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Prep track: Cloquet's Genereau overcame childhood strokes to become a state-qualifying hurdler for the Lumberjacks

Senior will compete in the 300 hurdles Saturday at St. Michael-Albertville.

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Nathan Genereau of Cloquet competes in the 300 meter hurdles during the Section 7AA Track Championships Saturday, June 12, 2021 at Cloquet High School. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

It was April 2008 when the Genereau family of Cromwell had just returned home from church when six-year-old Nathan, nicknamed Paddy, wanted to impress his mother, Christy, by hopping up the steps to the house on one foot.

Christy was about to yell no but Paddy, arms tucked behind his back, holding his other leg, was already in motion when his foot caught the lip of the step, causing him to tumble forward and faceplant, smacking the steps, right under his nose.

The Genereaus thought it was nothing more than a bloody nose but then strange things started happening. Paddy got headaches but they thought he could have been dehydrated. He woke up a couple nights later screaming and saying his head hurt, but he had been playing hard with his cousins that day so they didn’t think much of it.

Then about two weeks after the accident Paddy was walking in the hallway after school at Cromwell when he rammed against the wall.

“It felt like the world was spinning on me and I couldn’t control it,” Paddy said.

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Paddy’s older siblings rushed to get their mother, a substitute teacher at the school.

“They said, ‘Mom, Paddy collapsed in the hallway,’” Christy recalled. “We quickly grabbed him and met my husband and drove to St. Mary’s in Duluth. I remember they kept checking his neck. I thought he had a tumor or something, and they said he had a stroke. Actually, they said he had a couple strokes.”

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Nathan 'Paddy' Genereau is pictured in the intensive care unit at what is now Essentia Health in Duluth while undergoing treatment for strokes related to an accident he had as a 6-year-old. Genereau recovered fully to become one of Cloquet's top athletes at this week's state track and field finals. (Submitted photo)

What happened?

Now 19 years old and a senior on the Cloquet High School track and field team, Paddy Genereau looks as healthy as one would expect of an athletic teenager. There’s not an ounce of fat on him.

Genereau will compete at the state meet for the first time Saturday in the Class AA 300-meter hurdles at St. Michael-Albertville High School after taking the Section 7AA title last week in Cloquet. He also got fifth in the triple jump and was on the Lumberjacks’ third-place 1,600 relay.

“He’s an awesome kid,” Lumberjacks coach Tim Prosen said. “You could see this was coming. A lot of guys break out their junior year but he never got the chance due to COVID last spring. He’s a big reason our team did so well this year. He’s one of our high-end kids. He’s just a real hard worker who set out with the goal to make the state meet, and I’m so glad that he got it.”

At his home track, no less, with his parents working the gate at the finish line, holding blocks, doing whatever they could as volunteers.

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“They’re the type of people who are always there to help,” Prosen said.

And that was the hardest part for Paddy’s parents after his accident. They wanted to help but didn’t know what had happened. Nobody could have expected it. Nobody could have known that when little Paddy hit those steps, his head flew back, whiplash-like, tearing arteries.

“We just felt so awful, like we were bad parents, because we didn’t take him in sooner, but we had no idea,” Christy Genereau said.

Paddy was quick to come to mom’s defense: “Nobody would have suspected that.”

Genereau said he had torn two arteries and had damaged a third.

“They said if I had torn three I would have died, so it was close,” he said. “The blood clots went to the head and two weeks later I was in the hospital. I’m very fortunate.”

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Nathan "Paddy" Genereau is pictured in a hurdles event at a track meet in seventh grade. (Submitted photo)

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An active boy

Before everyone goes running to the hospital every time their child has a slip, there is more to the story. The family didn’t realize at the time that Paddy was more susceptible to those types of injuries because he had thin arteries, which apparently runs in the family on his mother’s side.

Boys in Cromwell play football. That’s what they do. The Cardinals’ tradition on the gridiron is the Northland’s strongest of the past 30 years, and Genereau is no different. He wanted to play, but turns out, it was probably a good thing he didn’t.

