On February 18, 2012 the unthinkable happened in Houston, Texas as the University of Delaware baseball team began its season facing off against the University of Houston at Cougar Field. But to one person this wasn’t just a baseball game, it was a milestone.
Flash back to October 2008 and imagine a 16-year-old teenage boy getting blood drawn in hopes he would find the answer to why he was feeling abnormally lethargic. The results came back as Lyme disease, which Joe Giacchino was thrilled to hear because that meant the doctors could start treatment and return him to his normal life, which included playing baseball at Malvern Prep in Malvern, Pa.
However, the old adage, “Mother knows best,” fits perfectly in this story.
Joe Giacchino, a West Chester, Pa. native, has played baseball his entire life. Whether it was playing catch with his brothers Dan and Brian or traveling across the nation with his parents Lynn and Larry to play in various AAU tournaments, Joe, or “Jeezy” as his friends call him, has dreamed of playing college baseball since eighth grade. So when the outfielder had trouble fielding fly balls, he knew something was wrong:
I went to a showcase at Villanova, an event that would showcase my skills to college coaches in hopes that I would get recruited. I could not catch a fly ball. It was the most embarrassing moment of my entire life. Catching a fly ball is something that I have been able to do since the age of five. Now all of a sudden, I wasn’t able to do it. It was because the baseball, when in flight, would appear to bounce around almost like a knuckle ball would, and I misjudged just about every one.
But catching a fly ball was the least of Giacchino’s problems. It got the point where even getting out of bed required more than normal strength.
“I was having some serious trouble getting out of bed in the morning to get to school,” Giacchino said. “Some days it would take me close to an hour, and those were the days where my mom would yell up to me from the kitchen to get up, and I just physically could not muster enough strength to get my body up and going.”
Joe’s mother had a funny feeling that even though he had been diagnosed with Lyme disease, something was still off with her son. She convinced Joe to get a second opinion, and they went to a local ophthalmologist in West Chester. It only took a short amount of time for the doctor to know there was something much more than Lyme disease going on with Giacchino.
Giacchino said, “Within about 30 seconds of my check-up, he is giving me an eye test and immediately says, ‘Joe, these eye movements in your right eye are definitely not caused by Lyme disease. I think you better get an MRI scan just to make sure.’”
The doctor in fact found something wrong in the MRI. A white cyst showed up on the scan, which the doctor said was a byproduct of a black pocket, which was a benign brain tumor. At this point, playing baseball again was only minuscule to other things, like living.
“He clarified everything, saying that it was benign, and that it was located in the cerebellum of my brain, which was going to make it especially tricky during its surgical removal,” Giacchino said.
So the Giacchino family began their hunt for the best doctor to take care of their 16-year-old. After running around from hospital to hospital, they finally entrusted their son’s care with Doctor Leslie Sutton of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
“He ran down a long list of the potential side effects: Bell’s palsy, loss of extremities, loss of vision, loss of hearing, just to name a few,” Giacchino said. “But for some odd reason, I found comfort in knowing this. I think it was because all the other hospitals seemed to have been sugarcoating things and making things seem too good to be true.”
When Joe learned of all the potential health risks associated with the surgery required to remove the tumor, baseball was the last thing on his mind.
“My future in baseball was highly unlikely. And honestly, I no longer cared. I just wanted to live a normal and healthy life,” he said.
The exact diagnosis was pilocytic astrocytoma, which called for a six to 12 hour surgery. Everything went better than expected during surgery, and Dr. Sutton finished in five hours. However, the proceeding weeks would prove to be the most painful time in Giacchino’s life.
“The week that followed, however, was the most difficult week of my entire life,” Giacchino said. “I spent it recovering in the ICU. Dr. Leslie Sutton didn’t believe in pain medication, because had I taken pain medication during my recovery, it could have potentially masked something that he needed to know, which could have been dangerous.”
