Football: Cafaro overcomes cancer, injuries to play for Panthers

By Alex Oltmanns

At 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds, former Pitt football defensive back Dan Cafaro has never been the… At 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds, former Pitt football defensive back Dan Cafaro has never been the most intimidating player on the football field.

Cafaro won’t win any competitions of physical strength or stature — he knows that since he’s been hearing it all his life.

But when it comes to internal strength and fortitude, the former walk-on player is like a giant.

He has overcome more obstacles in his six — yes, six — years as a college football player, overcoming cancer and a debilitating knee injury to become one of the most respected members of the Pitt football team.

The Pittsburgh native started his football career at Upper St. Clair high school where he starred for three years, earning three varsity letters and being named to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s “Fabulous 22” in his senior year in 2005.

But even after all of his accomplishments at the highest level of high school football in Western Pennsylvania, Cafaro still wasn’t recruited to any high-level programs and chose instead to walk on to a team.

“I was always told I would never play in high school because I was too small and people told me I was nuts for even trying Division I football, especially after going through chemo. I just kind of wanted to prove to them and myself that I could do it and be successful at it.”

Showing a prowess for special teams and blocking kicks in high school, he was asked by Virginia Tech to come to school there a preferred walk-on and was attracted to the program because of the emphasis the school placed on the special teams aspects of football — kicking, punting, return game.

But just about as soon as he arrived at the school in Blacksburg, Va., that August, he began to feel a little sick and noticed something unfamiliar.

“I was just shaving one day and felt a little lump. Didn’t think much of it and it just kept growing, but I thought it was just because I was sick and had a swollen lymph node.”

He started classes while redshirting for the Hokies that season. When he returned home for Thanksgiving break, he told his mom, Cindy, about the lump.

Reassuring him, she said they would get it checked out over the Christmas break.

It was then that Dan got the news he was fearing the most: He had Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“I was scared, kind of devastated at first,” Cafaro said.

That day started a grueling six-month process of chemotherapy for Cafaro. Gone were the days of going to class, playing sports and partying for the college athlete, as he was forced to withdraw for the spring semester. It was replaced by a schedule full of stressful doctors’ visits and treatments to cure his disease.

Cafaro would go to the Hillman Cancer Center once every two weeks for anywhere between four to six hours as part of his outpatient treatment. Every Tuesday he would undergo treatments, and on Wednesdays he went in for a doctor’s appointment where he would get a shot.

“The first couple treatments went pretty smoothly but then I started to get sick,” Cafaro said. “I was throwing up and losing my hair and everything.”

Throughout the treatment process, Cafaro said his family and friends were the ones who helped him through his illness the most.

His high school coach at Upper St. Clair, Jim Render, called once a week and made numerous house visits while his high school defensive backs coach, Jon Miller, would bring him DVDs to help pass the time.

Things started to get better for him, and by June he was cleared to go back to school that fall. Yet football just seemed like it wasn’t going to work out at Virginia Tech for Cafaro any longer, and he began to consider transferring to play for his hometown Panthers.

He got in contact with Pitt’s Director of Football Relations Bob Junko, whose sons Jay, Jeff and Mike were all familiar with Cafaro at Upper St. Clair high school. Junko brought him on to be a member of the Panthers.

Cafaro transferred to Pitt and redshirted again during the 2007 season. But even without his playing in a single game, his new teammates noticed his resilient attitude.

“I personally have never even heard Danny complain about anything and honestly he doesn’t even like to mention what he has been through because he doesn’t want people to feel bad for him,” Pitt linebacker Max Gruder said.

The next season, Cafaro was finally eligible to play in a Divison I game, and in the season opener at home against Bowling Green, his dream to officially play college football was fulfilled.

“That was unreal, just to have that feeling. Also that feeling to prove all the naysayers wrong I guess,” Cafaro said. “My grandparents, my parents, brother and sister were there at the game as well as my friends.”

He played in 11 games that season, recording two tackles and proving to be a worthy asset to the Panthers’ kickoff coverage unit. He looked to be even more involved the next season, but another obstacle to his career came up almost immediately.

In the following season opener against Youngstown State, Cafaro tore the ACL in his left knee. The injury would keep him out for the rest of the year.

“It was a freak thing. We were blowing Youngstown State out, I had two tackles already and the ball just got miskicked a little bit,” he said. “I saw it on the ground, got excited and went to cut and got blindsided and my foot just stuck in the ground.”

Playing with reckless abandon could’ve contributed to the injury, another reason his teammates respect his play.

“I really can’t say enough about Dan. He was the guy running down the field breaking the wedge on the kickoff. That shows how big his heart is,” former Pitt linebacker Adam Gunn said.

During the game, Cafaro and the Pitt training staff didn’t know the full severity of the injury. Cafaro was able to jog off the field with the trainers who then decided to hold him out of the game simply for precautionary reasons.

Cafaro then got the news that we would miss the entire 2009 season with the injury, but he stayed upbeat — he had already been through much worse.

“The ACL rehab wasn’t that bad,” he said. “I thought the rehab would be a lot worse than it really was.”

That would’ve been his last year of eligibility for the Panthers, but a petition to the NCAA was awarded and he was granted a rare sixth year.

Gunn knows all about the process to gain a sixth year of eligibility, as he too was awarded one after breaking a vertebrae in his neck against Bowling Green, during the same game in which Cafaro made his collegiate debut.

“Just knowing Dan’s story, it’s truly amazing. That just shows the kind of person he is. When you just look at him you wouldn’t see a guy with such a big heart,” Gunn said. “You see a little guy with a small stature, but he’s so much more than that. I really can’t say enough about Dan.”

Cafaro returned to the team this past season and played a key role as a leader on the field and on the Panthers special teams unit. He graduated last semester with a degree in communication.

For Cafaro, football is the game he loves and nothing was going to stop him from participating in it. He said he will take that approach to challenges that face him the rest of his life.

“My mindset’s always been: nothing worth having in life comes easy,” he said. “In any aspect of life whether its football, a girl, a job, anything.”