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Matt Perillo, the face of courage after having both feet amputated 18 months ago, died unexpectedly in his sleep on Thursday morning. He was 48 years old.

The news shocked the local high school community who had delighted in Perillo’s stunning progress with his long rehabilitation.

By Thursday evening the basketball official and football referee’s home in Lancaster was a gathering place for friends and family. All tried to comfort, Perillo’s wife of 22 years, Karen. They had been sweethearts before graduating from West Seneca West in 1983. Perillo had just RSVP’d that they’d be at their upcoming 30-year reunion.

The Perillos had two daughters, Hanna, who turned 18 the day her father died, and Jillian 19. Perillo was to watch Hanna graduate from Sacred Heart Academy on Monday.

“He was the love of my life, my best friend,” said Karen. “He loved his daughters. We had a fabulous life. And then it all changed, and then it got harder. And it was awful, and then we came around, and then we were doing great, and then I don’t know what happened.”

Perillo was given a 20 percent chance to live last January ago after contracting septicemia, a bacteria in the blood that often occurs with severe infection.

His 69-day stay in the hospital included two weeks in a coma. He suffered irreversible damage to his feet and had to have both amputated. Perillo was thankful to survived. “You know what, so I’ve lost my legs – I’m alive. That’s not a bad tradeoff,” he said in April of 2012.

After he spent several months in a wheelchair, many of his friends held a fundraiser last June and it helped raise the money for prosthetic legs.

There was barely a dry eye in downtown Lancaster last July when Perillo took part in the Fourth of July road race through the village. Using crutches to balance on his new prosthetics, he finished the last leg of a 100-person relay that covered the 10K course. After getting the baton, he sprang from his wheelchair and took 34 unforgettable steps and crossed the finish line.

About a month ago, he had additional surgery on the bone bridge in his left leg and had some scar tissue removed in his right leg. “It was just a clean-up type of thing. It was all about getting him up and moving on his new legs,” said Karen.

Perillo had been following the postseason run of the Hamburg softball team because the team is coached by Lisa Palma, the daughter of one of his dearest friends and fellow official, Matt Palma. The pair took in Saturday’s Class A Sectional final win at Sunshine Park in West Seneca, “He was a friend, a colleague, part of family,” said Palma. “He was giving it his all. He was moving forward. He fought hard and loved his family.”

Perillo will be remembered for being genuine and for his generosity toward others. Through his ordeal he was a poster child for hope.

Bob Schreck worked his share of games with Perillo. He said he respected him for his knowledge of the rules and his feel for the game, but he also had the utmost respect for him off the field.

“I always said to anyone who would listen, everyone should have an attitude like Matt Perillo. He just hit it head on,” said Schreck. “He was adamant that he was going to get back out on the field. I joked that the first game he did, I wanted him on my crew. Because I knew once he got back, he would do a great job, just like he did before he left. Matt was just a tremendous human being and that’s not just something that’s being said in light of what’s happened.”

A memorial Mass was being planned for early next week.

email: mmonnin@buffnews.com