What Didn’t Kill Valerie Percival Made Joe Stronger
By JAY GREENBERG
Nine defensive linemen that Princeton had lost before the end of the 2017 season are back and happier than ever to be on the field. Can anyone ever fully appreciate their gifts until they are taken from them?
The surgeons promised Kurt Holuba, Jake Strain and Matt Hampson that they could come back, maybe even better than ever, so there were goals set, pain endured, disciplines kept, and no room for doubt, or to put other passions ahead of football.
And then there is the case of Joe Percival, who had to put another love ahead of the game without adoring it any less, underscoring his sacrifice. He has emerged from a family ordeal with maturity greater than his years and gratitude almost beyond words.
“I just thank God things worked out because I was the only one who could make them work out,” said Percival. “When I left, I fully thought I would come back in a year, but then seeing what had to be done for my Mom and my brother and myself, I wasn’t sure at all.
“There was a point where I was thinking, ‘How is this going to happen? How is this possibly going to work? I’ve got to stay focused here.’”
* * * *
Valerie Percival grew up in Coney Island, then Staten Island, to become the first member of her immediate family ever to attend college, with the help of a grant from the University of Rochester, she earned a degree in health administration and then, upon separation from her husband, put any career on hold to raise her sons Joseph and Justin.
Parents entrusting their children to her day care service did it with the understanding they would tag along to piano (Joe) and violin (Justin) and to athletic practice for both. Valerie moved the two boys from Staten Island to Melville on Long Island because of the reputation of the public schools there. But passing football practice each day at St. Anthony’s High School, Joe was craning his neck to watch. So, despite the tuition, Valerie began thinking St. Anthony’s might be the best place for her sons.
“When I heard what went on the buses to public school, I said, ‘That’s it, you are going to Catholic School, “Valerie said.
When the boys were old enough to afford her the time, Valerie, in her fifties, went back to school online, doing most of the work at night, to obtain a masters from Ashford University, earning a 3.83 GPA, preparing her to re-enter a changed health care workplace. “She was a star,” said Joe and so was he, a first team All-State captain of a New York championship team at St. Anthony’s.
And then it happened. A benign tumor first discovered via a scan after she and the boys were involved in a 2006 car accident, had tripled in size, threatening Valerie’s optic nerve to a point where the doctor believed the mass should come out, for safety’s sake. In early December 2013 it did.
“Last thing I remember was after the operation when they were holding up fingers, asking me how many, and I was having trouble seeing them,” she said. “And then there was nothing until I woke up.”
Her body began rebelling violently to the anesthetic. She suffered a collapsed lung, her heartbeat had to be revived on three different occasions over the next month and she went blind.
When, a few weeks later, green and yellow lesions sprouted all over body, the diagnosis was Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, a two-chances-in-one-million affliction of which 85 per cent of cases are caused by reactions to anesthesia. When Stevens-Johnson advances, as did Valerie’s, to Toxic Epidermal Necrolysis (TEN), it is fatal 30-40 per cent of the time.
Fighting for her life in a terrifying new darkness, there was no consolation that she couldn’t see herself. “I’m told I looked like someone trying make herself scary for Halloween,” Valerie says.
It was beyond frightening to teenage boys 17 (Joe) and 15 (Justin). “First time we saw her with those (lesions), we were confused if it was even our Mom,” said Joe. “She looked like a different person. We were crying. My brother couldn’t even stay in the room.
“This didn’t make sense. She was our rock, our strength, our idol–an educated woman who put aside what she could have been doing, all for her kids. She was about to make great money doing what she had always wanted to do and now she was in a coma.”
It wasn’t until April, five months after the surgery, that Joe could tell Valerie that the Princeton early admission application she had helped him fill out had been accepted and May before Mom had a clear grasp of that badly needed good news. But it still wasn’t really his mother to whom Joe and Justin were speaking.
“Her personality changed,” Joe said. “She would say things she never would say before.
“There was a whole psychological aspect to Stevens-Johnson that I don’t think was well understood. It would take time and work to get past that.”
Fortunately, Valerie was covered by the health insurance of her estranged husband, a nurse. She went from the hospital into a rehab facility, and Justin went to live with a coach who lived near St. Anthony’s while Joe did a distracted freshman year at Princeton; that was possible only because his mother was receiving around-the-clock care.
“Academics, I struggled because my mind wasn’t on school sometimes,” he recalls. “I love football, so that was huge for me. I needed it.”
He earned rare freshman playing time as an outside linebacker “On the field was Joe’s escape,” recalls Coach Bob Surace. “But in meetings and lifts you could tell there was too much on his plate. Adding a third element to school and football was a lot.”
