Thursday, March 29, 2012

New Coach Will Hit the Ground Running


Chuck Dibilio, all-Ivy running back and a sure-fired resume builder of young running back coaches, will not be on the field for spring practice April 6 while Ben Martin is rolling up his sleeves.

Princeton’s new assistant is not hiding any tricks there. Martin, hired to replace Andrew Aurich '06, who has moved onto the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, spent a year following his 2005 graduation from Trinity College selling advertising for the Yellow Pages, where you may be able to find it fast, but good luck finding fast 1000-yard rising freshmen runners listed alphabetically. 

Going into spring practice, Sharp '13 is the leading incumbent replacement for Dibilio '15, whose return from a January stroke is uncertain.  So it is incumbent on Martin to turn Sharp, perhaps the fastest runner in the Ivy League, into one of the better ones. 

“Coming to Princeton my motivation to be here is to work with other motivated individuals both academically and football wise,” said Martin.  “I see that on tape, both from the fullback and running back positions.

“I see guys who have a will to win.  My thing going into this is who is going to play best in the system?  We are going to know that by the end of the spring.”

Coach Bob Surace '90 has enough belief in his depth at running back – Will Powers '15, Jon Esposito '15 and Roman Wilson '14 got carries last season – to be giving fleet Brian Mills '14, who had 53 carries for a 4.5 yard average and a 38-yard run against Harvard – a spring try in the defensive backfield.  But there is no tiptoeing around the huge challenge of replacing Dibilio.  And Martin has already shown the ambition required to get players to step up.            
He played left guard on Trinity (Conn.) College teams that won the last 22 games of his college career, then took a year in sales at the Yellow Pages (where his Dad worked) to pay down some tuition debt.

“I had been sending my resume out all across the country while coaching an eighth-grade team in my hometown of Marblehead [Mass.],” said Martin.  

“A bunch of Division III schools from the Boston area had a clinic for youth coaches. I showed up, went into the meeting about offensive line play that was led by the head coach of Curry College, Skip Bandini.

“Right away he threw out there ‘Does anyone here know anything about offensive line?’ and I was the only one to raise my hand. He called me up in front of those 400 people and I proceeded to blurt out anything I read, saw, heard or did as an offensive lineman at Trinity.

“As soon as I was done. He said ‘kid, do you want a job?’ I said ‘I applied two days ago.’  That’s how I got my foot in the door.”

Curry College won its conference title and a Division III playoff game before Martin moved on to Merrimack College to coach the line under head coach John Perry, the brother of Princeton offensive coordinator James Perry.  Merrimack won the Northeast-10 Conference title with top five numbers in most Division II offensive categories.    

John Perry introduced Martin to Jim Turner, the offensive line coach at A&M. When A&M fired head coach Mike Sherman’s at the end of last season, Perry knew another Perry, who knew Princeton had an opening for a running back coach.  

What does a lineman know about coaching running backs?  Well, who doesn’t know how it is that running backs succeed?

“Pass protections and running holes are all determined by what the offensive line does,” said Martin.  “Those things go hand-in-hand.  

“The running backs are with the offensive line [in practices] as much as tight ends.  If I make these players believe in the system, we will be successful.”


Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Dibilio Fights Back


Nazareth, Pa. – Doctor's orders:  For another two weeks, 40 pounds and not one ounce over.  Since nine months ago Chuck Dibilio was bench-pressing 315, holding himself back has become the heaviest lifting of his life.  
“If I can only lift 40 pounds, I do it standing on one leg or with one arm to make it a little tougher and still stay within what I’m allowed to do,” he said. “I’m really creative with that. 

“I’m thinking ‘figure out the cause, get me back to school, get me back to football’ so I do everything I can to help the process. One of my mottos I live by is ‘if you are in a place you don’t like, you have to do something to change it.’    So I’m trying to ignore where I am now, focus on where I want to be.”

The first true freshman to rush for more than 1000 yards in Ivy League history is now at home, a 19-year-old recovering from a still hard-to-believe January 19 stroke.  Where he wants to be is back on the field for three more years he may not get.