Picture a 16-year-old, 6'1" male, lying in a children’s hospital bed, wanting to scream at the top of his lungs because he is in the most unbearable pain possible. But this wasn’t the worst part.
“I was hooked up to machines that would beep because of my low heart rate, just about every time I was about to fall asleep. Therefore, I wasn’t able to sleep,” Giacchino said.
All this pain and suffering didn’t bring Joe’s hopes down though. He knew there was light at the end of the tunnel and looked to his family and friends to comfort him in this time of dire need.
“It was a week of unbelievable pain and suffering. But the people around me gave me hope,” Giacchino said. “And after a week’s time, I was able to return home nearly unscathed, just with a partially deaf right ear.”
The many prayers and visitors to the Giacchino household helped Joe discover the real meaning in life. His parents and brothers continued to show their constant and unconditional love for their son and brother.
“My mother and father, who would have traveled to the other side of the world to see me happy and healthy, walked with me through this entire experience and were the main reason why I was able to get through the tough times. My two brothers, Dan and Brian, kept me upbeat with their everyday company,” Giacchino said.
As Joe began to progress, he began to think more and more about baseball. He recovered from his tumor and was able to put on his navy blue jersey for his junior season for the Malvern Prep Friars.
As the summer came around, he returned to his elite form and even caught the eyes of some college recruiters. He’ll never forget the exact moment the University of Delaware first contacted him about playing baseball for the Blue Hens, as he was at his most favorite place in the entire world.
I will never forget the day that the University of Delaware first contacted me. I was on the beach by myself in Ocean City, NJ, when my mom, who was home in West Chester, called me and said, ‘Joe, I have something to tell you. Just listen.’ And she put her cell phone up to the message machine, and sure enough, it was Coach Sherman asking for me to come to Delaware to talk about a potential scholarship.
Just months after wondering if he would even be able to live a normal teenage life, he was being presented with the opportunity he had dreamed of since eighth grade. Sitting on a sunny, crowded, 34th street beach in Ocean City, to Joe, he was all alone. There were no annoying seagulls or obnoxious shoobies; there was just Joe and the ocean. Nothing was going to ruin this special moment for him.
“I remember crying tears of joy, and I felt the eyes of people on the beach looking at me as if there was something the matter with me. I could care less. Those people didn’t understand where I came from, where I had been, the journey that I took to get where I was,” Giacchino said.
A week after visiting Delaware and talking with the coaches, Joe verbally agreed to become a Blue Hen and don the royal blue uniform.
From one shade of blue to another, Joe not only persevered in baseball, but also in life. He would later be honored for his courageous journey by receiving the Nick Adenhart Angel 34 Courage Award. The award was created in honor of the life of Nick Adenhart, a young pitcher for the Los Angeles Angels, who had lost his life at the hands of a drunk driver early in his promising career.
“I was emotional and blessed to have received such an honor,” Giacchino said. “My senior season, I decided to wear Nick’s number, 34, in tribute to him. To this day, when I’m on the field for Delaware, there are certain people I think of. I think of Nick, and how he would most likely give anything in the world to play another game.”
Back to February 18, 2012, where the Blue Hens opened their season by traveling to Texas to play the University of Houston. It was at this next moment when Joe realized how truly blessed he was.
“We were in pregame, I was announced as the center fielder hitting in the 9th slot, and it was something that I have been waiting to hear for a very long time. My emotions caught up with me and I started tearing up. I’m not sure if any of the guys saw me, but if they did, I know they understood,” Giacchino said.
Joe specifically remembers one quote that helped him over come his adversity. “God gives the tests only to the people who can handle them.”
It’s clear as day that Joe Giacchino, for the rest of his life, will handle any test or hardship thrown his way. Now hitting a curveball is as easy as cake to Joe. He hit the ultimate curveball and overcame all odds and won the game of life by beating his brain tumor.
Eddie Ravert is a Contributor for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained first-hand.