PHILADELPHIA-This week's cover story (Oct. 23, 2015) in Franklin Field Illustrated featured junior Kaleb Germinaro and was written by Dave Zeitlin C'03.
As the clock ticked down on Penn’s historic 24-13 win over Villanova last month, junior wide receiver Kaleb Germinaro wasn’t on the field with his teammates. He wasn’t on the sideline, either.
Instead, he was up in the coaches’ booth, where he charted plays, sat on the edge of his seat, and screamed alongside offensive coordinator John Reagan at every twist and turn.
And he loved every minute of it.
“Oh my gosh, it was almost better than playing,” Germinaro said a couple of weeks after the Quakers earned their first victory over Villanova in 104 years. “It was pretty special. Probably one of my top sports moments.”
What made it so special is that not long before that, the junior didn’t think he’d still be a part of this team at all. In fact, lying on a hospital bed across the street from Franklin Field, as doctors performed MRIs and spinal taps trying to figure out what was wrong with him, Germinaro was unsure about a lot of things as the life he had charted for himself had suddenly flipped upside down.
During finals last December, Germinaro decided to take a break from studying to toss a football around with some teammates inside the bubble at Penn Park. After failing to earn any playing time during his first two seasons, the receiver knew he needed to put in a lot of offseason work to climb up the depth chart. And who better to practice with than starting quarterback Alek Torgersen, who was fresh off a record-breaking sophomore season?
From the start, though, something seemed off that day as Germinaro struggled to simply throw the ball back to Torgersen.
“I was like, ‘Kaleb, what are you doing? Throw it back to me. Stop throwing it at my feet,’” the Penn QB recalled. “Looking back on it, I feel like a real jerk for saying that.”
Germinaro was confused too, and became even more so when his arm got really heavy on one side of his face felt tingly. But he brushed it off at first. After all, he was only 19 and had never had a serious injury or illness in his life. What could possibly be wrong?
“I didn’t think anything of it because it was cold outside,” he said. “I’m from Arizona, so I was like, ‘Oh, I’m probably just really cold.’”
It was only when he started to slur his words that he went to the Penn locker room and googled “Stroke symptoms” on his phone.
Then he alerted a trainer about what was happening, before being taken by ambulance to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.
Doctors initially thought it could be a stroke, too; they put him on blood thinners and told him he couldn’t play football. The next month, when the MRI results came back, he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), a disease in which the insulating covers of nerve cell in the brain and spinal cord are damaged.
Everyone that knew him was crushed, especially his family.
“My parents were like, ‘What happened?’” he said. “I was healthy my whole life. And this comes out of nowhere. They were in real shock. But my whole thing was I’d rather it happen to me than someone else—because I can handle it.”
Perhaps it’s due to that kind of remarkable spirit that about 30 of Germinaro’s teammates rushed to be with him his first night at HUP—“We almost got in trouble because we were too loud,” he said —and why his coaches immediately asked him to remain with the program.
With his doctors’ blessing and a good treatment plan in place, he initially tried to stay on as a player but realized last spring that his symptoms, which include heavy fatigue, prevented him from doing what he used to be able to on the field.
“In practice one day, we were running a play, and I completely blacked out,” he said. “I forgot everything we ever learned that spring. At that point, I was like, ‘Maybe this isn’t the right path right now.’”
Besides, the intelligent Philosophy, Political Science & Economics (PPE) major realized that football probably isn’t the best sport to play if “your brain is already messed up.” He still loved the game, though, and especially his teammates, so he was thrilled to accept another opportunity from head coach Ray Priore—as a student coach.
And that’s how Germinaro—who used to always write “NFL player” when asked in elementary school what he wanted to be when he grows up—plans to finish his football career.
“When he made his decision to come to Penn, he made a lifetime decision,” Priore said. “He’s a great, great asset to the program. And he’s such a great person, you always want to be around him.”
Sometimes, it’s funny for his classmates to see Germinaro holding a clipboard and giving instructions to younger players. And every now and then, they’ll playfully rib him or tell him to be quiet when he tries to order them around.
“I’m not gonna call him Coach Kaleb quite yet,” junior defensive back Matt Henderson laughed.
For Henderson, though, seeing Germinaro enjoying himself on the football field always brings a smile to his face. It was less than a year ago, after all, when Henderson would come home to find his roommate lying in bed and not doing the things he used to loved to do.
Now? You wouldn’t even know anything is wrong with him.
“There was a time right when it happened where I definitely think it was tough for him,” Henderson said. “But he really bounced back, and he’s back to being the guy everyone knows—joking with everybody, making you laugh, making you smile. The same old Kaleb.”
And that “same old Kaleb” has become an important asset to the coaching staff, in part due to his undying positivity. Among his responsibilities, Germinaro has coached the receivers, taken photos, been a tour guide for recruits, and hung out with Vhito DeCapria, Penn’s four-year old captain and cancer patient who helped put Germinaro’s own disease into perspective.
“No one saw this coming,” said Priore, who once postponed a family trip to show Germinaro around campus while recruiting him—the biggest factor in the Phoenix native’s decision to come to Penn. “But as something bad happens, something good happens. Now he can still be in the Penn football program for the rest of his life.”
As Germinaro tries to give what he can back to the football program, his teammates are trying to return the favor. Torgersen said that he and some of his housemates have reached out to the Philadelphia chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society to set something up for Germinaro, whose courage they marvel at every day.
“He’s a really tough person,” Torgersen said. “Honestly, I don’t know if I could do it if I was going through that.”
For Germinaro, anything that can be done to raise awareness and funds for MS is important. He’s holding out hope that one day a cure for the disease can be found but, in general, he tries not to think too much about its long-term effects, which is different for every person.
He also isn’t thinking much about his future after Penn, and whether he might want to stay in coaching after graduating—at least not yet.
For now, he’s simply happy to be a part of this team—albeit in a different capacity than he ever could have imagined—while continuing to build relationships with his teammates that “mean more to me than ever being able to play again.”
That’s what keeps him going, even on his darkest days.
“It’s scary because most people, when they hear MS, they think about the worst type of MS where people end up in wheelchairs,” he said. “But if I get too caught up in that, I’m not going to be able to pay attention to what’s going on right now. If I worry too much, it will take away from what I’m doing right now.”
He paused, then turned his head in the direction of Franklin Field.
“And what I’m doing right now is fun.”