|Rachael Caruso, wife of St. Thomas football coach Glenn Caruso, receiving chemo treatments.
Caruso family photo
By Adam Turer
The players on this year’s St. Thomas roster have never been in this position, needing a win in their Week 11 rivalry against Bethel in order to secure a playoff berth.
This season has been anything but typical for the Tommies. It has been a season of battling unexpected adversity. It is only fitting that one more menacing opponent stands between St. Thomas and the familiar goal of playoff opportunity.
The challenges on the field pale in comparison to the victories the program has achieved off the field since the 2017 season ended.
Nearly a year ago, Rachael Caruso was diagnosed with Stage 3 rectal cancer. Two days after being diagnosed, she cheered as her husband coached his team to a first-round playoff win over Eureka. On Nov. 21, she addressed the Tommies in the locker room and broke the news to Glenn Caruso’s players.
“A year ago, sitting in the locker room when she came in and addressed the team herself, that was a really eye-opening situation. She’s battling for her life and we’re worried about a football game. It put things into perspective,” said senior linebacker Adam Brant. “A lot of players have gained more perspective that it’s all about the relationships we build, more than the wins and losses. It’s about coming together as a team and forming those lifelong relationships. She’s been an incredible influence on our program and will be a lifelong influence on all of us.”
“A lot of players have gained more perspective that it’s all about the relationships we build, more than the wins and losses. It’s about coming together as a team and forming those lifelong relationships. She’s been an incredible influence on our program and will be a lifelong influence on all of us.”
— Adam Brant, St. Thomas linebacker
As the Tommies prepare for their showdown with the Royals, Rachael Caruso is now cancer-free. She is still dealing with the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation, and still recovering from two surgeries. Each day is still a challenge, but it is also a blessing.
“It’s been an awesome year, all things considered. Being that we had to go through it, it has made us stronger as a family, more mentally tough, made us stronger in our faith,” said Glenn Caruso. “We were able to take some tragic, horrible news and turn it into a positive that our family, children, and team can learn from.”
In his 11 seasons at the helm, Caruso’s teams have made the playoffs eight times. A win on Saturday would almost assuredly give them their ninth appearance in 11 years. The importance of postseason success has not in any way been diminished by the off-field experiences of the past year. But, the chance to play beyond Week 11 is colored by the team’s heightened perspective and appreciation for life’s limited opportunities.
“We talk a lot about opportunities and not allowing mental weaknesses to creep in. We talk about every opportunity as a blessing and that our time is not infinite. We are very clear that at the end of the day, everything is going to end,” said Glenn. “While we’re here, what is the best way to leave a legacy that we’re going to be proud of, that will live on after we’re gone. We understand finite opportunities better than most other programs and most other teams that we’ve had here. I can say that as a coach until I’m blue in the face, but when Rachael comes into the locker room and explains how these truths are manifesting in our lives, it really hits home.”
The players, especially the team’s 19 seniors, feel their time as college football players winding down. They trailed Gustavus Adolphus, 13-0, last week before rallying in the fourth quarter on the road behind backup quarterback Ronnie Jones to keep their playoff hopes alive with a 14-13 win. No player on the St. Thomas roster has missed the playoffs as a Tommie; no player on the Bethel roster has made the playoffs as a Royal. College football playoff opportunities are fleeting, something the Tommies do not take for granted despite their sustained success.
“It’s something different that no player on this team has been a part of. We’ve got to play the game like it could be our last. It’s going to be a fun one, especially against Bethel which is a big rival for us,” said Brant of this week’s win-and-in scenario. “All of our seniors don’t want this to be our last week. We know what’s at hand. We’re in playoff mode now. We’re excited to attack this week. We’ve been there before. But we’ve also never not been there. We don’t want this to be our first time not making it. We’re hungry to go out there and get it. Their seniors have never been, so they’ll be wanting it just as bad.”
The loss to St. John’s on Oct. 13 has forced the Tommies into playoff mode early. This has been a year of embracing challenges with enthusiasm for the Caruso and St. Thomas family. Much like there is a healthy pressure to win games on Saturdays, the family has tackled cancer with confidence and affirmations.
|The Caruso family in 2015, with then-senior offensive lineman David Simmet, on the Tommies' offseason overseas trip to Milan.
Caruso family photo
“There’s no question that this has been the most stressful and tumultuous year that we’ve endured as a family without a doubt, but that’s life. I told our staff the morning after we found out [Rachael’s diagnosis] that I’m truly looking forward to it. It is yet another opponent that needs to be battled. It’s the nastiest of all the opponents because the most is at stake. We have never been a family, team, or program that shies away from adversity,” said Glenn. “There’s a lot of reasons to be excited [for Saturday], not the least of which is what we have on our side is that our kids understand what is at stake. We understand the finality of anything in life. That was on display in a very strong way in the second half of our game last week. When there is time on the clock, we stay positive and work hard.”
