Their romance was born out of the darkest times at Penn State.
John Tecce and Kayla Nakonechni met outside Gate A at Beaver Stadium, but they weren’t camping out for a football game.
They were attending Joe Paterno’s funeral procession, looking on as the late Penn State icon made his final trip down Curtin Road in a blue hearse.
“Our first conversation was her teasing me for bringing a bag of baby carrots as a snack,” Tecce, the former Paternoville — now Nittanyville — president, said. “It was love at first sight and we were dating very shortly after.”
Back then, Nakonechni was just a regular Penn State student among the 40,000. Sure, to Tecce she was everything in the world – and she loved Penn State more than anything — but tens of thousands of Penn State students and alumni didn’t yet know her name and her inspiring story. They would soon, though, for all the worst reasons.
Nakonechni loved THON. She first got involved as a dancer in 2013, raising $13,000 independently to earn her spot on the Bryce Jordan Center floor for 46 hours as a dancer.
Less than a year later, she saw the world’s largest student-run philanthropic organization from the other side, not as a supporter, but as a beneficiary.
What started with small twitches and spasms turned into multiple seizures in 2013, which turned out to be stage-four astrocytoma, a form of brain cancer. It was then that Nakonechni truly felt the love and support that THON embodies.
“Its unreal almost, you never expect something like that to happen,” Nakonechni told Onward State in 2014. “Being picked to dance is a blessing in itself, and knowing that this is what I raised money for is a nice reminder.”
She underwent cancer treatment at Penn State Hershey, which is of course the hospital supported by the Four Diamonds Fund. The student organization’s relationship with the fund dates back to 1977, and THON has raised $127.9 million since its inception in 1973.
“Kayla loved THON above anything else and experienced it as a spectator, committee member, dancer, and Four Diamonds beneficiary,” Tecce said. “The love and dedication that she gave THON was returned ten-fold when she became a Four Diamonds child, especially from her adopted organizations, first Nittany Nation and now the Penn State Blue Band.”
Thanks to her adopted organizations, family members, and friends, there were constant reminders of THON for Nakonechni as she battled the vicious disease. With her motto — Life is tough, but I’m tougher — in mind, #TeamKayla became a viral movement on social media and throughout campus. It was almost impossible to be a Penn State student with no awareness of Nakonechni and her inspiring story.
Through branded t-shirts sold in State College and a massive Beaver Stadium sign hung by Tecce and his Paternoville friends, it was hard to miss the #TeamKayla hashtag — and she loved that.
“When time came for surgery and treatment she only wanted to go to Penn State Hershey. At her request, her family and I wore THON shirts every day she spent in the hospital after that,” Tecce said. “She wanted to be surrounded by THON as much as possible.”
Nakonechni passed away this week, but her memories and her story live on. If you ask Tecce, she was “the most genuinely happy and friendly person I’ve ever met.”
“It was so easy to love her, even for those who only knew of her from following her story the past two years,” he said.
The Penn State community did love her, even those who weren’t lucky enough to meet her. Every news article or Facebook post about her status was met with a deluge of motivating comments, prayers, and positive thoughts sent Nakonechni’s way.
“Kayla loved Penn State so much, and somehow Penn State found a way to love her back even more. The support we’ve received since she was diagnosed in August 2013 and through her passing this week has been nothing short of incredible,” Tecce said. “She knew this was the place for her the first night of her freshman year when she called her mom excitedly saying so. Little did she know just how true that was.”
With all that support comes a long list of people and organizations to thank for standing alongside Nakonechni through her hard-fought battle with cancer.
Tecce’s list of organizations includes the THON community, Nittanyville, Penn State Athletics, the Blue Band, the State College media community, including the staff at Valley Magazine, which made Nakonechni its cover girl last fall.
His list of individuals includes Dr. John Waters, Michael Pilato — who put her on his Heister Street mural — Loren Crispell, Jay and Sue Paterno, Erin O’Leary, P.J. Mullen, Dr. Michael Glantz, Dr. Frank Gilliam, Dr. Glen Digwood, and the staff, nurses, and doctors at Penn State Hershey Medical Center.
So what drove Nakonechni to keep fighting? You might think it’s that list of people above, the ones who supported her every step of the way. And to some degree, it probably was. But if you ask Tecce, it was love.
“I think she was driven by love. The love she had for her family, for me, for her roommates and friends, her dog, Penn State football, dance…whatever it was, she pushed herself to absorb as much of it as possible,” he said.
In the wake of Nakonechni’s passing, her family is asking that donations be made to THON in lieu of flowers or food or anything else for them. You can donate by going to http://donate.thon.org/ and selecting the Blue Band from the list of general organizations.
A viewing will be held Sunday from 3 to 7 p.m. at Lawrence Gabriel Funeral Homes at 2 Hospital St. in Carbondale, Pa. The funeral is scheduled for Monday at 11 a.m. at the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Carbondale.