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September 20, 2012When Kevin Kroboth comes to Temple's Edberg-Olson Hall football complex each day, he takes a bit of a different route through the building than he did the previous four seasons.
Instead of heading to the locker room, the Owls' former free safety and new strength and conditioning graduate extern settles in at an office that's part of the facility's recently-completed $10 million expansion. Kroboth's space is meticulously neat and understated - one befitting his genuine, meat-and-potatoes personality.
During his four-year Temple career as an all-conference defensive back, the affable kid from Nazareth High School with no other Division I offers at his back steadily improved each season without much fanfare and capped his career with an interception in the Owls' win over Wyoming in the New Mexico Bowl to help lock down the program's first bowl victory in 32 years.
From his new office, Kroboth also gets a clear view of Chodoff Field, where he honed his craft and down the line performed well enough at Temple's Pro Day back in March to earn interest from several NFL teams, including the Philadelphia Eagles and the Oakland Raiders, who eventually invited Kroboth to their rookie camp.
Last March was an exciting time, but it was a trying time, too - part of a chapter of Kroboth's life that started with a cancer scare and ended when a failed physical due to a preexisting heart condition snuffed out any dreams of a possible NFL career, even after he performed well in Oakland.
There were anxious moments, tears and plenty of thoughts of what might have been. But from there, Kroboth accepted an offer from Temple head coach Steve Addazio and strength and conditioning coach Frank Piraino to get back into the program as a graduate assistant and never looked back.
And when Kroboth comes to work now each day or continues along with his work in pursuit of a master's degree in sports psychology, there are no regrets.
"It's honestly a great experience," Kroboth told OwlScoop.com. "I thank Coach Addazio and Coach Piraino for even allowing me to be in this position right now, because I might not know where I would be right now if it wasn't for them giving me this opportunity.
"And obviously, I wish I could still be playing, but with the circumstances, I can't be, so it's nice to still be around the sport and doing what I love to do and helping these other kids reach their potential and hopefully reach their dreams and aspirations and maybe moving on to the NFL or whatever they want to do in their life."
The thought of others having the shot in the NFL that Kroboth never got doesn't make him bitter. He's always had a very measured sense of perspective and humility. But that's not to say the events of last winter and spring didn't test him and, at times, scare him and family to their very core.
A close call
It all started, Kroboth said, with a trip home to Nazareth over winter break last year.
"My dad was cutting my hair, and he saw this mole on my head," Kroboth said, "and he said, 'I think you should probably get this checked out.' Because with any mole, you just get a quick cut, they cut it off and everything's fine and you're out in a couple minutes."
That's what Kroboth was hoping for and, for the most part, expected. But the biopsy came back two weeks later to reveal the mole was an indication of melanoma - skin cancer. Kroboth's parents, Denise and Ron, got the news after their son had returned to Temple for the spring semester, and they had to explain to him that they would now have to find out if the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes.
"I was here at school," Kroboth recalled, "and my mom called - and at a random time. And I was just like, I hope nothing's wrong. And she just started crying on the phone, and I thought maybe there was a death in the family or something happened. And then she told me she would just say, 'I love you, I love you,' but she wouldn't tell me what was going on. And I was like, 'Oh, God,' and I said, 'Mom, what's wrong?' She couldn't even tell me, so she gave the phone to my dad, and my dad told me, and we didn't know how serious it was at the time. We just knew it was melanoma.
"He just told me, 'We'll just go from here and see what steps we have to take, and you're going to get through this.'"
Kroboth stayed at his apartment that night and tried to stay calm while his roommates and teammates at the time - kicker Brandon McManus, offensive linemen Pat and Sean Boyle, linebacker Matt Falcone and tight end Cody Booth - consoled him.
"We sat in his room and he was going through a tough time and crying," McManus recalled. "But we were always going to be there at his side and tell him how much we appreciate him and what he's done for us."
"It was a rough night," Kroboth said. "Those guys got me through it."
Kroboth returned home and eventually got the great news he had hoped for: the cancer had not spread to his lymph nodes. There was one more surgery at Temple Hospital to cut a little deeper into his head to make sure the cancerous cells were removed, and a tremendous weight had been lifted from Kroboth's shoulders.
