“How do you make yourself tougher?”
Those were the words that Charlie Capalbo posed to his mother, Jenny, after what he thought was a bad performance in goal in his youth hockey matchup. His mom was simply amazed he was able to ask such a profound, deep question.
This recollection was one of hundreds of stories, messages of support, and "get well" wishes in a 70-minute-long video that Charlie Capalbo’s family & friends compiled to mark one year since his cancer diagnosis back in 2017. Capalbo, a goalie for the Fairfield Co-Op hockey team (a mix of Ffld. Ludlowe and Ffld. Warde High Schools), had been struggling with repeated flu-like symptoms.
Doctors found it to be a tumor in his chest - non-Hodgkins lymphoblastic lymphoma - and treatment began. After a high-dose, aggressive chemotherapy treatment, his family thought he could use an emotional lift, and made a one-hour, 9-minute-long YouTube video of friends, family, and classmates to send to 18-year-old Charlie.
Four years and three cancer recurrences later, Charlie Capalbo passed away in Boston on Sunday. He was 23.
I first heard about Charlie Capalbo’s fight when I was still in college. I was a junior at Bryant, and having grown up miles away from Fairfield, I knew a lot of the same people Charlie did. My sister grew close with one of Charlie’s cousins, and all I knew was that he was fighting cancer. I said a quick prayer for him and moved along with my day.
But, no…Charlie wouldn’t let me forget him & his fight so quickly.
I continued to follow Charlie’s fight over the years. For a kid in his late teens and early twenties, I was nothing short of stunned by how much of a fighter & team player Charlie really was; a relentless advocate for taking his team into his darkest battles, and fighting to win the battle…even if it seemed damn near impossible. We exchanged some messages last year, as I was proud to show off my #FuckCancer sweatshirt for his family’s fundraiser.
Of course, the world saw Charlie’s courageousness in this NBC Sports mini-documentary from 2019. It chronicled him and his brother Will - also a goalie, also in the Fairfield hockey system - and finding out Will was a match for Charlie’s bone marrow transplant in 2019.
“I felt very helpless the first time around, because all you could do was be there to support him,” said Will. “But now this time I could actually physically help him.” Total selflessness.
NHL players like Henrik Lundqvist, Brad Marchand, and Nick Foligno sent jerseys and messages of support, too. They all rushed to support a kid they had never met, because they knew how special he was…and how much he needed their help.
Anthony Capalbo, Charlie’s dad, said it best: “Your relentless, under-the-radar, quietly-confident resilience & strength powers us all to keep trying to be better people.” And he surely brought out the best in the community, all the time; with rallies of support at Boston Childrens’ Hospital, their Fairfield home, and at event halls, Charlie made an impact in so many people’s lives…some of them total strangers.
The unavoidable nature of human life is that it ends. Charlie’s ended far too soon, many will say. But what if Charlie Capalbo accomplished what he was put on this earth to do? He made people, families, and friends stronger. He showed us the power of a community, rallied around one cause. He showed us how brotherly love trumps none. And, above all, he taught us what it means to fight.
How do you mourn over someone you’ve never met in person? As Tony Reale from ESPN said after Kobe Bryant unexpectedly passed away in January 2020, “no one’s path is theirs alone…no one’s life is their sole purpose…there are feelings you never want to feel, and never want to get, but they are feelings you have to give voice to. It’s the best tool we have to process.”
So, yes, objectively Charlie was gone too soon. We’ll never know why. But what we do know…whether we knew him personally or not…is that this world is better for Charlie being in it.
As his mother & aunt said in their tribute video years ago, we lost a true “one in a million” kid.
In order to aid the fight against cancer, I will be contributing in Charlie's memory to Bryant Sigma Chi's Derby Days fundraiser. Every dollar donated goes directly to the Huntsman Cancer Institute, which spends 100% of all contributions on cancer research. To contribute, click here: