Panico takes starring, long-distance role in healthy choices

Updated 2/1/2018 8:56 PM
  • In his debut film "From The Ground Up," former Libertyville football player Santino Panico chronicles, among other things, his participation in the 2016 New York City Marathon.

    In his debut film "From The Ground Up," former Libertyville football player Santino Panico chronicles, among other things, his participation in the 2016 New York City Marathon.

  • Libertyville's Santino Panico eludes Oswego's Adrian Pyneburg for a long gain in the fourth quarter of the Wildcats' 28-21 loss in double overtime in the 2003 Class 7A state title game.

    Libertyville's Santino Panico eludes Oswego's Adrian Pyneburg for a long gain in the fourth quarter of the Wildcats' 28-21 loss in double overtime in the 2003 Class 7A state title game. Daily Herald File Photo/November 2003

As he approached Mile 21 in the New York City Marathon, his body was quitting. Santino Panico was only strides away from being finished.

He had torn his hamstring five weeks before the race and, now, he couldn't curl his legs. His right leg had stiffened. He stood, barely moving, on a bridge going into the Bronx and spotted a gentleman draped in a Puerto Rican flag cheering on runners.

Panico asked for help.

"I said, 'I can't bend my leg. And if I don't start running now, I'm done,' " Panico said.

Bend his leg? Panico wasn't pulling the gentleman's leg.

The man, initially surprised by the runner's unusual request, obliged. Panico started running again and completed the 26.2-mile race in 3 hours, 43 minutes.

He finished because he had to finish. "Finishing," after all, had become symbolic to him. He was living his own personal metaphor.

"It's one step to the next," he said, fully aware of the importance of that mind set.

In Los Angeles in early December, Panico premiered his documentary film, "From The Ground Up." An all-state football player as a high school senior for the 2003 Libertyville football team that played in the Class 7A championship game, he produced, wrote, directed and edited the film about vegan athletes. He also narrates it and stars in it along with several other athletes who eat a plant-based diet (no meat or dairy). Included is fellow Libertyville graduate Baggio Husidic, who plays for Major League Soccer's Los Angeles Galaxy.

Completing his debut film, what Panico called a passion project, took 4½ years.

"This movie even getting done is incredible," said Panico, whose film had a one-night showing at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago on Jan. 2 and is now available on I-Tunes, Amazon and Google Play. "It's a testament to a lot of people believing in me. ... I had a vision, I had something I wanted to say, and that it was important."

The marathon started around 2010.

While sitting in his bed in New York City after a long night of traveling, with class in the morning, Panico, who had already been vegan for a few years, stared at the books on his shelf. There were books about his sports heroes (Walter Payton, Rocky Marciano, Joe Montana), his other heroes (Jane Goodall, Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Einstein), vegan cook books, books about environmental catastrophes.

His eyes then scanned at his Blu-rays and DVDs, which were mostly documentaries.

"I said to myself, 'I think I got something here. I love the environment. I love food -- my family's Italian. It's part of my culture -- and I love sports,' " said Panico, who was working full-time and pursuing his master's degree in Environmental Conservation Education and Management from New York University. "What's more applicable than sports? You can run a parallel in life. It gave me the foundation to fight for everything I believe in. I know about overcoming in a sport, therefore I know I can overcome anything in my professional life. It's just a matter of applying my will."

So then the work began for the 20-something-year-old whose college football career fizzled out after one year at Nebraska. He eventually graduated from Arizona State University with a degree in Sustainability with an emphasis on Environmental Policy and Governance.

Said Panico: "I figured, 'OK, what don't I like about the vegan world? Well, I don't like that it's cultlike and it's very dogmatic in thinking. So I don't want to make an expose documentary.' I just wanted to do something that was inspiring, that's a journey from Point A to Point Z, and the middle is what happened."

Panico's family owns an Italian restaurant. He grew up eating pasta, meatballs, sausage, prosciutto, pepperoni. He never planned to jam veganism down anybody's throat, so to speak. He focused on the "why."

He then had to figure out how to write a treatment, develop a website, chase the money to make his film. Nothing could have prepared him for the years that followed.

"I didn't want to tell people they were wrong for eating meat," Panico said. "I just wanted to make something that made people think and inspire people to live healthier lives."

In "From The Ground Up," Panico and his crew hit the ground running, traveling all over the country to visit the film's subjects. Besides Husidic, they include ex-NFL wide receiver Griff Whalen, former Olympic wrestler Chris Campbell, professional climber and wingsuit flyer Steph Davis and ultra distance runner Scott Jurek.

Husidic, who graduated from Libertyville two years after Panico, grew up on a farm in Eastern Europe eating dairy and meat. He went vegan about five years ago and credits the change for helping him sustain his soccer career.

"The first thing I noticed was my sleep, and the second thing I noticed was my cramps (in my calves) went away in about a week," Husidic said. "As soon as I got rid of the high-saturated fat, I was playing 90 minutes every single game, no problem.

"Think about it. When you have a big meal before you go to bed, instead of your body detoxing, your body's digesting the meal for the next 5-6 hours. A plant-based diet has raw enzymes in it, so you digest in 15 minutes."

Making his film became as challenging to Panico as committing to veganism.

During the middle of the project, Panico's director of photography was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer and died three months later. Panico put the project on hold for eight months.

"I wasn't going to finish it," he said.

Then in the spring of 2005, boxing fans Panico, his brothers and his dad flew to Las Vegas for the Floyd Mayweather Jr. vs. Manny Pacquiao fight. In the hotel room, Panico had a talk with his dad, who had some tough love for his son. After Panico transferred from Nebraska, his dad told him he thought he would never play football again.

His dad was right.

"He said (in the hotel room), 'If it kills you, you're going to finish that movie,' " Panico said.

It might have been the hardest punch in Vegas that weekend. Panico headed back to New York more determined than ever to complete his film.

There were more obstacles ahead, however. As Panico worked tirelessly to wrap up his documentary, he says a major Hollywood executive producer/director was backing another movie with a similar message. Distribution of Panico's film was being hampered.

It happened, though. Panico finished his movie and, fittingly, the end didn't go smoothly. Near the end of the film, Panico is shown completing the 2016 New York City Marathon. What isn't shown is how Panico helped his best friend in New York, Brian, finish the race. Brian, who worked on the film for free as a production assistant, started cramping and became lightheaded about Mile 16.

Despite Brian insisting that Panico continue the race without him, Panico wouldn't leave his friend. He grabbed Brian's arm, threw it over his shoulder and started running. Nine miles later, they finished, together.

"If I left him behind, it's all for nothing," Panico said. "It was his first full marathon. It meant the world to him."

A year later, his hamstring torn, Panico finished the marathon again. Like his movie, he was doing it, even if it killed him.

"The only reason I was able finish that," Panico said, "was because of last year's lesson."

It's the stuff that only Hollywood -- or Santino Panico -- could create.

• Follow Joe on Twitter: @JoeAguilar64

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