He gets this, though: After not being able to talk or move his right arm or leg,  Dibilio is as fortunate to be headed for a complete physical and cognitive recovery as he is unfortunate to have had his considerable athletic promise heartbreakingly jeopardized.  

In 95 percent of cases, stroke affects persons age 45 and older. And compounding Dibilio’s bad luck is that two months after he suddenly began to slur his words during a study session with Princeton teammates, doctors still don’t know either the cause of the clot that lodged in the Middle Cerebral Artery of his brain or how related it was to a 2010 clot that wasted 25 percent of his spleen.   

Tedy Bruschi, the retired New England Patriots linebacker, returned to play four more seasons after suffering a stroke. But the cause of his – a congenital hole in his heart – was repairable.  If doctors can’t diagnose a fixable problem in Dibilio, he likely will be required to go on blood-thinning medication that will create an unmanageable risk of an internal bleed from a football hit.

Because Coumadin, in the immediate aftermath of a stroke, can cause bleeding, because studies haven’t yet measured the positive results for the drug in younger stoke victims that have been achieved in older ones, Dibilio currently is on a regimen of aspirin supplemented by massive doses of hope.   

Blessedly, he is on schedule for a normal life and a return to Princeton.  But football is more lodged in his blood than was that that clot.

“I don’t think he’ll ever find anything as important to him as football,” said his father, Chuck Dibilio Sr.  “So it will hurt him if he has to shut it down but I never want to see him again like he was that night in the hospital.

“He’s a very positive kid. If he has to, he will deal with it and get over it.  And in the meantime that drive to get back on the field has helped his recovery.”

Dibilio has overcome all his initial physical deficits and is only two pounds under his playing weight of 203 pounds. He continues to undergo six days a week of speech and cognition therapy, half of that time with a laser technique, the other three days challenging his brain under a therapist’s direction.  

“At first it was a lot of exercises like making change out of $100, or making piles of 21, like in blackjack,” Dibilio said last week in his living room, just back from a happy first solo drive to therapy.  “Now it’s more reading and writing stuff.

“Reading has come along faster than writing. Today I had to do a report on Daylight Savings Time, organize the information and write a paper about it.   My first draft was at a ninth grade level, which was better than last time.  At least I’m up to high school. At one of the first sessions she had me do a summary and I could barely do it even after a month. So I’m happy the way it is going now.

“Basically, if I slow down my tempo, I can speak without a lot of mistakes. And I actually read a book last week for the first time since the stroke.  The cognition to play video games and interact with people never really left. So I’m guessing I’m like 75-80 percent.”  

Challenging as Math 103 may be, it wasn’t Basic Calculus that suddenly shut down the left side of Dibilio’s brain in January.  He and teammates Mike Zeuli, Tom Yetter, Andrew Shafer and Matt Strauser had broken up a study session in preparation for the next day’s final with an hour in the weight room, then came back to a study room in Whitman (residential) College for what they thought would be a final 30 minutes of review.

“In the middle of a sentence my speech started to slur,” recalls Dibilio. “I couldn’t articulate anything. 

“I stopped and tried again, then again. Everybody looked at me half like ‘you’re joking’ and half  ‘are you serious?”  Then I started to get dazed and was slumping to the right. I couldn’t move my right arm and leg anymore.

“I think they called 911 and coach (Bob) Surace at the same time.  Within a couple of minutes [EMTs] were taking my blood pressure and putting me on the stretcher.  For some reason I’m thinking ‘what’s the big deal? Nothing’s wrong.’ 

“When they got me to [University Medical Center at Princeton] there were like six-to-eight doctors around, taking my blood pressure and other vitals.  I remember the one woman had a picture of a Mom and two kids doing different things in a kitchen and asked me what was going on in the picture. I couldn’t explain it. I was just so tired, all I wanted to do was sleep.”

Tissue Plasminogen Activator, a clot-dissolving protein injected intravenously into Dibilio did not work, so attending emergency room physician Dr. Peter Cridge recognized the urgent need to get Dibilio by helicopter to the renowned heart and vascular center at Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia.
By then Surace, who was recruiting in Dallas, had taken the call from Yetter and guessed the symptoms being described were that of a stroke. ‘Next to a call about your own kid that’s the worst call you can get, “ the coach recalls.  And Surace got to make the absolute worst one next.

