On a cold, rainy and windy afternoon last December in Philadelphia, Kaleb Germinaro and a few buddies needed a break from the grind of studying for final exams.
The backup receiver on Penn’s football team, which completed its season two weeks earlier, went to the Quakers’ practice bubble to toss around the pigskin with a few friends.
Before long the right side of Germinaro’s face and upper body went numb, but the Arizona native didn’t think it was anything more than a reaction to the 30-degree temperatures.
Within minutes he would discover that was not the case.
“I started losing more feeling and my arm started feeling really heavy,” he recalled Tuesday as the Quakers prepared for Saturday’s game against visiting Princeton. “I felt something was definitely wrong.”
Germinaro’s condition worsened, including slurred speech. Combined with the numbness on one side of his body he thought that, at 19, he was having a stroke.
“That was the first thing I thought of,” said the junior philosophy, politics and economics major.
He made the short walk from the bubble to the trainers’ room in Franklin Field. An ambulance was called and Germinaro was taken a couple of blocks to the Hospital of University of Pennsylvania.
Meanwhile, the friends who were with him, including quarterback Alek Torgersen, could only wonder what was going on.
“That was definitely a crazy day,” he said. “Kaleb seemed fine a few hours before and then he was being taken to the hospital in an ambulance. When you have a friend go through something like that it is scary.”
Germinaro was admitted to the ER, treated for a stroke, had several other tests and stayed in the neurology unit for three nights.
“I did not really know what to think,” he said. “I was kind of more worried about my exams than anything. I started to gain back some feeling and motor skills and I was like, ‘Well, I should be able finish my school work and stuff.’”
Germinaro laughed when he recalled his concern for his exams, which he took the following week before heading home to Arizona for the holidays and winter break. Because of a possible stroke he headed west on blood thinners and was far from 100 percent as far as motor skills.
He returned to Penn the third week of January for the new semester and it was at that time Germinaro received the results of a spinal tap performed while he was in the hospital. The verdict was not a stroke but multiple sclerosis, a disabling disease of the central nervous system.
“For me it was more relief and a little bit of anxiety because I did not know what MS was completely,” he said. “I knew I had to figure out what this is, how to counteract it and make myself feel better.”
With treatment Germinaro, who in hindsight said he experienced “real minor” symptoms in high school that he shrugged off, was cleared for physical activity such as running. He even participated in spring ball and wore the “non-contact” red jersey because of the potential dangers a jarring hit could have on somebody with MS.
However, it was not long before he realized that the next route to run was one that took him away from being a player.
“Two more years of football or possibly a lifetime of having my head messed up,” Germinaro said about his options.
It was an easy choice especially when coupled with another symptom of MS: severe fatigue, which he experienced during spring drills.
“I was like over-fatigued,” Germinaro said. “One practice I forgot everything, all the plays and concepts we talked about during the spring. It was like I blacked out. I began to think, “OK, maybe this isn’t the right thing to do.”
It has proven to be the right thing for Germinaro to remain with the team as a student assistant. First-year Penn coach Ray Priore, who while as an assistant under former coach Al Bagnoli recruited Germinaro, insisted.
“I told Kaleb that I wanted him around, to work with us, be part of the staff,” said Priore, who was on the road recruiting when Germinaro fell ill. “He is such a positive young man with great energy and depth of character. I think he has enjoyed the opportunity to help out and he has done a great job for us.”
Germinaro, who notices from time to time that his right arm lags behind a bit when lifting weights, has enjoyed the transition from playing to assisting. He helps on the field during practices and in the coaching box during games.
“Seeing the other side of things from a coach’s perspective is pretty fun,” he said. “You see their passion for the game and how they get a group of guys to go toward one goal, winning. It is pretty awesome to see and you get a huge appreciation for how much work they put in.”
Torgersen said Penn’s players appreciate what Germinaro means to the program.
“He does a great job of having a positive attitude all the time,” said Torgersen. “I know he would love to be on the field suited up, but he has really embraced his role and brings positive energy every day. He embodies Penn football.”