Pueblo West's Aaron Cortese dead at 23, leaves a legacy of positivity and joy

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Alexis Smith, The Pueblo Chieftain, Colo.
·11 min read
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Feb. 28—A stranger to no one, friend to many and an inspiration to all, Aaron Cortese touched lives of people throughout the nation — but none more than those who knew him best.

Cortese died at the age of 23 on Feb. 16.

Aaron was born in May 1997, and at just 15 months old was diagnosed with Chiari malformation of the spine.

The diagnosis began a lifelong battle that never once hindered Aarons's approach to life.

"Some things that people would consider impossible for somebody in his physical condition, he made possible," Cortese's sister Cassie Moores said.

In his 23 years of life, Cortese underwent 53 surgeries, many of which came after his body had rejected shunts that were supposed to relieve pressure on his spinal cord.

Then, in 2014 Aaron became paralyzed from the waist down because of complications from a severely curved spine.

Despite the cards life dealt Aaron, he found ways to do anything he wanted to with the help of his parents, Billie Jean and David, sister Cassie, and brother-in-law Rory.

"He wanted to go swimming last summer," Rory Moores said. "Our cousins have a swimming pool over on the South Side, so we got everything ready and took him swimming. We had a pool float that he would sit in and he sat out there until the rest of us were shivering, and he didn't care.

"We would ask him, 'Are you ready to get out Aaron?'" Billie Jean added. "He would say, 'Nope.' And he would stay in the pool."

Another activity Aaron found great joy in was camping with his family.

"He loved to go camping and of course, we didn't have a handicap accessible camper so we would have to physically carry him," Rory said.

"Cassie would physically pick him up and put him in the camper until she was pregnant, then I would do it. We would all do it again; we would all keep doing it. But he loved it, he loved to be in the camper, even if we were a couple miles down the road."

Cautious of any instances where Aaron would need to get to the hospital in a hurry, Billie Jean said the family would generally only camp at Lake Pueblo.

"We usually only went to the reservoir, but last year we went up to the KOA by the Royal Gorge," Billie Jean said. "We always stayed close to home, so in the case that Aaron got sick we were quick to get the car and go to Denver."

If there was anything the community knew about Aaron other than his kind heart and fighting spirit, it was that he was an avid New England Patriots and Tom Brady fan.

How that came to be, his family said, is a rather funny story.

The family always enjoyed watching football, but as Pueblo natives, their team was the Broncos.

"(Cassie and Aaron) were only two years apart in age," Billie Jean said. "When he was not sick or in the hospital, they played together all of the time because they were so close.

"We had gone to the store, and they had a clearance rack and they had football players. Well one was a Tom Brady action figure, and one was Donovan McNabb. Cassie loved the Eagles, so she bought the one of McNabb and she gave Aaron the one for Tom Brady. That kind of started the whole scenario of him liking Tom Brady."

Then after another neurosurgery, Billie Jean and David had taken Aaron for a checkup.

"His neurosurgeon, (Dr. Michael H. Handler) turned to Aaron and said, 'Do you have any questions for me?'" Billie Jean said. "Aaron was just little, but he said, 'Yeah, just one: How come I went into the operating room liking the Broncos and I came out liking the Patriots? What did you do to me?'

"And Dr. Handler laughed and said, 'I don't know what to tell you Aaron, because I'm from New York!'"

After a while, Aaron had converted each of his Broncos-loving family members to be Patriots fans, but little did the family know that Aaron's newfound love of the Pats would spread to not only their family, but many others who live in Broncos country.

Aaron found great sentiment in the action figure of Brady that his sister had given him, and that developed into a love for the quarterback that would ultimately develop into a unique relationship.

Because his condition was so severe, doctors told the Cortese family corrective surgery was not an option and often gave them an indication that they should be prepared to lose Aaron.

In 2015, Aaron became ill again and decided to make a bucket list. On that bucket list was the hope of meeting his longtime idol, Tom Brady.

The community gathered to support Aaron's dream, and with the help of Puebloan Lucas Hoge and his connections, Aaron received a video from the former Patriots quarterback.

Then, to his mother's surprise, the family was on a plane to Foxborough to meet Brady, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, owner Robert Kraft, and other Patriots players.

Prior to the meeting, Billie Jean would tell Aaron that it may be easier to meet the Pope than it would be to meet Brady. But what she didn't know is what an impact Aaron would leave on the NFL legend.

"Tom looked at Aaron and said, 'You think I'm your inspiration, but you're my inspiration.'" Billie Jean said.

"So of course, Aaron converted every single one of us, and I don't know how many others just because of his stories with Tom," Billie Jean added. "Some of the messages and stuff (Brady) had sent him — people were just in awe that he would take the time to send those to a child like Aaron."

"In fact, we heard from Tom after Aaron passed away," Billie Jean said. "We heard from the whole Patriots organization as a whole," Rory added.

ESPN also reached out to the Cortese family after Aaron's death, which Billie Jean said meant a great deal to the family.

When Brady made his move to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Billie Jean said the change was extremely hard on her son.

"We kept asking him, 'What are you going to do now?'" Billie Jean said. "We didn't know if he would follow the Patriots still or if he would follow Tom Brady. He looked at us and said, 'I'm going to follow both.'

