Foundation inspires more than patients
By TIM O'SHEI
[email protected] | 716-541-1615
Gwen Mysiak wasn't hoping for any of this to happen.
She wasn't looking to leave her longtime employer. She certainly hadn't considered the idea of taking over a small foundation. And the circumstances that led her to do those things were simply heartbreaking.
None of this was part of Mysiak's plan. But it's her career now; her mission, really. She is executive director of Brian Moorman's P.U.N.T. Foundation, the nonprofit founded by the National Football League punter and his wife, Amber.
"I feel like this is what I need to be doing right now," said Mysiak, 40, who spent the first 17 years of her career working for WNED, most recently handling national promotions for the public TV station's productions. She had built a successful career and established her family (which includes her husband and three children) in Western New York.
She was happy.
The same could be said for Moorman, 36, who established his own life and family here as a punter for the Buffalo Bills, a job he won in 2001 and, until recently, held firmly.
Neither was seeking change. But change was coming for both.
For Mysiak, it came in the most heart-wrenching way imaginable. Her younger cousin Andrew Pawlak, who as a little boy was ringbearer at her wedding, was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive form of sarcoma. He fought a 20-month battle at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, enduring round after round of inpatient chemotherapy and a surgery in which doctors removed more than 100 tumors from his stomach.
Enter Brian Moorman. For years, the punter spent every Tuesday (NFL players' day off) visiting kids in Roswell's pediatric wing. He was a fixture and a friend, to the point where kids would try to reschedule their treatments for Tuesdays simply so they could see him.
Kids like Andrew are the reason the Moormans started P.U.N.T. (Perseverance, Understanding, Encouragement, Triumph) in 2004. They wanted to help the kids and their families by doing things both simple (providing gas and grocery cards; bringing them to Bills games) and grand: In December 2011, when Andrew - then 15 - was terminal, Brian and Amber went shopping for Christmas gifts and delivered them to the family's house.
When Moorman learned that Andrew's final wish was to swim one last time, he arranged for the family to be picked up in a limousine and brought to Embassy Suites downtown. He met them there with his teammate, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, and showed them up to the penthouse suite. Moorman had also arranged for the pool to be closed to the public so that the family could have a final swim with Andrew. He had the water heated higher to be comfortable for Andrew's weakening body.
After visiting for a bit, Moorman and Fitzpatrick departed so the family could have privacy. Andrew's father carried the boy into the pool. The family had their swim.
Three days later, Andrew died.
Just before he took his final breaths, Mysiak and her cousin Lynn - Andrew's mother - were talking about how wonderful Moorman had been to the family during the last few weeks.
At Andrew's memorial service, Mysiak told Moorman, "If there's anything I can do to help you with your foundation, please let me know." She asked her cousin Lynn to repeat the offer in the following months.
Mysiak sensed there was work to do, and she was right. The foundation's previous executive director, Kathy Robida, had left for a different job one year earlier. The Moormans thought they could get by without a director but eventually realized they were wrong. Last April, Brian and Amber met for coffee with Mysiak and laid out their vision: They wanted the P.U.N.T. Foundation to continue after Brian's Bills career ended. Given his age and contract status - 2012 was the last year of his deal - they suspected that could be soon.
Within days, Moorman offered Mysiak the job of running the foundation. After talking with Don Boswell, CEO of WNED, she decided to take it. Years earlier, Boswell had identified Mysiak as a rising star ("She had raw talent and wanted to set the world on fire and be the very best," he said) and promoted her up the ranks.
Now he was setting her free.
"If anybody who works for us has a mission in life to fulfill, they should seek those things out and do it," Boswell said.
One day after Mysiak accepted the job in April, an article appeared in The Buffalo News about a hot, young punter named Shawn Powell who would be competing with Moorman.
It was foreshadowing, for sure.
Moorman beat Powell in training camp, but after three games the Bills released him in favor of the younger punter. Within 24 hours, Moorman landed a new job with the Dallas Cowboys. But true to his vision, he wants the foundation's work to continue here.
Because he had Mysiak in place, it can.
"She's the backbone of the P.U.N.T. Foundation," Moorman said.
Mysiak's workdays have been spent bringing the website up to speed (a task completed earlier this fall); planning the organization's Celebrity Wine Pairing Fundraiser (originally scheduled for October but now pushed to May 10); working with donors such as New Era Cap Co., which has given $25,000 to help with the foundation's operating expenses; and building up donations and programming around foundation goals, which ultimately are to help families such as Mysiak's own extended clan.
"Gwen is able to relate to families - she can say, 'I understand,' " Moorman said. "That's something even Amber and I can't say. She's unique to be in the position she's in, and we're lucky to have her."