Linebacker Goes From Broken Home to Success
As John Margist takes his seat at Heinz Field, he enjoys the sensations associated with a college football Saturday.
The smell of the grass, the taste of tailgate food, the sound of the marching band playing Pitt’s fight song.
Margist settles in and pulls out his portable radio to hear the Panthers’ pregame show. He listens as the announcers break down that day’s opponent.
Eventually, the moment comes that Margist has been waiting for. His younger half-brother, Pitt linebacker Matt Galambos, sprints out of the tunnel in the south corner of the stadium.
Margist, though, has never actually seen Galambos take that field. He has retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that has progressively damaged his retinas and left him legally blind.
When Galambos was in high school, Margist relied on friends and family members sitting near him to keep him updated on what was happening on the field. Now, with the help of his radio, he can keep up just as well as everyone else — sometimes even better.
“I have the earbuds in my ear the whole game so I’m literally telling people (what just happened) sometimes,” Margist said. “They’re going, ‘Is that Matt?’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah,’ because I’m hearing ‘Galambos on the tackle’ in my ear.”
After the games — Margist missed only a couple of home games last year and plans to be at every one this season — Galambos and his brother will join their grandmother and any other family members in town for a bite to eat. Galambos fills everyone in on his view of things from down on the field, where he projects to be the Panthers’ starting middle linebacker this season.
“I’ve got a huge supporting cast in my family,” Galambos said.
Margist’s vision may have left him, but Galambos has been through enough with his older brother to know he will always be watching his back.
Virginia Lux and her husband, James, retired to Florida in 1997 after a life in the center of a big family just outside Philadelphia. Lux tried to make as many trips back to the Philadelphia area as she could to visit her daughter, Julie, and her grandchildren Matt, John and their sister Jeanine.
Galambos has a different father than his two older siblings, but all three grew up together with their mother.
On one trip in September 2000 — just three years after leaving Philadelphia — Lux realized she couldn’t go back to Florida.
Galambos’ mother had been battling drug and alcohol addiction, and at that point the living situation for her three children had become untenable.
“It was a bad environment,” said Galambos, who was just 5 at the time. “My mom was out, making her own decisions and everything.”
Often times, that left John, 14 at the time, as the caretaker, babysitter and, occasionally, chef.
That is, until Lux stepped in.
“I knew that I couldn’t go back to Florida and rest and leave them,” Lux said. “I just couldn’t do it. I was worried about them. So I called my husband, I talked to my husband and we agreed on it.”
Lux and her husband moved back north and took the three kids into their home. They gained legal custody a year later.
At first it was a rough transition for Galambos, who was used to minimal — if any — adult supervision.
“I didn’t really like it just because (my grandmother) was such a strong authoritarian figure,” he said.
Galambos, an introverted young child, would often keep his head down and eyes on the floor, so Lux would have to bribe him with treats just to get him to look up.
“Just to get a kiss from him I had to give him raisins!” she said. “That’s how much he liked me.”
As Galambos warmed to his new living situation, it helped that he had his older siblings. Whenever Lux would lay down the law with Matt, Jeanine and John were there to tell him it would be OK.
It might not have been a traditional upbringing, but that didn’t make them any less of a family.
“I think it’s like any other brother and sister growing up in a regular household,” Galambos said. “My grandma was basically my mother figure, my grandpa was my father figure. There was never really any difference than my friends with their mom and dad.”
It also helped that Galambos started getting into sports. He took up basketball at 6 and football at 8. Even though he was too big to play with kids his age and got beat up his first few years, it helped him find his niche at school.
And once he stepped on a football field, it didn’t take Margist long to realize his little brother had the potential to be something special.
The cruelest aspect of retinitis pigmentosa is its creeping nature. It starts at the very fringe of sight, taking away peripheral vision. Then it advances, like a slowly closing tunnel.
Margist, nine years older than his younger brother, played football in high school and grew up loving the sport. He went to as many of Galambos’ games as he could, from Pop Warner until high school.
The bonds forged back to when Margist had to watch over his younger siblings held strong, even though Margist went to live with an aunt and uncle in a better school district shortly after the three left their mother’s house. He still wanted to see Galambos play as much as he could.
“In his basement, he has pictures and articles on his brother,” Lux said. “He’s just so proud.”
Once Galambos earned a starting job as a sophomore at The Haverford School, that was when Margist knew his little brother had big-time potential.
In a cruel twist of timing, that was also when Margist’s slowly deteriorating vision reached a point where it became difficult to see his brother on the field.
“It was definitely frustrating at the beginning,” Margist said. “Luckily, playing football and being a huge football fan myself, I can use all my other senses to kind of figure out what’s going on.”
Lux never let her grandson feel sorry for himself, and now Margist has a degree from West Chester University, a job working in government contracts and is engaged to be married next year, with Galambos as his co-best man.
“The amount of respect I have for him now, how he gets around, does everything that normal people still do with his disability, is just unreal,” Galambos said. “I have no words for it, how he gets by each day.
“If he can get around every day, (football) is nothing really.”
When Lux saw her grandson run onto Heinz Field wearing his No. 47 jersey in Pitt’s opener against Florida State last season, it was the culmination of everything he and his family had gone through to that point.
Lux played a major role in her grandson’s recruiting process. He had offers to attend Ivy League schools and Lux tried to emphasize academics as much as she could. When Pitt offered, Galambos felt he had found the right mix of academics and high-level football.
It didn’t hurt that the Panthers coaches did a great job winning over his grandmother. Galambos said Pitt was the only school recruiting him that sent his family a note of condolences when his grandfather passed away in August 2012.
“That was really touching,” Galambos said. “She loves all the coaches.”
Galambos played in every game for the Panthers as a freshman last season and figures to be a major part of their defense this year.
“I think he’s more than ready,” coach Paul Chryst said last week. “I like his approach to it. He did a lot in the summer to prepare himself for it. I like the direction he’s going with it, certainly.”
For Lux, there’s no joy greater than seeing her grandson on the field.
“There’s no words to describe it,” she said. “Just seeing him walk on that field at the first game last year was just unbelievable. I’m just so proud of him.”
Galambos said he does talk to his mother from time to time and she’s doing better than she was 14 years ago. He admits that he wouldn’t be where he is today without the influence of his unique upbringing.
“It was a big adjustment for him, but he had his sister and brother to lean on,” Lux said. “Eventually, him and I just became closer and closer and closer. Everything worked out.”