Lake Zurich's Panico produces the ultimate football comeback

Is Vinnie Panico a medical marvel?

Or perhaps the luckiest kid on earth?

Maybe both.

One thing is for sure. The Lake Zurich senior has had one of the most remarkable years of any teenage athlete in Lake County, maybe the entire country.

From the lowest of low points, he has risen, and returned to the place he loves: the football field. From all accounts, it seems to be somewhat of a miracle that he will start Friday's season opener for the Bears against visiting Fremd.

Less than a year ago, Panico wasn't sure he'd be able to walk again, let alone play football.

“I was in shock,” Pancio said. “I was in denial. I had never been hurt before. I couldn't believe this was happening.”

Four weeks into the 2017 season, in a game against visiting Zion-Benton, on the 12th play from scrimmage, Panico, a junior defensive end for Lake Zurich, hurt his knee.

He was chasing down the quarterback and a teammate fell on him from behind and Panico's left knee violently went in a direction it shouldn't have. He knew right away that something was terribly wrong.

Panico was carted off the field. He did not return.

At the hospital, Panico was in pain. His knee was swelling and swelling and swelling. It wouldn't stop. It kept getting bigger and bigger. It was literally the size of a football.

Doctors feared blood clots, and also that the artery behind his knee could have been severed. A typical knee injury doesn't produce the kind of swelling that Panico was experiencing.

As he was being examined and options were being discussed, Panico was told that he probably wouldn't play football again. Worst-case scenario, he was in danger of not walking again and possibly losing his leg altogether. Yes, losing it.

“I was so worried,” Panico said. “Losing my leg from a football game? I remember sitting there and I couldn't feel my foot and that is a tell-tale sign that there could be something really wrong.”

Doctors kept Panico in an MRI for two hours as they desperately tried to identify the source of the swelling.

The good news after those two hours was that the artery wasn't severed. The bad news was that Pancio's knee and the area around it was essentially obilterated.

The posterior cruciate ligament (PCL), the medial collateral ligament (MCL), the lateral collateral ligament (LCL) and the menicus were all completely torn. The anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) was partially torn. The tibia was fractured and the top of the quad muscle was also torn.

The inordinate amount of swelling was due to the comprehensiveness of Panico's injury. Pretty much everything in his knee was compromised and his body was in all-out panic mode.

“My doctor is one of the best in the area. He's been doing knee surgeries for more than 20 years, countless surgeries each day,” Panico said. “He said he's never seen a worse injury that mine.”

So, to recap: In the last year, Pancio feared that he could lose his leg, and then was told that his knee injury is the worst an experienced surgeon has seen in 20 years.

And we're just warming up.

Once the scare of losing his leg was eliminated, and the extent of the injury was identified, Panico immediately went into “When-can-I-get-back-to-football” mode. He wanted to have surgery right away, to give himself the best chance possible to get back to the field in time for his senior year.

But doctors tabled that enthusiasm quickly.

Panico was told that, due to the severity of his injuries, surgery wasn't a sure thing. It might work, but it was very possible that it wouldn't, particularly not in time to have him ready for the 2018 season. Any surgery that would address all of Panico's issues would probably require at least a year, and more likely two years, of recovery.

Also, there would be no surgery right away anyway. Until his fractured tibia was healed, Panico would not be able to have surgery on his knee.

“They said it was going to be at least a month before I could have surgery,” Panico said. “I was so mad about that stupid tibia. I didn't want to wait a month. It was going to hold me up. I knew the recovery would be tough, and I knew they said it could take a long time. But I didn't think it would take me years. I thought I could do (the rehab) faster. I thought I could have myself ready for football.

“But waiting a month just to get the surgery was just pushing everything back and that would really make getting back in time for football tough. I was so upset.”

“Was” is the key word there. Panico was upset about having to wait for surgery. Turns out waiting was a good thing. A very good thing.

“That ended up being my saving grace,” Panico said. “Waiting that month changed everything.”

And here's where we start thinking about miracles, the other remarkable thing about Panico's year.

Panico's doctors told him that any time someone tears multiple ligaments in the knee, surgery is a must. That's just standard procedure.

But a funny thing happened while Panico was waiting for his tibia to heal.

His ligaments started healing too. All of them. All of that blood that was rushing to the area creating that inordinate amount of swelling was also putting the healing process into hyper-overdrive.

Each time Panico returned to his doctor for a check-up, his doctor was stunned.

“Every time, my ligaments were tighter and a little bit tighter,” Panico said. “He would take pictures and the movement went from extremely loose to tighter and tighter and tighter.

“My doctor told me that he had never seen anything like this. He said, ‘I can't believe what your body is doing and how it is healing.' ”

Panico's body was essentially healing itself. Without surgery. As the natural healing process continued with great success, Panico's doctor began to suggest that surgery could be avoided altogether.

There was a risk, of course, that the natural healing would slow or even stop, but the doctor liked Pancio's chances for a full, non-surgical recovery. And maybe even in time for the 2018 football season.

“Everyone was in awe,” Panico said. “To this day, I am in shock about what I did, about what my body did.”

Of course, once he was able, Panico helped the process along as much as he could.

He was in a wheelchair for awhile at the very beginning, and then he was on crutches. But just two months after his injury, he was walking. About four to five months out, he was running on an anti-gravity machine. At the eight-month mark, he was running on a regular treadmill, and cutting and agility drills began soon after that.

“All I can say is that it was about determination for me,” Panico said. “About not taking ‘no' for an answer.

“Once I realized what was happening with my body, I realized that I can do anything I put my mind to.”

So being ready, completely ready, for his senior season was Goal No. 1 for Panico.

In the meantime, as his body kept healing itself, Panico kept supporting his teammates. Two weeks after his injury, he was on the sidelines in a wheelchair. Then it was on the sidelines with crutches. For the Class 7A championship game in November, Pancio's teammates encouraged him to dress, just so that he could at least take the field in his uniform. He wore his big, bulky knee brace over his pants, and he'll still wear a brace for protection this season as he plays.

“It was so hard not getting to play last year. I was really depressed at first,” Panico said. “Being out for the rest of the season, not being able to play in the state championship game, having to just watch all of that was really hard.

“But it also motivated me too. I have never been more motivated than I am now. I'm still surprised that I was able to get back to the point where I could be a starter for a team that went to the state championship game last year. But that's what I worked so hard for. I wanted to play so bad, and I have a will to win more than anyone.

“I know what it's like to have your season taken from you. I wanted so much to get back so that I could get out there and really make a difference for my team.”

Lake Zurich football coach Luke Mertens says Panico already has made a difference.

His journey has been an inspiration to his friends and teammates and family and coaches.

“His dedication and resolve to coming back for his senior year ... I'm just so proud of him for this,” Mertens said. “And now he's a starter again. He has defied medical odds.”

Now Panico wants to help others do the same.

An A student who is looking at all the Ivy League colleges, Pancio once dreamed about being a high-powered lawyer. After this, he thinks that medicine might be more up his alley.

“I have learned so much about my knee,” Panico said. “My doctor changed my life. I want to be that person in someone's life.

“I think I can help other people.”

By sharing this incredible year-long story of determination and inspiration, Panico is off to a very good start.

Follow Patricia on Twitter: @babcockmcgraw

  Defensive lineman Vinnie Panico defied the medical odds to earn his spot in the Lake Zurich lineup this fall. Patrick Kunzer/
  A scary injury for Lake Zurich's Vinnie Panico has yielded a happy outcome. Patrick Kunzer/
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