At the same time, Temple's Pro Day, a chance for the Owls' NFL hopefuls to work out for representatives of all 32 teams, was right around the corner.
"I was like, What do I do now?" Kroboth said. "Do I just throw in the towel and say maybe this is what God's plans were and I have to move on and try something else? Or do I just have to get healthy, wait those two weeks and then just work really hard to get ready for Pro Day? And I was fortunate that the recovery period was only about two-and-a-half weeks, and I was able to start working out again. Fortunately I was getting strong and getting back into it, and I did really well at Pro Day.
"But unfortunately, my other condition didn't allow me to be able to play."
Dealing with another dose of adversity
The other condition, an aortic insufficiency, is something Kroboth played with, monitored, and overcame during his career. Like the melanoma, he didn't talk about it, use it as an excuse, or wear it like a badge of misfortune. Instead, he played three seasons of college football with a tiny hole in his heart.
"Actually, I didn't even find out about it until I got here to Temple my freshman year," Kroboth said, "because I would work out sometimes and I would get really lightheaded and pass out, and we obviously knew that something was wrong. So Dr. (Ray) Moyer set me up with a cardiologist and we found out that I had the aortic insufficiency. My heartbeat, even if I wasn't really doing anything physical - I could just be jogging onto the field to go get ready for practice - would just start racing and be at 200-plus beats a minute, not even really doing anything.
"We obviously knew we had to find out what this situation was and we did, and we were able to monitor it. So we had to change a little bit of how I worked out in the weight room in doing a little lighter weight but more reps or do some different exercises to keep up and make sure I could work out hard. So I just had to push myself hard and it actually made me a better player knowing that I have to work twice as hard to keep up, and it benefited me."
The hole in Kroboth's aorta closed up prior to last season, and he recorded 76 tackles and three interceptions as the Owls went 9-4 en route to the New Mexico Bowl win. He turned that into an invitation to play in the Casino Del Sol All-Star showcase game and used his Pro Day performance to get the rookie camp invite from the Raiders.
Kroboth thought he had cleared two huge hurdles with the cancer scare and his heart condition, and things looked promising after his solid rookie camp performance in Oakland. But although the hole in Kroboth's heart had indeed closed, the aortic insufficiency showed up in a failed physical. The Raiders, along with no other NFL team, he was told, would clear him.
"They don't want that kind of high-profile situation to try to deal with, because there are so many incredible athletes trying to play in the NFL," Kroboth said. "So they said, 'You did an unbelievable job. We couldn't ask for anything more. It's just your situation '"
And that was it. Yes, Kroboth still would have had to perform well enough in training camp in July and August to earn a roster spot with the Raiders, but that failed physical - and not a lack of talent - prevented him from finding out how far he could go in pursuing that dream.
At first, the very thought of that gnawed at Kroboth. Then, looking at it for what it was gave him solace moving forward.
"Going out to Oakland was an unbelievable experience," he said. "It was nice just to more so know for myself that I can play with these guys. If I wasn't able to go out there, I would have always been thinking, 'Could I have been able to play? Was I good enough?'"
As Kroboth worked through it all, he sought advice from Addazio, who sympathized with him but also reminded him he would have to learn to hit life's curveballs.
"He never flinched," Addazio said. "He never made a big deal about it. He just went about his business. He got dealt a couple of tough deals, and he dealt with them. That's why Kevin's a tough kid who's going to make it. I'm really impressed with him.
"I knew that when things didn't work out from there, we wanted to get him here. He's a tremendous kid and we wanted to take care of a Temple guy, give him a GA position in the strength room and he's been terrific, and I'm just happy that he's been one of those guys that's got real positive energy with him and moves forward with his life. We're lucky to have him with us and our players are going to be better because of him."
And that's more than enough to keep Kroboth going into the next phase of his life.
"I did everything I possibly could. I know I couldn't do more," he said. "I have no regrets. It just wasn't in the cards for me to play in the NFL. And now, honestly, this is what I wanted to eventually do once the NFL was over for me. So I'm just doing it a little earlier. I just love being able to give these kids the tools and the opportunities to get to that same position and live their life like that. Because I've been to that level."
OwlScoop.com Editor John DiCarlo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow him on Twitter at @OwlScoop_com or @jdicarlo.