The first team captain in the Ray Priore era of Penn football may not have the speed or stature of a typical Division I athlete, but that doesn’t matter. He’s got enough heart and toughness for someone 10 times his size.
On Friday, the Quakers named 4-year-old cancer patient Vhito DeCapria their first captain of the upcoming season. The event was organized in part by the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation, which focuses on using sports to create meaningful experiences for children battling pediatric cancer.
“As a team, it really puts things in perspective and focus,” Priore said.
Penn’s connection with the nonprofit organization runs deep, as Denis Murphy, the foundation’s president, played football with Priore in college.
“When Ray became head coach, the first thing he did was pick up the phone and call me and say, ‘Can we get into the program,’” Murphy said.
“And I said, ‘It’s not if, it’s when.’”
With the vast majority of the football program gathered together, Vhito and his family — including his older brother, Vinnie, and parents, Ashley and Nick — entered the room. With Vhito sporting a mask on his face for medical purposes, the gravity of the moment was overwhelming.
Murphy started off the proceedings by describing the origins of the organization. His daughter Jaclyn — now a healthy college student — suffered from pediatric cancer but found strength when she was “adopted” by Northwestern’s women’s lacrosse team in 2005. That year, the Wildcats went on to win the national championship.
The waterworks were flowing across the room as Vhito’s mother Ashley recounted Vhito’s long struggle with cancer.
After several months of confusion about Vhito’s deteriorating condition and countless doctor’s visits, his parents took him to the Boston Children’s Hospital. There, it was discovered that he had a tumor “the size of a grapefruit.”
According to his mother, the doctors were surprised that Vhito’s spine didn’t snap under the pressure of the tumor. He was immediately sent into emergency surgery after a complication arose, followed by months of treatment and slow but consistent recovery.
“It’s become life. It’s all he knows,” his mother said. “If he had hair, you’d never know anything was wrong.”
Vhito’s fight with cancer is far from over, especially when it comes to regaining function in his right arm after losing muscular control early in his treatment. And sitting at the podium, he looked like someone who had already gone through a lifetime’s worth of battles.
But the heavy mood in the room eventually changed into the emotion most commonly associated with the innocence of childhood: unbridled joy.
“It does not matter how terrible [Vhito] feels ... He’s happy. He’s smiling,” Ashley said. “If everybody acted like that, the world would be so peaceful.”
Assistant coach Steven Downs officially announced Vhito’s captaincy and presented him with a custom jersey. With the team cheering in unison, the importance of the situation was directly seen in the players’ support of their new adopted captain.
As the mood in the room changed, Downs was even able to get a round of laughs after mentioning with relief that he didn’t need to fit Vhito’s father — who is built like a football player himself — with a jersey.
After taking a round of photographs with his new teammates, Vhito made his way down to the team locker room. As he walked down the tunnel and into the room, he was welcomed by chants of “Vhito! Vhito! Vhito!”
As he ran along the locker room, laughing and examining his customized locker, Vhito no longer looked like a cancer patient. He looked like someone simply enjoying his time with his teammates, as so many Penn athletes do on a daily basis.
A concept that came up several times throughout the event was “perspective,” specifically that while Penn fights every day for wins on the field, Vhito fights for something much more important.
“It’s life and death versus wins and losses,” Murphy said. “They’re not even on the same scale.”
“It’s not how you handle the good times,” Priore added. “It’s how you handle adversity ... We saw how strong today Ashley and the family were.”
And it would serve the Quakers well to apply the perspective they gleaned from their time with their new captain not only to the field next year, but to the rest of their lives.
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