If you’ve seen Real Salt Lake VP of Communications and Public Relations, John Genna, in the past few months, chances are you’ve seen his friendly smile and heard his familiar laugh.
If you’ve ever played cards with him you know that he’s more generous with his hand than he should be, and if you’ve worked with him at the Club you’ll know that's even more true when it comes to his time and wisdom.
You’ll have seen him in the pressbox of America First Field, at Zions Bank Real Academy Training Center or on Zoom either cracking a lighthearted joke or asking someone about their day and truly wanting to know.
He takes pride in his work of making the RSL pressbox a welcoming place and helping to foster an enjoyable workplace environment for reporters on the fourth floor balcony of AFF.
“It's like our home,” said Genna. “We want people to feel welcomed in our home. We want them to feel fed, to feel comfortable, to feel just like they're part of the family with us.”
A man doing his job like he’s always done, but it takes extra strength these days. The kind that few will ever have to muster.
The uncertainty Genna faces is gravely different from the one that RSL faces on Decision Day against the Portland Timbers on Sunday. Genna already knows his fate, he just doesn’t know what’s next.
Genna was diagnosed with ALS in July of this year. Also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, ALS is a rare progressive neurological disease that primarily affects voluntary muscle movement.
An awful disease that has no known cure. It’s terminal and it’s all happening rather fast.
Genna is frightened, but he doesn’t want you to feel sorry for him. He wants you to think of him as the same man you already know, the one that takes genuine interest in who you are, who you want to be and only wants to help you get there. That’s how he wants you to think of him.
“John makes me laugh so hard,” said RSL Communications Manager, Meg Van Dyk.
“And those moments are really positive to reflect on but the ones that define our relationship were the difficult times he helped me grow professionally and personally. He’s incredibly kind and generous with his energy. I’ve had great mentors before and I’ve grown to realize over the years just how great of a mentor John is for me.”
When you talk to people around the Club about Genna, there’s a common theme of how people have an acute sense of trust in him, whether that be a communications intern or RSL manager Pablo Mastroeni.
“There's a lot of people in our Club younger than him and older than him that seek his counsel and I think that says a lot about someone to be trusted by 20-year-olds in their first professional job or people that have been in this league for 20 years,” said RSL’s Director of Public Relations, Trey Fitz-Gerald.
“That ability for people to feel immediate connection and trust, that's extraordinary, rare and unique and I think that encapsulates a lot of what John brings.”
The connection Genna has created with people over the years has helped bring a tremendous amount of awareness for ALS since his diagnosis.
Genna’s wife posted a fundraiser on Facebook for the ALS foundation with a goal to raise $200 for ALS, she raised $5000, a testament to all those who care about Genna and his condition.
Mastroeni has been wearing a JG armband on the sidelines during matches and had Genna speak to the team before the Club’s match against FC Cincinnati on September 17. The bond the two have created over leadership and life has only grown as times gone on.
“Unbeknownst to him, a lot of our conversations were carried into the locker room. I think he is a big part of the way I wish to lead and the leader I wish to become,” said Mastroeni.
The next RSL Family Initiative will be at the ALS Association’s walk on October 15 at Sugar House Park. You can register to donate/or join the team following this link. The RSL Foundation will be matching all donations made.
The Club will also be auctioning off jerseys with a specially designed patch that the players will wear during their Decision Day match against Portland on October 9. The proceeds of the auction will be going to ALS research and the Club will be making future donations to the cause as well.
When it comes to the inevitable talk of legacy, those at the Club already know Genna’s warm personality and ability to connect with people will be at the top of the list.
In typical Genna fashion however, the legacy he invisions has nothing to do with himself, and everything to do with others.
“I want my legacy to be that I can impact the research,'' said Genna. “That one day the next person that comes after me and the doctor opens his mouth and says ‘you have ALS’ they don't have that sinking feeling that I had. That's what I want to make my legacy.”
He likened his situation to a game of blackjack, not too dissimilar to the games the man born in Queens, New York used to play in Atlantic City. Genna wants to take that card so that someone else in the future might win.
“My buddies loved being the guy after me. A real blackjack player knows when to take the hit for the rest of the table,” said Genna.
“My buddies would laugh and be like we gotta sit on the other side of Genna. You just take that card. And now I'm just taking this card. I will take this card because I don't want other people to feel this.”
When it comes to the Club he’s poured his heart and soul into for the last five years, he has one strong message.
“Keep loving this team because that love comes back in spades,” said Genna.
“It comes back in spades out on that field. It comes back in spades on gameday in the stands. Keep loving this team because it loves you back. At the Club I just want to be remembered positively, of somebody that was always around here. That’s the only legacy here I want.”
His legacy will be remembered more than positively. At Real Salt Lake, his legacy will be remembered forever.
John is still smiling, he’s still laughing, and he wants you to know that despite what he’s up against, what matters to him is how you’re doing, and that you know he loves you.
This is what it means to be Genna Strong.