“We’re probably lucky the accident happened when it did,” Christy Genereau said. “Otherwise, he would have been playing football for Cromwell and could have gotten killed.”

The youngest of four children and the most active, Paddy was the type who was always running around and quickly gravitated towards sports. His idea of the four seasons was “football, basketball, hockey and baseball,” and growing up on the 130-acre family beef farm 10 miles south of Cromwell, it was an idyllic setting, complete with its own 120 feet long by 60 feet wide hockey rink.

Paddy’s father, Dennis, described it like the movie “Mystery, Alaska,” where you could skate from the house right down to the rink.

There were Cromwell kids, Cloquet kids, Moose Lake kids, all kinds of kids. One time the entire Cloquet-Esko-Carlton girls varsity hockey team played there, and another time the Cloquet boys bantam team came when they were in high school.

“Every single team that any of our kids ever played on skated on that rink, for the most part, because we had them over and they’d play pickup hockey and we put little boards up,” Dennis Genereau said. “The cows would watch them play. It was pretty cool, and in the summer., it was a baseball field, a football field, a soccer field, whatever they wanted it to be, right? Because it was perfectly flat.”

But due to his condition, Paddy Genereau had to avoid high-contact activities. He was relegated to playing goalie, and he was good at it. As a squirt, he played up to peewees because Moose Lake had no other goalies and the team advanced to the state tournament.

“He was so short he could skate right into the net without hitting it,” Dennis Genereau recalled, laughing.

Paddy eventually grew to about 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds but his arteries never got any thicker, and goalie just wasn’t for him. He always wanted to be in the action, he wanted to skate, and was a natural skater, but he never got cleared for it.

That’s when he found soccer.

“The doctors said, ‘Oh, he can just run,’ and they almost didn’t let him play soccer,” Dennis Genereau said. “I said, ‘He’s so competitive, and he likes running, but he has to play something. You’ve got to be able to find something that you would permit him to play,’ and they said soccer, so long he is very careful when he heads the ball.”

From Cromwell to Cloquet

Paddy transferred to Cloquet before his seventh grade year. His older siblings had done the same thing for additional class and sports options, and for him, it was the perfect fit with soccer. The outside midfielder will compete in soccer and track and field for St. John’s in Collegeville, Minnesota.

Wherever he goes, it’s not hard for him to fit in. He is constantly smiling.

“He’s very popular. He’s very much a people person,” Prosen said. “You’ll never sense any arrogance with him. He’s just so happy-go-lucky. He’s the kind of kid who gets joked upon, because he can take it, and he takes a lot of it, because he’s so mild mannered and nice — just a really nice kid.”

Dennis Genereau, a former prosecutor and now an administrative coordinator for Carlton County, said growing up on the farm helped instill hard work in Paddy but … Dennis laughed and said “but that was enough cutting firewood and chasing cows.” They sold the farm in 2018 and live in Sturgeon Lake.

Paddy Genereau was in the hospital for about two weeks after collapsing at the Cromwell school and then had to rehab for more than a month after that. Light gave him trouble, but eventually, the headaches went away.

“I couldn’t walk,” Paddy said. “I completely lost my balance. I had to wear socks. I had to work on toe raises. I had to relearn my balance.”

When asked if there was any permanent damage, Genereau, a B student, said “not that I can tell.”

Genereau made a remarkable recovery, and here’s where Christy gets a little emotional.

“He got to come home on Mother’s Day and it just … you know, it was the happiest Mother’s Day that I ever got, to bring him home,” she said.

Paddy Genereau stood in the infield of the Cloquet High School track during the section final last week. It was a sunny 75-degree day with a nice breeze. Athletes from the various schools mingled about, a kaleidoscope of colors shuffling amid a backdrop of green. Everything was full of life. To think that a year ago, none of this was happening, the field, empty, the track, black and silent.

Genereau looked around and soaked it all in, ribbons draped around his neck, the product of success in all his events. This is what it’s all about.

“Oh yeah — living,” he said. “Going out and running.”

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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