as a member of the high school band, and two letters in the jazz band.

But he is not your typical multi-sport student-athlete.

Benack, 18, was born with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that causes mucus buildup in the lungs and other organs. Chronic infections are common in those with cystic fibrosis, and can be fatal.

“Jake has been a leader on the team and a role model for the younger kids. He works hard and is dedicated,” Bill Cherpak, Thomas Jefferson's athletic director, said. “He has never let cystic fibrosis dictate what he could or could not do.

“People have no idea what he goes through on a daily basis, and yet he never complains or makes excuses. He is just a great young man.”

Benack has worked diligently to remain healthy and active so his lung function remains good.

He spends three to four hours a day doing chest therapy, has breathing treatments five times per day, and uses an inhaler regularly.

He also takes a lot of medication to help him digest food and keep his body healthy.

“It takes an hour for each chest therapy/breathing treatments session,” Benack said. “On school days, I had to get up at 6 a.m. to get my therapy finished in time to get ready for school.

“Between the enzymes I need to take to help digest food (at every meal), multiple antibiotics, vitamins and other medications, I take about 30 or 40 pills a day.”

But Benack developed into a polished, multi-dimensional student-athlete at Thomas Jefferson.

A two-year starter at second base on Thomas Jefferson's varsity baseball squad, Benack batted a team-leading .491 in 2014 as the club's leadoff hitter.

Benack earned a spot on the Class AAA team in the recent WPIAL Baseball Coaches Association annual all-star doubleheader event.

He also was one of Thomas Jefferson's top golfers in the fall, and helped lead the Jaguars to a section title. TJ's boys' golf squad — for the first time in school history — advanced to the WPIAL team championships.

Benack plans to attend Gannon University, major in electrical engineering, and, of course, continue his baseball career.

Benack's parents, Flip and Sandy, both Thomas Jefferson graduates, have taught Jake to accept his diagnosis and to strive to attain his goals.

“We've always told him he would just have to work a little harder than everyone else,” Sandy said.

Sandy said the quest for a cure drives her to continue raising money for research through the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation “Great Strides” walk, a fundraiser event held annually in May at the South Park Fairgrounds.

The number of participants who are there to support Jake on the Sunday after Mother's Day has grown each year — from a few walkers the year he was born, to the hundreds who now gather each year.

“My mom started my team, Jake's Cure-saders, when I was only 1. We had only a couple people walking that year,” Benack said.

When Benack was in elementary school, his mother organized a “Jar Wars” competition for all the elementary schools in West Jefferson Hills.

“Each classroom would be in a competition donating spare change to see who could raise the most money for CF, and the winning room would have a pizza party at each school,” Benack said.

As a middle school student, Benack and friends raised money via a “Walk for CF” fundraiser.

“Each year, my ‘team' grew in numbers,” Benack said. “Friends, teammates, teachers, coaches — all would show up and (provide) support.”

When Benack began his high school career, Scott Breisinger, a longtime friend of his parents and supporter of the Walk for CF team, contacted Cherpak about the possiblity of getting Benack and Thomas Jefferson High School involved in the Great Strides program.

“Coach Cherpak reached out to all the sports teams, asking for volunteers to go door to door and to walk for my team at Great Strides,” Benack said.

“For the past five years, I have had over 250 walkers supporting Jake's Cure-saders at South Park. The administration, principals, teachers, coaches, friends, family and classmates all have supported me for a long time.”

Jake's CF Cure-saders raised approximately $6,000 for cystic fibrosis research this year.

“Ninety cents of every dollar raised goes into research to potentially cure my son,” Sandy said. “Without research, there will be no cure for these children and young adults. But, I also think the walk helps put a face to an illness and helps educate the community.

“Jake never wanted to be treated differently in sports (or anything) with his illness, and in our opinion worked real hard to do what he loves — play baseball and golf, keep good grades and stay healthy. We never dreamed our son would be able to go to college with his CF diagnosis.”

Jake's CF Cure-saders have generated more than $150,000 for cystic fibrosis research over the years.

“I have always wanted to improve at whatever I am doing and not let my illness ever get in the way,” Benack said. “I'd like the thank everyone who has ever walked at Great Strides and donated to the CF Foundation in my behalf.

“I would also like to thank the coaches over the years for doing whatever they could to help me to improve as a player and a person.”

Ray Fisher is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at 412-388-5820 or rfisher@tribweb.com.

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