“When it was Chuckie’s coach on the phone I assumed he was injured during a workout,” said his mother, Dr. Bonnie Coyle Ronco.  “It took me off guard to hear he was going to the hospital. 

“When the doctor told me [on the phone] it was likely a stroke, I’m thinking ‘young person, probably a blood vessel that popped. When he said ‘no, it’s a clot’ it was very confusing. I kept thinking on the drive over there ‘this can’t possibly be happening.’  When I got there, it was all clear what was happening.”

And it was desperate. The systemic administration of TPA had brought no positive result and the helicopter was waiting for the 20-minute flight to Jefferson and the care of Dr. Aaron Dumont.

“I don’t remember every detail of the night, but I remember how fast that helicopter got into the air,” said Dibilio. “And when we got to Jefferson and doctors gathered around me It finally hit me ‘oh gawd, what is wrong with me?”

Dibilio wasn’t told until he woke up in his room at the hospital the next day.  A lifetime of disabilities had been saved when Dr. Dumont ran a wire up through his groin as a path for a catheter to deliver the TPA directly into Dibilio’s brain.   If all of this made any sense to him, it was more than he was making to those around his bed.   

“Once they removed the clot, I could speak but would still screw up my grammar,” recalled Dibilio.  “It was so off you couldn’t understand what I was saying.

“Even now I still have to think about some of the words.”

He remains a little challenged by the occasional name, and sporadically is mildly tongue-tied, but is attacking every day like it is the shortest distance to a complete recovery. 

Bruschi, informed through the efforts of Princeton Football Association President Anthony DiTommaso '86, called Dibilio and in a 25-minute chat told him ‘control what you can control, it’s going to be a long process’.  Good advice, even if their two processes were different.  Bruschi suffered numbness on his left side, loss of coordination, plus vision deficits out of the left side of both eyes. But he had no cognitive deficits and a fixable problem.

“They checked me for a hole in my heart, too” said Dibilio.  No such luck, as perverse at that seems. A bottom-line solution that could get him back onto the field has not proven simple. But Mom, who specializes in preventative medicine and public health at St. Luke’s University Hospital in Bethlehem, is far from near the bottom of her tank of resolve.

“We’re still seeing some additional specialists and undergoing additional studies,” she said.  “There are things they are monitoring on an ongoing basis and studies that have to be repeated after he is a few months out from the stroke.

“They have a monitor in him he can wear for a year or two to see if he may have occasional heart arrhythmia. They look at it every month. If he gets into any funny arrhythmia every couple of months it could be quite some time to catch that.   But if that is the problem, there is a process called ablation that could fix that. 

“If it is a problem with clotting, the blood tests looking for certain disorders could be ongoing for as much as a year.   The other variable is that medicine is always advancing.  They may not have tests now to figure out what Chuckie has but that doesn’t mean they won’t be able to detect it in the future.

“We have had a consultation with a doctor from Cornell, who is reviewing the case and is going to recommend some additional tests. And we are thinking of going to Duke to see a specialist there. But I have had several doctors say to me that after 20 to 30 per cent of stokes they don’t find the reason. And another thing going through my mind is ‘how much do we want to put Chuckie through before we put it to rest? 

“He has said he wants the answers. So he has been okay with the studies that have been done so far.“

He wants to keep looking. Getting back in school is at no conflict with getting back to football, so between his soon-to intensify workouts, an hour-a-day of appointed therapy, and other mental gymnastics he puts himself through on his PC, Dibilio has a busy day that fortunately does not leave too much time to think about spring practice beginning April 6 without him. 

“I sleep 10-12 hours a night because after strokes your body needs a lot more rest,” he said. “If I have a doctor’s appointment, too, it’s hard to get everything in every day.           
“I wouldn’t be ready to do spring practice. It took me two months to learn the playbook the first time and I’ve forgotten a couple parts of it so I wouldn’t be able to participate much.  But I do want to go watch. I haven’t seen any of my teammates since the hospital. I wanted to go [two] weekends ago, but figured everybody would be busy with midterms.

