by Grant Roberts, UD Athletic Communications Student Intern

Life can change in an instant. For Bob Carpenter Center Events Staff member Vinny Cardinale, that instant came on a Monday in September 2013.

After working as a garbage truck driver for 12 years in his hometown of Long Island, Cardinale moved to Delaware six years ago to complete his dream of becoming a police officer. However his new profession meant long hours, which kept him away from his wife, Nicole (at right), and their three children, so he went back to driving a garbage truck.Unfortunately while on the job in Bear, Del. nearly four years ago, Cardinale's leftfoot was crushed while getting backed over by a garbage truck.

“I woke up in the hospital, my wife was there, and the leg was black, as black as my sneaker, as black as my knee sleeve, and it was turning blacker and blacker,” Cardinale explained.

At that point, he had a decision to make. The first option was to leave the foot alone, which would have meant living life with what was described as a “club foot.” As a physically active person who valued playing with his kids, that option was not especially appealing to Cardinale, not to mention his foot would likely require 18-24 surgeries over the next three years.

The second option that Cardinale faced was an amputation. Additionally, after initially assuming he would only lose his foot, Cardinale was informed by his doctors that they would have to amputate below the knee.

After thinking it over and discussing the options with Nicole, Cardinale eventually gave the thumbs up for the below the knee amputation. Following the procedure Cardinale spent the next month in the hospital. When Cardinale finally returned to his family's Townsend, Del. home in a wheelchair, he found it difficult to cope with his new life.

“I came home in a wheelchair, with no leg and a bandage wrapped around my leg,” Cardinale stated. “Two weeks ago there was a marked police cruiser in my driveway and now I've got a wheelchair in my driveway, so what did I do wrong?”

Cardinale kept those thoughts to himself, but being around his wife and kids helped ease the pain. His family support is what held him up and got him through the process.

“Nicole got closer to me, the kids were awesome, they accepted me when I was in a wheelchair,” he explained. “There are stories where a guy gets hurt in military or law enforcement; the wife turns around and says ‘I can't deal with that, peace out, see you later.' Instead, she got closer to me.”

Although the support from his family was tremendous, the first year for Cardinale was rough.
“I was 37 years old and obviously was born with both legs - it wasn't like I was born without a leg,” he remarked. “I went from running around as a police officer, to being in a wheelchair for months without a leg because your leg needs to heal. You can't just wake up the next day and put on a prosthetic leg. It has to heal, which takes close to three months, and when you put it on, you're not walking with your regular feet. It's a whole different learning process - I had to learn how to walk again.”

The rehabilitation process started when Cardinale was referred to the University of Delaware STAR campus, located across the street from UD's David Nelson Sport Complex, and became one of the first amputees to be treated in the new building. Cardinale worked closely with physical therapists Airelle Giordano (below left) and Angela Hutchinson Smith (below right) through the process of healing and rehabbing his leg.

Cardinale approached his physical therapy  ith the right mindset. “There were definitely some lows in the year and a half that we were with him, and some highs,” Giordano said, but the one aspect of his life that Vinny kept throughout his rehab was his work ethic.

“He's always been on the more positive side, particularly even at that point in time, and it grew as we got to know him,” Smith said. “He always had that attitude of ‘I'm going to beat this I'm going to walk again, I'm going to do all the things that I want to do again.'”

Cardinale spent 18 months working with Giordano and Smith in what was a long and grueling process.

“He worked hard every day, he was a very dedicated patient,” Smith remarked. “He rarely missed an appointment and most of the time it was because a physician would tell him that you're not allowed to come in today.”

“It was learning for them and learning for me, but they accepted me, did a lot of research with me, as well as without me on their own time,” Cardinale explained about his relationship with his physical therapists.

Cardinale spent 18 months at the facility, three days a week, and never missed a scheduled appointment approved by his physician.

“During the winter when the weather was bad I used to call up and ask if the building was open,” he said. “‘Yeah Vinny, we're open on a delayed schedule, everyone else called to cancel.' Well I'm coming in and I'm taking everybody's appointment that canceled, and I'll spend eight hours there.”

“Vinny was always extremely positive,” Giordano (left photo) added. “Going through something like that, you go through stages of grief so there was anger, why did this have to happen to me? And I feel he moved through them very quickly.”

Cardinale's positive attitude also helped lead him to seize new opportunities he never considered before the accident. Once Cardinale was fitted with a new leg by his prosthetist Tim Rayer from Prosthetic Innovations following his second surgery, he began doing activities he never even thought about before his injury. Not only was he able to continue to play and teach his kids sports like basketball and football, he was now able to run, something he never cared to do before.

