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Yale football finds strength in six-year-old teammate Dante Chiappetta

Three months after he was born -- the umbilical cord wrapped twice around his neck -- Dante Chiappetta was declared blind. “If he can’t see by age one, he’ll never see,” said the pediatric ophthalmologist, who abruptly left the room. “We erupted in tears,” the boy’s father said.

But soon Joe and Jeanine Chiappetta began to wonder why Dante squinted in bright sunlight or followed his grandmother’s silver hair as she hovered above his changing table. Why did he find shiny objects -- Mylar balloons, foil wrapping paper -- so enchanting?

By age one, Dante was diagnosed with cerebral palsy but also found to have something called cortical visual impairment: His eyes were otherwise healthy but lacked critical connections from the optic nerve to the brain’s occipital lobe. So his parents resolved to build them. They noticed that TV football -- all reflective helmets and emerald fields -- held Dante rapt. Asked at three what he wanted for Christmas, he replied, “Giants.” Santa brought a Super Bowl highlight DVD of Big Blue.

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Dante is six now. He doesn’t play sports -- he often uses a walker -- but he loves attending his big brother Nate’s flag football games. Last year Joe applied to a nonprofit called Team Impact, which pairs college athletic teams with children facing life-altering illness. After a suspenseful wait, the Chiappettas, who live in North Haven, Conn., learned that Dante was the newest member of the 2014 Yale football team. He was introduced in the players’ lounge on campus. “Dante was reserved at first,” sophomore tight end Jackson Stallings said. “But we watched Yale highlights, and he started to open up.”

In September, when the Bulldogs beat Army for the first win by an Ivy League school over an FBS program since 1986, Dante was on the sideline, swallowed whole by his jersey. (The program lists number 39 as a 3' 5" 65-pounder.) Twice he’s seen senior running back Tyler Varga score five touchdowns, the evolutionary biology major from Ontario -- and likely No. 2 pick in the CFL draft -- bulldozing a path from optic nerve to occipital lobe with every carry.

“I’m an only child,” Varga said. “Being part of a team definitely builds brotherhood, especially at Yale, where family is our core value. When Dante became a member of this team, we said, ‘Dante is one of our brothers now.’ ”

Dante attends weekday practices. On Saturdays he roars in anticipation of the afternoon ahead, with its blazing leaves and glinting sousaphones. Said Joe, “I’ve never seen him this happy.”

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Joe, a process manager for AT&T, calls his son Meatball, but Dante is a meatball hero for the 7–1 Bulldogs. One week, Dante was awarded the lunch pail, given to the hardest-working player in practice. “A big theme of our team has been Compared to What?” Varga said. “If we face adversity, we say, ‘Compared to What?’ Dante is a huge Compared to What? for us.”

Joe and Jeanine met at the Pop-A-Shot machine in a sports bar called Rookies, where Joe and his older brother challenged Jeanine and her friend to a shooting contest, loser buys the beers. “Thirty bucks later,” Joe said, “the girls had won every game.”

He didn’t know Jeanine was a guard on the Sacred Heart Academy basketball team that won the 1992 Connecticut state championship. A fifth-grade teacher, Jeanine has earned a second master’s degree, to teach the visually impaired. Dante is legally blind but attends first grade with sighted classmates, aided by a paraprofessional named Kendra Norup. He recognizes dozens of “sight words” just as he recognizes the faces of Yale teammates.

“The other day at practice he was walking with his walker, and a few of us said, ‘Hi,’ and he just ditched the walker and started running around,” Varga said. It was good training for next June, when Dante will walk up the aisle as the ring bearer in Norup’s wedding.

In the meantime Dante and the Bulldogs have taken their own vow to love each other in sickness and health. “This is a lifelong bond," Stallings said. “Dante and the Chiappetta family will always be a part of this brotherhood.”