“I can’t go for a whole weekend because I have tanning bed (laser) therapy on Saturday morning. But yeah I’d rather be there than at home. It was really boring at first when I wasn’t allowed to do anything. Now it’s just a little bit boring, All my friends are at college. “

They call to ask him how he is doing, not about how he might do without football. It is the elephant in the room.  Perhaps it will help that Dibilio had practice with a football career passing before his eyes. At first it had appeared his spleen problem would preclude him from a senior high school season.

“I was throwing up everything and wasn’t allowed to eat for 3-4 days so my body started to eat my muscle,” he said.  “I lost like ten pounds in two weeks.

“This time it’s only 2-3 pounds and I’m really glad about that. And the last time it happened right before the season started so I felt devastated until they told me I could play [with additional padding] after all.  So if it happens this time, hopefully I’ll have enough time to get ready for it.

“Obviously it’s not what I want.  If I have to, I’ll live with it but obviously I want to play. So I’m not thinking about anything but playing.”

If he can’t Dibilio’s return to the classroom will eventually give him the best undergraduate degree there is, reminds Surace.  Incredibly, for a second time in three years a Princeton all-Ivy running back has had a career jeopardized through, first, Jordan Culbreath’s Aplastic Anemia and now Dibilio’s stroke. But even if Surace’s depth chart has no immediate silver lining, inevitably one will become apparent.

“If Jordan wouldn’t have gotten sick [during Roger Hughes’ final season] I never would have had the chance to coach him,” said Surace.  “Whether or not Chuck plays again, the way he has attacked his recovery, he’s an inspiration to all of us.”

Indeed, Dibilio broke a lot of first tackles on the way to 1068 yards.   Mom says he won’t stumble in a field of broken dreams, should it come to that.

“He is an incredibly resilient kid, one of the most positive persons I have ever known,” she said.   “He has said if it turns out he has a condition that he can’t play football that as long as he knows why he will be able to move on.

“We are incredibly fortunate that once it happened, everything lined up the way it did.  His friends. . . some kids would have put him to bed not knowing what was wrong with him. They reacted quickly.

“I told Dr. Cridge I consider him my hero.  He diagnosed Chuckie, got the medicine on board and got him out of there to someplace that could help him.    He saved my son’s life, so I feel extremely lucky that Chuckie’s life crossed Dr. Cridge’s life.

“I also feel fortunate that Dr. Dumont at Jefferson was able to perform the procedure to get the clot out of there and give Chuckie a chance at a life he will be happy leading, with no cognitive deficits.

"I don’t feel particularly lucky that it happened in the first place.  Chuckie has worked so hard at both football and academics that I feel such a sadness that a roadblock has been thrown in his way. But I also know that drive to succeed is what is going to help him tear down that roadblock and keep moving forward.”

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Princeton's New Football Blog: Introduction

Welcome to the Princeton Football Blog, which will offer unprecedented year-round coverage of the program.

In season, we will be posting three times per week, including:

  1. A Thursday advance on the upcoming game, which will include a scouting report on the opponent.
  2. A game story to be posted within hours following the contest.
  3. A Sunday follow story with an updated injury report and fresh perspective from Coach Bob Surace after his film study.
During spring and pre-season practice periods, we will be writing once a week, perhaps more often if there are significant injuries or changes on the depth chart.  The remainder of the year we will be posting every other week off-season news, features on players, updates on rehabbing Tigers, position-by-position outlooks for the upcoming season, plus updates on alumni and stories about great wins in Princeton history.

We will begin coverage next week with a story on Chuck Dibilio and his recovery from a January stroke, followed by a preview of spring practice, which begins April 6.  

Thanks to the funding of the Princeton Football Association, this blog will offer the most complete coverage that ever has been available on Tiger football, written by a 14-year devotee of the program with two Princeton daughters who has performed 40 years of beat, column, feature and magazine work in New York, Philadelphia, Toronto, Kansas City and at Sports Illustrated.

We’re excited about getting started. Hope you will pass along word of what we are doing to other Princeton alumni and fans and look forward to your feedback.

- Jay Greenberg