“When I was a cop, I ran for coffee and that was it,” he said with a smile.

Now with a prosthetic limb, Cardinale has run numerous 5K's along with other activities such as snow skiing, jet skiing, and paddle boarding.

“The key was that I accepted almost immediately that while I lost my leg, I was going to get the right gear and the right fit, and I'm going to be just like I was prior to getting hurt,” he said. “And that's the person I am now, teaching my kids football and soccer. We go to water parks, go on roller coasters, we paddle boarded last summer. I skied before I got hurt and I've skied after; I think I'm better now. I'd never paddle boarded before, now I paddle board.”

“At some point I just threw it out there that when I was in law enforcement we used to jog, but we never did 5K's. I set that as a goal and it stuck with my wife, she wrote a bunch of goals down. By the end of my physical therapy Angela and I were running around the STAR campus building.”

Soon after finishing his final physical therapy session, Cardinale was made aware about an events staff position at the Bob Carpenter Center, or BCC, which he applied for and earned an interview with Frantzer Le Blanc, UD's Assistant Athletic Director for BCC Operations and Facilities. In their initial meeting Cardinale was completely honest with Le Blanc concerning his disability. Le Blanc was inspired and impressed by Cardinale's story, and knew he would be a perfect fit as a Blue Hen.

“I thought Vinny had the right energy and then all the questions I asked about customer service and guest service, he answered everything great,” Le Blanc noted. “I felt that we could help him and he could help us, and he's done an unbelievable job with us ever since.”

Working as a member of the athletic event staff since January, Cardinale has done anything and everything asked of him and more. He serves as an usher and in guest services, along with multiple other roles during events at the BCC and Delaware Stadium. He helps with setting up and breaking down BCC events, and serves as an usher for basketball games, concerts and shows.

Cardinale has been the representative in the command post for all of the departments the BCC talks to, worked men's lacrosse games in the spring, and works on Sundays closing the building. He also works Delaware 87ers games in the BCC Club, serving as the VIP attendant.

Le Blanc praises the work that Cardinale has done and the work ethic he brings to the job every day.

“He's unbelievable. He works so hard, almost too hard I feel,” said Le Blanc, who noted that most people on the staff aren't aware of Cardinale's prosthetic leg. “He's a trooper: he shows up when we need him, never complains, works long hours. Even when he's tired he still never complains. He's unbelievable to our fans, our vendors, and to the guests who have events in here.”

It's been the perfect job for Cardinale, a lifelong sports fan who has yet to find an event to turn down.

“Basketball games, concerts, graduations, anything they need me to do,” he said. “Doing anything and everything: driving a golf cart, checking the outside of the building, checking guests in and helping them get seated, showing them the building.

“Football season is coming up so I'm looking forward to that. They've given me more responsibility here, and it's pretty awesome. I never thought I'd work at a college, but life takes you different ways and obviously it took me here,” he said.

And when asked if he considers himself a Blue Hen, his answer is definitive.

“Absolutely. From day one at STAR, my physical therapists Angela and Airelle accepted me. Frantzer has told me, ‘Hey, you know you're part of Blue Hen country now.' I still don't know what that really means but as a guy from New York, we'll figure it out when we get there.”

Not content just to change his own life, Cardinale has been proactive in sharing his inspirational story with other amputees as well as children at elementary schools. He has spoken numerous times at Appoquinimink Preschool Center where Nicole, the school's 2016-17 Teacher of the Year, is a special education teacher.

“Prosthetic Innovations and Tim Rayer call me all the time, ‘Hey Vinny, we're going to UPenn and we've got a new patient, maybe you can come up here, introduce yourself, and just speak to the individual and let them know it's going to be alright,'” he explained. “Usually there's a couple of hugs or handshakes, or even some tears, and it works out. Tears for happiness though, not sadness. They're at the right place and they're going to get squared away.”

So while Cardinale's life definitely changed on that fall day in 2013, he has not let the injury define him, and in some ways lives a more active and impactful life.

“Laying in the hospital bed, Nicole said, ‘Life gives you lemons, you make lemonade.' She's been right ever since. When we go out, she tells me to put on shorts. People might come up to me and ask what happened, and you give them your story in a few seconds. It makes them happy, makes you feel good, and you go about your day.”

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We thank Vinny for his support, service and passion for our Blue Hens! Look out for Vinny at Blue Hens events this year.