The football coach’s mentality helped him as he became his wife’s home caretaker in addition to being her biggest supporter and cheerleader. After Rachael’s surgery this summer, Glenn would pack her open wound each day before heading off to camp. He updated her CaringBridge diary while she was in surgery.
“He’s an excellent home nurse. I will say that I get pretty squeamish, but he was always the one to put me all back together. He comforted me and he was a very excellent caretaker,” said Rachael. “Glenn was there to embrace me and walk alongside me and remind me that it is hard and tough and doesn’t feel good, but promise that it’s going to get better. What kept me going was my faith and the support of my husband. I think Glenn is a pretty great coach, but he is an even better caretaker and husband.”
When Rachael had to stay home while the team traveled to Italy and Ireland in the spring, the Tommies players helped Glenn look after their three children, daughter Anna and sons Cade and Tru. When that trip kept the Carusos an ocean apart from one another on their wedding anniversary, all 45 players on the trip made sure to send Rachael text and video messages wishing her a happy anniversary. It is not just the current players who have been there to show their support. Their parents, former players, parents of former players, and families of assistant coaches have been there for the Carusos. They have not had to cook a meal for themselves in the past year. Rachael has a box containing thousands of cards received from well-wishers.
“The outreach and outpouring has been humbling and amazing,” said Glenn. “For two weeks, the people that watched after our kids besides me were our players. That built a bond that would be impossible to replicate if we were not in this situation.”
Parents of Tommies players who have gone through similar treatment have been a valuable resource and comfort for Rachael. There is no distinction between the Tommies family and the Caruso family.
“The way that we have built this program has been done with Rachael being every bit as crucial a pillar as myself. When we took this job, we decided as a family that we were going to make this school and program part of our life,” said Glenn. “I think it’s important to understand how strongly she and I have believed that we want to dovetail this program into our family. I think the message that she gave last year, I probably gave a hundred talks, and I found it tremendously appropriate that the most important and the best one was given by the coach’s wife and not the coach.”
At first, she was nervous about addressing 140 young men who were locked in on preparing for their second-round playoff meeting with Berry. Her words made a lasting impact.
|The Caruso family is all smiles following the Tommies' win at Concordia-Moorhead in September.
Caruso family photo
“I sincerely wanted them to know that I was going to be OK. We didn’t want to hide anything from them, but we didn’t want them to feel sorry for me,” said Rachael. “If anything, I told them to work harder than you’ve ever worked before. Do it because you can. When you get knocked down, you better get back up and fight even more.”
Rachael drew inspiration from Tommies players. She thought of former backup quarterback Dylan Andrew, who suffered an injury that forced him to switch to defense upon his return. He then thrived at linebacker.
“I remember telling him ‘There’s a reason why this happened, we don’t know what it is today, but someday we’ll know.’ He moved to defense and just had a ball,” said Rachael. “It’s a blessing, it’s just how you approach it.
“Over the years, we’ve had an ‘embrace the thorns’ mentality. I’ve taken that approach. It’s easy to enjoy the good times and smell the beautiful flowers, but the bad stuff will define you and how you learn and grow from those times. God has showered us with so much goodness and grace and love. Cancer is not fun and does not feel good and there are still days I don’t feel good, but I really wouldn’t trade this experience because it’s helped me grow as a person, it’s helped me grow in my faith, it’s helped us grow as a family.”
“I told them to work harder than you’ve ever worked before. Do it because you can. When you get knocked down, you better get back up and fight even more.”
— Rachael Caruso
It is not lost on the family that Rachael’s treatments began in December after the 2017 season concluded, and that she had her last surgery in August before the 2018 season began. The Tommies have made it a point to check in on Rachael and Glenn and their children throughout the season, either at practice or just dropping into their coach’s office during the week.
“Rachael Caruso is a big deal to our program. Our program wouldn’t be where it is without her and Coach Caruso makes that very clear. She always gives us advice and motivation,” said Brant. “She’s told us to play and live like we were dying. It’s way more than football. She’s battling a fight bigger than football. She’s such a strong and influential part of our program. We take what she says to heart.”
Rachael admits that she is a bit more peaceful during games now, although she is still a very passionate and vocal Tommies supporter. As much as the family’s perspective has been altered in the past year, the focus is still on taking care of business on the field on Saturday. Not just for the accompanying playoff berth, but as a reward for all of the hard work and dedication and extra effort that the coaching staff and players have devoted to this season.
It’s easy to get excited for a rivalry week, especially when the stakes are higher than usual. But no matter the result on Saturday, after the final horn Glenn Caruso will shake hands with the Royals staff and players, then embrace Rachael and their children.
“More importantly than our players worrying about another team or another week, I simply want them to play the best they can, with joy in their heart and care for each other. If we do that, I’m going to be happy,” he said. “There’s no doubt that we’re changed forever, and I like to believe that we’re changed for the better.
“The No. 1 thing is that I get to walk this journey next to my wife.”