If you saw Real Salt Lake VP of Communications and Public Relations, John Genna, in the past few months, there’s no question you remember his friendly smile and heard his familiar laugh. Even if that smile and that laugh came while laying on a hospital bed.
If you had ever played cards with him you knew that he was more generous with his hand than he should be, and if you worked with him at the Club you know that’s even more true when it came to his time and wisdom.
While working at Real Salt Lake, you’d 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 took pride in his work to make the RSL pressbox a welcoming place and help 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 who until the very end was doing his job like he’s always done, even when it took an extra strength that few will ever have to muster.
Genna already knew his fate, he just didn’t know what was next.
Genna was diagnosed with ALS in July of last 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 was frightened, but didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for him. He wanted you to think of him as the same man you already knew, the one that takes genuine interest in who you are, who you want to be and only wanted to help you get there.
That’s how he wanted 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 had 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 Vice President of Communications, 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 created with people over the years has helped bring a tremendous amount of awareness for ALS since his diagnosis.
During many home matches, you’ll have seen Mastroeni wearing a JG armband or Genna Strong t-shirt on the sidelines. He even had Genna speak to the team before the Club’s match against FC Cincinnati last year. The bond the two created over leadership and life only grew as time went 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.
RSL hosted its second consecutive ALS awareness night earlier this year against the LA Galaxy. Last year the Club participated in the ALS Association’s annual walk. Additionally, the team wore dedicated “Genna Strong” patches on their jerseys for RSL’s 2022 Decision Day victory over the Portland Timbers. The kits themselves were then auctioned off with the proceeds going to ALS research. The two initiatives combined to raise $10,000 to be donated on behalf of Genna and Real Salt Lake.
This year the Club has been selling “Genna Strong” t-shirts at the team store with five dollars of each sale being donated to Project Main Street, an ALS charity.
When it comes to the inevitable talk of John Genna’s 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 envisioned had 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 wanted 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 came to the Club he poured his heart and soul into for the last six years, he had 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 somewhere smiling, laughing, and wanting you to know that despite what he was up against, what matters to him now is how you’re doing, and that you know he still loves you.
This is what it means to be Genna Strong.
Rest in Peace, John Genna.