There was a fourth actually–a work-study job in campus security, enabling him to send badly needed money home. But after Mom spent a full year in the rehab facility, medical insurance wouldn’t pay for any more in-patient care. Percival had no choice but to come home and take care of a blind mother and a brother, then a high school senior.
Valerie, fearful Joe never would go back to Princeton, had begged him to stay and Surace worked to see if there was some modified classroom and football schedule that would enable him to continue to matriculate and still get home on weekends after football season. But there was no practical compromise, no real choice but the one Joe made.
“She would not have an advocate when she needed one,” said Joe. “If I stayed in school and the course of events did not go the way it did, I would live a life of regret.”
When he went home in May 2014, Valerie had a month remaining in rehab. But her care soon became the bare surface of the Percivals’ problems. Joe’s father stopped making the payments on their residence and the bank began foreclosure proceedings, locking them out. So a 19-year-old was left to get a lawyer to fight for their house, which, while Valerie had been in the rehab hospital had been robbed of televisions and jewelry, plus suffered a frozen pipe that burst, flooding a house soon laden with mold and asbestos issues.
The insurance company refused the claim because it had all happened in an unoccupied dwelling. Where was Joe to turn?
“I was a 19-year old kid who had to learn about medical coverage, lawyers, insurance,” Percival says. “My pewee coach did help me; other than that, we were on our own.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel sorry for myself. Of course I did. Why were bad things happening to a good person like me?
“At one point, I thought I should go to the police academy, work for a few years as a cop. We needed the money. How was I going to go back to Princeton?”
He found a lawyer to come to their rescue, getting the bank, apparently under the mistaken impression that the house was permanently abandoned, to call off the foreclosure and work with Joe Percival Sr. on a revised payment schedule. And an appeal to the insurance company brought a second adjustor who decided the house could be repaired to be habitable for a family eager to return. “If you ask me what changed from the first time, it was that God just sent us the right person,” said Joe.
The company paid the huge claim, which including six months at a motel while repairs were being made. But Joe wasn’t old enough to be legal parental supervision for his brother so child welfare got into the twisted tale and so did people–friends, Valerie had believed–who, well-meaning or otherwise, were taking the family’s financial matters into their own hands.
‘They felt I was gone and began to move things from the house, get my mail sent to their homes, and communicated with child support to get guardianship of my children,” she said. “It wasn’t helping, just complicating things for us.
“I wasn’t dead. We had to fight and Joe had to do most of the fighting.”
Justin was staying with the coach near the school. Valerie and Joe were at the extended stay motel. “At least I didn’t have to make my bed and clean my room for six months,” he laughed. ‘That was great.”
No it wasn’t. But the place did have a decent workout room, where he could try to keep in shape at whatever hours he could use it, often after 10 pm. Joe watched the Tigers on fall Saturdays 2015 on the Ivy League Network, aching to be there. Surace was in touch, never doubted Joe was coming back to campus the following year, but there were times the problems seemed insurmountable.
They weren’t only because Valerie’s health was improving. “There wasn’t an ounce of quit in her,” Joe said. “She believed she was going to get better, not just for herself, but for us.
“We poured encouragement into her, not just by our words, but because she saw what we had done. We had been in a battle to recover what had been taken from us and didn’t give up.”
Neither had Valerie on her eyesight, at one point, rejecting the recommendation of cosmetic eyes that would have closed any opportunity for regaining any use. Her left one never has regained any light perception and likely never will. But for reasons no better explained than miraculous, the macular function of the right eye reopened and suddenly she began seeing colors again, the first of them from a robe Joe had bought her in Japan when the Tigers did part of their spring drills there in 2015.
“I was over the top in my excitement, in disbelief,” she recalls. “This can’t be. What is going on? Take me back to the doctor!”
Sometimes, it is a temporary sensation, but a specialist who had seen almost no value in a partial cornea transplant decided that one now was worth a shot. Valerie had the operation in August 2016 and a second procedure to clear scar tissue. And she is out of the dark.
“My vision is the Big E on the chart and that’s about it,” she says. “I have to get right up in her sons’ faces, 12 inches or closer, but I can see them again.”
With special magnification, she can read the mail, watch television and, with therapy, those tasks are becoming pleasures, less and less fatiguing. The parents of Princeton defensive lineman Charles Tomassetti, who live in nearby Massapequa Park, LI. brought Valerie to some games last season, and Valerie is shooting to be in Indianapolis for the opener against Butler on Sept. 18; cheering on Joe and criticizing officials’ calls, of course.
