Penn's 4-year-old football captain teeming with inspiration

Vhito DeCapria, declared cancer-free in August, leads the Penn football team in smiles.

IT'S LATE afternoon at Penn Park, and Penn's football team is in the midst of another two-hour practice. Rain is in the forecast, and the skies are growing darker. At the far end of the field, 4-year-old Vhito DeCapria comes bounding through the entrance gate, holding his mother Ashley's hand. He's full of energy, wide-eyed, raring to go, a perpetual smile on his face. He's hard not to notice.

Soon he and his brother Vinnie, who's a few years older, will be running up and down the sidelines as only youngsters can, playing their games. It's tough keeping up with them. Just ask mom. Fortunately she has help in coach Ray Priore's daughter Jenna, a sophomore at the university and one of Vhito's favorite playmates. But before Vhito ever makes it to her, he's busy making sure he shares fist bumps with some of the players as he passes by them. Watching their reactions, it's pretty much a toss-up as to who's getting more out of what's become a familiar, inspirational encounter.

"He lives for this," Ashley beams when she finally gets a free moment. "They were talking about the weather, and if we wanted to postpone (coming) and he was like, 'No way. I play in the rain too.'

"It feels good knowing, since he's actually not allowed to play any contact sport ever, that it gives him hope being around all these players.

"He didn't know anything about football before this. Now it's all he talks about."

Vhito is Penn's captain. That's his position, according to his official bio on the team's website. Under experience, he's a redshirt. It also says Vinnie is the world's best big brother. And that his favorite food is chicken. As for movie, well, that would be "Alvin and the Chipmunks." Then it details his amazing story: "Diagnosed with one of the most rare and aggressive pediatric cancers, Malignant Rhabdoid Tumor . . . Lost function of his right arm in July of 2013 . . . After numerous doctor visits, was finally diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer on April 9, 2014 . . . Persevered through a survival rate of just 17 percent and was declared cancer-free by his doctors at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia on Aug. 21, 2015."


"I can't lie," Ashley admitted. "There was none at the beginning. At one point they gave him two weeks to live. We cried a lot. And prayed. That's what really helps . . .

"It really is a miracle."

On April 10, Vhito signed his letter of intent to become a Quaker. He was presented with a custom jersey (No. 1) and was adopted by the program as part of the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation (which is listed as his high school), a nonprofit organization formed a decade ago by the parents of a young girl who was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor and given a 30 percent chance to make it. But she defied the odds. The foundation, which has been featured twice on HBO's "Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel," aims to improve the lives of sick children by matching them with high school and college teams across the country.

Ray Priore, Penn's longtime defensive coordinator, became the head coach in December. One of the first things on his to-do list was this.

"I'd known Dennis Murphy (Jaclyn's father) forever," Priore said. "So I told him if the day ever came, I'd definitely make it a point. That was three-four years ago. When my brother (Chuck) got to Stony Brook (as head football coach) they adopted a young man from Long Island (N.Y.) who's maybe 14 years old. As soon as I took over I got the wheels going. It's been a blessing."

Vhito's family is from Jersey Shore, Pa., about 30 minutes southwest of Williamsport. His parents took him to 12 different doctors from nine hospitals throughout Pennsylvania trying to figure out what was wrong with him. Orginally they were told it was a nerve problem. Eventually the tumor grew to "pineapple" size and was actually collapsing Vhito's spine through his chest wall. He had one lung that was working. The chemotherapy treatments were brutal. The prognosis wasn't optimistic.

"It was overwhelming," said his father, Nick, who had to relocate the family here. "There was so much pain, he was on round-the-clock morphine. At first they really had no clue how to treat it. They went with a blueprint they thought might be best. It's not like they treat this all the time. Vhito kind of paved a pathway. The first dose (of chemo) shrunk the tumor like 25 percent. From there it was all positive. There was never a step back. It was baby steps the whole time, but he kept making progress.

"We sat by his bed for hours upon hours. There was literally six weeks straight where (Ashley) never left the hospital. She had to relearn how to drive the car again . . . We had to teach him to walk, talk, sit up. He had a feeding tube for a long time. I don't think he remembers. The other day we were looking through pictures and he said, 'I don't have hair.' "

Still . . .

"We refused to cry around him," Ashley insisted. "We're stressing about it, but no one ever told him. We never showed emotion around him."

That won't be the case on Satuday afternoon, when Vhito and Vinnie lead the Quakers (1-1) - who are coming off an historic win over Villanova - onto Franklin Field for their first home game, an Ivy League opener against Dartmouth (2-0). It's all part of the deal.

"They'll both be next to me," said Priore. "I'll probably be holding them so they don't get run over."

Maybe the best thing about the experience is that it's not just about this season. The relationship hopefully will never end.

"You just take one day at a time, but he's our man," Priore said. "It's great for the moment, but maybe we'll be going to his wedding some day. That would be something. We feel like they're part of us. You're going to have good days and bad days, in anything. You turn around and see that little tyke, it puts the world in perspective. When the kids know he's coming around, they get all fired up. He gives everyone a purpose.

"Our (men's) soccer team just adopted a person from South Jersey. I believe there's been like 600-plus (nationwide). Maybe 100 haven't made it. But if you can put a smile on a young person's life, you realize how lucky you are to be able to do whatever it is you do. It's been a great teaching source.

"When (Vhito) was in the hospital for his second (CT) scan, four or five of our kids went over. Everything got delayed for three or four hours. But they stayed in the playroom. Not with their kid, but with everyone else's kids. That's awesome to see. Such is real life. We're all going to have to deal with it. You learn in different ways."

Sophomore wide receiver Justin Watson, who had two touchdown catches against the Wildcats, is among the biggest members of what Priore calls DeCapria's "little posse." For any number of reasons.

"When coach first told us about it, and then you first meet (Vhito), you realize what a great thing it could be for everyone," he said. "He's out there laughing, spraying people with water, having fun. And you're playing football thinking, 'I should be smiling too.'

"My oldest brother suffers from cerebral palsy. So seeing someone else going through a tough time, you understand the impact it can have. There's so much positive energy. It's powerful, how much a smile can mean. Seeing him running around, trying to put your helmet on, can help you get you through the hardest practice. I wasn't sure how he'd react to us, but he really seems to be having the time of his life. And from my end, that rubs off."

Today. Tomorrow. In a perfect world, for as long as you can see the smile.

"We just thought it was, 'OK, we'll go watch some games,' but not that it would turn into this," Ashley said, shaking her head. "These college guys treat us like . . . I didn't think it would be anything like this. It makes me happy because (Vhito) looks up to the players. He looks forward to football. He was never into it. Now it's like all about football. It feels really good. You don't know how important that is. These are people we don't even know. We're strangers. Seriously, there are no words for that."

"It does bring tears, even for a guy like me," said Nick, who's a bodybuilder. "How many doctors were wrong? But in his mind, he never knew. This is him, every day. People fall in love with him after 5 minutes. There's just something about him."

So what does Vhito think about all this?

"They're all my friends," he said, excitedly. And then he was off like a shot, to do whatever comes naturally to a 4-year-old with a sense of adventure. Especially once they've been given something to live for.

Fist bumps all around. What else are friends for?

On Twitter: @mikekerndn

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