vhitadecapria

Four-year-old Vhito DeCapria is one of the number of figures who benefits from the Uplifting Athletes program facilitated by Penn football.

Photo: Alex Fisher / The Daily Pennsylvanian

A 2015 regular season for the record books may be complete, but Penn football still wants one more.

During the Quakers’ stunning run to the Ivy League championship, the Red and Blue raised money for the Castleman Disease Collaborative Network in an effort to help Perelman School of Medicine professor David Fajgenbaum — who played quarterback at Georgetown under current Penn defensive coordinator Bob Benson — cure his own illness.

But now, following a nationwide change in the structure of the Uplifting Athletes organization allowing teams to raise money for multiple rare diseases, Penn will be taking its fundraising efforts to the next level.

“That change made it a lot easier to get everybody involved,” junior Tyrone Quarterman said. “Obviously we love Dr. Fajgenbaum and we think that cause is great, but the more people you can reach, the easier it is to get more people on board.”

As a result of the organization’s tactical shift, the team will now be able to raise money to help junior Kaleb Germinaro, who was on the football roster in 2013 and 2014 before being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis last winter.

Despite Germinaro leaving the roster, the Quakers refused to let natural circumstances sever the bond between him and his former teammates. Germinaro has embraced a role as a student coach of the team, allowing the former wideout to remain close to the game and the people he loves.

“At first, it was really tough trying to figure out a new identity,” Germinaro said. “Becoming a student coach on the team has really filled that void of actually playing. … It just means a lot to see these guys [raising money], because that really shows the initiative of our team.”

Even with his career having concluded, Germinaro still found himself receiving national attention, having been selected as one of six nominees for the 2016 Uplifting Athletes Rare Disease Champion Award.

And although Germinaro ultimately came up short — falling to blind USC long snapper Jake Olson — there was no shortage of inspiration among his former teammates.

“Kaleb is in our class and he’s very near and dear to us, and we were all super excited [when learning of his nomination],” said junior Sam Tullman, the president of Penn’s Uplifting Athletes chapter. “It’s awesome to be raising money for everyone that we care about.”

Another key figure now eligible to be financially supported is four-year-old Vhito DeCapria, a pediatric cancer patient named an honorary team captain in April 2015 after the Quakers “adopted” him through the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation.

DeCapria was declared cancer-free in August 2015, and he remained a crucial emotional component of the Quakers throughout their historic season.

“You turn around and see that little tyke, it puts the world in perspective,” coach Ray Priore told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “When the kids know he’s coming around, they get all fired up — he gives everyone a purpose.”

And while the connection between DeCapria and the Penn football program was facilitated by Friends of Jaclyn, which isn’t associated with Uplifting Athletes, players are eager for yet another chance to financially and emotionally boost their fearless leader.

“There were already some strong bonds there, and then this was an incredible way we could develop those even more and try to give back to the people that inspired us,” Tullman said. “These are all really strong people that we look up to as a team.”

Still, even with the newfound spread to other diseases, Fajgenbaum hasn’t been left in the dust. With the CDCN receiving $9,000 from the team’s fall efforts, Fajgenbaum has reaped the benefits both to his personal health — he is approaching 26 months since his latest relapse, his longest stretch since being diagnosed in 2010 — and his group’s overall research.

“Every day is a new record, and I continue to benefit from the research,” Fajgenbaum said. “The thing that a lot of rare diseases offer is the opportunity to spend a small amount of money to make major progress, so that 9,000 dollars went a really, really long way.”

With the money raised by Penn now being distributed to several diseases, it’s understandable for Fajgenbaum to be concerned about a potential diluting of the proceeds acquired by the CDCN.

But considering his pre-existing bonds with the Red and Blue — particularly Benson, who was Fajgenbaum’s head coach during his college career — he should have nothing to worry about.

“It’s such a great group of leaders — guys who the team really respects and who have clearly put in a lot of time,” Fajgenbaum said. “I’m excited to see us continue to grow the chapter, and hopefully with the funding they provide we’ll be able to knock this thing out.”

Once again, the team’s fundraising system will involve donors pledging custom amounts to Uplifting Athletes through PledgeIt, but the competition segment of the event will be handled differently than in the regular season.

Penn football will hold its annual “Iron Quaker” event, in which all players will max out in the bench press, hang clean and back squat exercises, on Thursday morning. Each of the eight position groups has chosen one specific lift for which donations will be eligible, and donors will pledge money for each pound that their chosen position group averages in its lift.

“We thought from the very start that it would fit really well with our culture, because it was naturally conducive to compete to raise money based on the amount we lift,” Tullman said. “It made a lot of sense to us, and we’ve been really excited about it even going back to last summer.”

And while getting physically stronger in an attempt to net Penn’s first back-to-back conference titles since the start of the decade should provide enough drive for the Quakers to finish those last reps, knowing that an extra few pounds could save a life can only add some extra bonus.

“There’s definitely some extra motivation, knowing that anything we do will help a great cause,” junior safety Matt Henderson said. “It feels awesome knowing that everything we’re doing is for something bigger than us.”

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