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In the FCS Huddle: After stroke, Dibilio trying to work way back

By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - A swirling of emotions continues for Chuck Dibilio, and as the Princeton University freshman recovers from the stroke that he suffered in January, there's even gratitude.

He's encouraged by the steps in his rehabilitation and humbled by others he sees around him.

In other words, he's still being Chuck Dibilio.

"Looking at all the people at my speech therapy that have a lot worse conditions than me," Dibilio said, "I kind of feel like I'm lucky."

Strokes generally are not associated with 19-year-olds and it's easy to think strong, fit athletes are more immune to them than others in life, but what happened to Dibilio, the 2011 Ivy League Rookie of the Year from the Princeton football program, showed anybody can be a victim. He continues to recover from his stroke on Jan. 19.

That night, Dibilio was participating in a small study group when his right arm and leg went numb and he started slurring his words. Fortunately, the people with him (three teammates and a former Princeton player) reacted quickly with a call to 9-1-1. He was taken to the university hospital and then transported by helicopter to a hospital in Philadelphia, where doctors removed a clot from the main artery of his brain. He did not suffer any physical deficits.

Since leaving the hospital six days after the stroke, Dibilio has gone home to Nazareth, Pa., and taken a leave from his freshman year to rest and focus on his recovery. He hopes to return to campus in the fall semester to resume classes and play football again.

"Therapy is going really well right now. I'm really happy about the improvement I'm seeing through this therapy," Dibilio said Monday from his home.

"It's a tough situation. Obviously, I'm pretty much tired of just going to all the doctors. I'm learning that it's just persistence. If you want something, you just have to be persistent and do what you have to do to get it. I'm trying to just get healthy again."

Dibilio enjoyed an extraordinary rookie season. A 5-foot-11, 200-pound running back, he became the first freshman in Ivy League history to rush for over 1,000 yards, finishing with 1,068 on 201 carries for Princeton's sixth-best single-season total. He also caught 13 passes and scored eight total touchdowns while earning All-Ivy League first-team honors.

He finished fifth in the national voting for the inaugural Jerry Rice Award, given to the outstanding freshman player in the Football Championship Subdivision.

Whether Dibilio will resume his career is unknown, but that's not primary in his recovery, even though it fills his thoughts.

"It is no surprise to anyone that knows Chuck that he is facing every challenge presented to him by the medical staff with the same enthusiasm, competitiveness and effort that we saw on the football field," was how Princeton football coach Bob Surace described Dibilio's determination shortly after the stroke.

Doctors have yet to determine the cause of the stroke. Dibilio said they suspect it is similar to the mild stroke suffered by linebacker Tedy Bruschi in February 2005 when he was a member of the New England Patriots.

Bruschi's stroke was caused by patent foramen ovale, a small hole between the left and right atria (upper chambers) of the heart - a congenital defect. He missed half of the 2005 season, but returned to football and played through the '08 season.

Earlier this month, Dibilio had a minor procedure to insert a computer chip near his heart for monitoring. If he has a small hole there, he would have surgery to fill it with medical material.

That he could suffer from this condition appears plausible considering it would help explain his spleen infection before his senior year in high school in 2010.

"We think it could be kind of like what Teddy Bruschi had, he had like a hole in his heart," said Dibilio, who received a phone call of encouragement from Bruschi last month.

"That's what at first they thought I had. But they tested me and they didn't see anything. But we keep going to other doctors and they keep saying that the image that my original doctors looked at was like a really bad image and that we should try it again. They think that I have kind of a smaller hole in my heart. When I'm really exerting myself, from like squatting and benching on heavy (weight-lifting) days, the blood like rips through the hole and then that's where it clots. And then the heart pumps it to other part of my body. Like apparently that night was my brain. And before my senior year, it pumped into my spleen."

Dibilio's rehabilitation includes three speech therapies per week. He also was doing laser therapy three times per week, but that has been reduced to once per week. The lasers promote blood flow and the recovery of cells.

"I'm definitely seeing massive improvements," he said. "The first time I went to speech therapy, I couldn't grammatically write three sentences. I'm almost back to where I was before. I'm like writing papers and doing research - still not where I was - but last week I finally got into the high school level. I'm like 11th, 10th (grade) right now reading, writing, so I'm almost there. Just my speech is so much better. Especially in the hospital, no one could understand what I was talking about because my grammar was so bad.

"Physically, I'm doing all right. I still can't lift regularly. Like the other day, they told me I can't lift, so that's a little bad. I'm still conditioning and running and doing intervals and that kind of stuff, trying to keep in shape. Just hoping they figure out that cause. Hopefully, that hole in the heart, I'm hoping that's the cause because then they can perform the surgery on me and then I'll be fine and ready to go."

Dibilio has found the support he has received the last two months from family, friends, even people he didn't know previously to be phenomenal.

It forces him to put life in perspective.

There were times during the fall semester he felt a bit overwhelmed by his demanding schedules of classes and football. But now that he's away from Princeton, he realizes how much he misses it.

"I want to go back and pick up where I was before the stroke," he said, "just kind of like regain my life again."

03/28 10:29:27 ET