But just as Zeuli was about to walk out, sophomore tight end Andrew Shafer walked in and joined them, and the group began to chat. Shortly into the conversation, Dibilio tried to say something, but it didn’t come out quite right. His teammates, confused, asked him to repeat himself. But his second attempt came out even worse, and they began to worry.
“They realized something was not right,” freshman wide receiver Seth DeValve said. DeValve added that the group acted quickly, calling both 9-1-1 and head football coach Bob Surace ’90. “It’s crazy, because if Andrew hadn’t come in, Chuck would have been there by himself.”
For players and coaches on the football team, the hours that followed were marked by uncertainty and concern. As word spread, some players rushed over to the University Medical Center at Princeton in the wee hours of Friday morning to visit Dibilio and his family. Others called or emailed Surace, wondering about the details of what had happened and expressing concern for the health of a promising young teammate.
“The night of the incident, there were a lot of questions, with him being in the hospital, and we weren’t really getting much information about how he was doing,” freshman cornerback Khamal Brown said.
Brown said he was in disbelief after getting a call from one of his teammates with the news. Just one day before, Dibilio had been in Brown’s room playing video games with some of their friends.
“To our knowledge, he’d always been a healthy kid, so it was shocking,” he said.
Surace was in Dallas on a recruiting trip when he heard the news, and the coaching staff was spread out all over the country recruiting. Outside linebackers coach Bill McCord was in the Philadelphia area and visited Dibilio at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, where he was undergoing surgery to remove the clot in the main artery of his brain that had caused the stroke.
Surace also cut his plans short and flew to Philadelphia on Friday.
“That night, I didn’t sleep,” Surace said. “I don’t think any of the guys slept either, until Chuck’s dad called with positive news in the morning. I was getting calls from players at two and three in the morning.”
“There was such an unknown, and I wanted to make sure as soon as I got positive news I’d send that in an email to the guys,” he added. “That whole time, you’re holding your breath and hoping that a young guy can come back and make a full recovery.”
DeValve also made the trip to Philadelphia to visit Dibilio on Saturday night. He said he grew very concerned after hearing that his teammate was having trouble speaking on Friday, and that being able to have a normal conversation with him the next day helped him get over the initial shock.
“The full emotions didn’t really strike me until later when I heard more details,” DeValve said. “It didn’t seem possible that someone like him could have something happen. If Chuck had a stroke, as healthy as he was, then anybody could.”
Surace said he was moved that many other players took the time to visit Dibilio as well.
“There’s never good timing, obviously, but we were in the middle of finals,” Surace said. “I know what a grind it is, but these guys didn’t care. They wanted to go spend some time with Chuck.”
Visiting Dibilio in the hospital, Surace said, reminded him of his experience visiting former running back Jordan Culbreath ’11, who suffered from aplastic anemia, just after being hired as head coach. He said he was impressed by the maturity and humility of both players in the face of uncertain health conditions. Before Surace left the hospital room, Dibilio expressed his only wish: that his coach thank all the players for their support.
The uncertainty surrounding his health has all but abated. He was released from TJUH on Wednesday, Jan. 25 and is currently recovering at home while undergoing therapy. According to Surace, he began jogging about two weeks after experiencing the stroke.
In a Jan. 30 article in The Morning Call, Dibilio said he felt fine physically. His mother, Bonnie Coyle Ronco, added that he still needed therapy for cognitive skills and language processing. The article also noted that while doctors have yet to fully determine a cause, they are fairly sure it is related to a spleen infection Dibilio suffered before his senior year in high school.
Dibilio, Ronco, Zeuli and Shafer did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
But while his health has improved, the future of the 2011 Ivy League Rookie of the Year’s football career is anything but clear. Dibilio set the record for a true Ivy League freshman with 1,068 rushing yards this season, and he was viewed as one of the greatest young hopes for the struggling Tigers. So far, no timetable has been set for his return to football.
“I don’t think anyone’s really thinking football except for Chuck right now,” Surace said. “Right now, he’s competing to get back to school and be an excellent student again. Eventually, if you get good news, you’ll take it from there.”
Dibilio did not begin the semester on campus, and Princeton generally does not allow students to take just one semester off at a time. If he is able to play and returns in the fall to participate in the season, he may be required to take off a subsequent semester, though Surace speculated that this was the kind of extenuating circumstance that would prompt the University to make an exception.
“Chuck is going to come back to football — and I believe he will — with a very different outlook on what it means to him and what life means to him,” DeValve said, comparing Dibilio to former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who suffered a stroke in 2005. “This experience has not just brought us closer to Chuck; it has made us closer as a team.”
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/02/09/29887/