“I can make out the movement on the field and go by the colors to know which way they are moving,” she says. “To see specific players is a little difficult, but I watch someone flashing by and yell ‘Block! Run!’
“I will ask whomever is sitting next to me, “Is No. 91 out there? So I know. And then I start yelling Jo-Jo’s name.”
Soon enough, the PA is informing her of a Percival sack. His delayed sophomore season was set back by injury and, for reasons of both greater team depth at linebacker and his explosive first step, Percival has become a down lineman and pass rushing specialist, used mostly in nickel packages, mostly on the inside.
“He is right with Kurt and Mike Wagner and Sam Wright with the best pass rushers we have,” said Surace. “Really, Joe is one of the best interior rushers in the league.”
Last year when Kurt Holuba’s knee gave out in the second quarter at Harvard–on top of the previous losses of Jake Strain and Jay Rolader–Percival became an every down guy and did well, the Crimson never mounting a comeback in a smashing 52-17 Princeton victory. It was a performance strong enough to engender hope that the fast-fraying defensive line could survive such a massive run of injuries, but the next week, against Cornell, Percival want down, too, and then so did Hampson. Decimated Princeton lost its last four contests.
“Couldn’t believe what happened,” said Joe. Actually, having been through worse, he could. For the team, the silver lining was how much depth was built for 2018, when Princeton will have pass rushers on top of pass rushers and has a glorious chance to give happy endings to a lot of guys who have earned them.
“I’m just so happy he went back,” said Valerie. “To me that’s another miracle in itself. Some kids take a break, start working, liking the money and don’t return. I’m just so glad the school supported him, too.
“I don’t know how he did it. I don’t think he fully knows how he did it, either. But if he hadn’t, I would have wound up in a shelter.”
What didn’t kill Valerie made her sons stronger, too. Justin has transferred from Rutgers to SUNY-Farmingdale to be closer for his mother while Joe finishes at Princeton.
There was a purpose to the entire ordeal; one he sees clearly now. Turns out, his mother’s eye isn’t the only one that has opened. Valerie’s ophthalmologist has talked with Joe about him joining her in her research at Columbia, which would bring in some money while putting him in classes to strengthen his academic record for medical school applications.
Legal counsel the Percival’s are hiring will pursue a possible case to ease financial burdens. “Her dreams were not realized because of an error; we want to come to the truth on that,” says Joe, a future anesthesiologist who vows to get a handle someday on Stevens-Johnson for others.
So, it’s onto something that’s a much bigger picture than football, even if after all he has been through, his next sack seems pretty big, too.
“It came to me in pieces that purpose of our struggle was to strengthen me,” said Percival. “If this hadn’t happened I wouldn’t be able to help other people with what they have to go through.
“Sometimes people underestimate their resilience. You don’t really know how something is going to affect you until you go through it. Sometimes disasters don’t tear people apart, it pulls them together.
“It can be argued that this has detracted from my Princeton experience. But at the end of the day I have done my best in every area–school, home, and football. It’s going to sound crazy, but when I look back on everything that happened, I don’t think I would have it any other way.
“It made me the man I am. And I like who I am. This became a tool to move me forward.”
The star of Saturday’s scrimmage was freshman running back Tre Gray, who ran for approximately 150 unrecorded yards. Another freshman bidding to be of help sooner in the season rather than later is offensive lineman Henry Byrd, already getting reps with the second team.
“I loved our energy,” said Surace of the scrimmage. “We were flying around the field; a lot of errors but, within them, we were aggressive.
“We have so much more work to do but I like where we are at. I usually walk out of here on this day (annual scrimmage 14 days before the opener) with a migraine. Don’t have one today.”
Despite a quadriceps injury that virtually eliminated his participation in camp and exhibition games, Seth DeValve ’16, survived the final cut of the Cleveland Browns. Caraun Reid ’14, was let go by the Dallas Cowboys. The Arizona Cardinals failure to be able to trade their third quarterback, Mike Glennon, doomed the chances of Chad Kanoff ’18 to make the 53-man roster, but they liked enough of what they saw in exhibition games to sign him to the practice squad.
Butler, Princeton’s first opponent, rallied with 16 fourth-quarter points to win its opener, 23-21, at Youngstown State… Second-week foe Monmouth lost to the MAC’s Eastern Michigan, 51-17… Lehigh, the Tigers’ other non-league foe, blocked a field goal in the final minute to survive a fourth-quarter rally by St. Francis (Pa.) 21-19.