"He said, 'The Patriots did so much for me, I'm not going to turn my back on them.' But at the same time, he couldn't turn his back on Tom. When the Buccaneers played, he had on a Buccaneers jersey and when the Patriots played he had on his Patriots jersey."

While their relationship withstood the past six years, Billie Jean said Aaron had mentioned he wanted to meet Brady one more time.

"I said, 'Gosh Aaron, you know you need to count yourself lucky. There's a lot of kids who would love to meet their idols, and you've met yours twice!'" Billie Jean said. "He'd say, 'Yeah, I guess so.' But that was still on his bucket list."

Atop of his love for the Patriots, Aaron loved local sports too. Billie Jean said the family were frequently going to the Colorado State University Pueblo football games and enjoying the Pueblo Bulls hockey games.

Friends come and go, Billie Jean said. But one friend that never left was Aaron's best friend from third grade, Luc Quimby.

"Luc is an amazing kid," Billie Jean said. "Luc's friendship came and never left. He was even here to watch the Super Bowl the Sunday before Aaron got sick. They played chess. I didn't even know you could do it, but Luc would make a move on his phone, then Aaron would on his phone.

"They did a lot of things like that, that Aaron could do. Luc was just great at being Aaron's best friend."

An incredibly intelligent individual, Aaron graduated from Pueblo West High School with a 4.0 GPA.

After he passed his family learned just how philosophical and observational the young man was.

"He was very intelligent, but we've found out more and more how intelligent he was by his cellphone," Billie Jean said. "We found out that he loves riddles, he was kind of journaling, just different things we didn't know about."

A quirky observation the family found comfort in involved Aaron's brother-in-law, Rory.

"I call my truck my pickup," Rory said. "For whatever reason, he thought that was weird. So, in his phone he has, 'Why does Rory call his truck his pickup?' He just thought it was funny."

But there are three other notes Aaron had stored that left the family in awe.

"How do you know how to act your age, because by the time you do another birthday comes around," Billie Jean said. "He was just a deep thinker, especially about things you nor I would ever think about."

"He put something in there like, 'What do I think Tom Brady's favorite ring is?' He put in there that he thinks (Brady's) favorite ring is his wedding ring — not Super Bowl rings. His wedding ring." Cassie added with a laugh.

The third hit closer to home because in August, Cassie and Rory had a baby. Then a month later, the family experienced a great loss when David died.

"He (thought) babies were born because they are souls in heaven that are looking for a body to call home," Cassie said.

Billie Jean noted that Aaron was ecstatic to be an uncle.

"In his phone — we don't know what he was getting at," Billie Jean said. "But he wrote a note that said he wished he had more time with his nephew."

Billie Jean said she doesn't believe this was a premonition of any sort because of the fighting spirit her son always had.

"When the doctors came in and told us this wasn't good, he wasn't doing very well," Billie Jean said. "I hadn't lost hope because I knew we've had those conversations before.

"He'd come out of it like a champ, I thought, 'Yeah, you guys say he's bad, but he'll come through it again.' That was the feeling I had, but this one just overcame him."

Despite the grave loss, the Corteses are proof of where Aaron's fighting spirit came from.

They choose to only remember the positivity Aaron brought to the world.

"We took him to Vegas for his 21st birthday," Rory said. "We were walking into a show and out of nowhere the security guard said, 'Hey, I saw that kid on TV! I know him!' We were two states away and people were recognizing him."

"What was funny was that was the second person that had recognized him out of state from the ESPN story," Billie Jean added. "It just goes to show he has touched people's lives clear across the United States.

"That's pretty amazing. He's been inspirational in us meeting people (from all walks of life)."

While he touched the lives of the nation, Aaron's family remembers most what impact he had on them and what lessons from Aaron they hope people carry on.

"His love for people," Billie Jean said. "He loved people and Aaron would want them all to get along. No negativity, negativity was just not in his vocabulary."

"There's no need for people to feel sorry for themselves," Rory added. "Look at how happy go lucky he was with as much as he's had to deal with his entire life."

In fact, Aaron always managed to find the silver lining in his situation, Billie Jean noted.

"Someone said to him one time, 'Aaron those look like mighty comfy shoes you have on!'" Billie Jean said. "Aaron says, 'I wouldn't know!' He didn't know if the shoes were comfortable or not. It wasn't that he made a joke of it, but he didn't let it affect him negatively."

For Cassie, Aaron was the puzzle piece that led her to her life calling.

"I would never have gotten my CNA license if it weren't for him," Cassie said. "It was one of those things I never dreamed of doing, and basically I had done it for him. I feel like he led me to my job. Not only did I help him, but I get to help several people because of him. I look at it that way."

Always lovable and the glue that kept their family together, Billie Jean said, she would make a joke that at bedtime their home would sound like the Waltons' because of a routine Aaron always stayed true to.

"It would be 'Goodnight Mom, I love you. Goodnight Dad, I love you.'" Billie Jean said. "Even when his sister didn't live here anymore, he'd say 'Goodnight Cassie, I love you.' Even after his dad passed away, he kept saying that. That's the kind of kid he was, he always wanted to reassure you he loved you."

Chieftain reporter Alexis Smith can be reached by email at asmith@chieftain.com or on Twitter @smith_alexis27.