A trying weekend in Williamsport

More news about: Lycoming
Lycoming remembered its fallen warrior the day of the national quarterfinals.
Photo by Pat Coleman, D3sports.com

By Pat Cummings

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — Snow fell throughout the Mid-Atlantic region from Thursday through Saturday, dumping the white stuff from Virginia to Pennsylvania and on into the Northeast. Fans from both Lycoming and Bridgewater braved the elements to arrive in Williamsport for the NCAA quarterfinal contest.

The Lycoming grounds crew worked through the night on Friday in an attempt to salvage playing conditions. But with a large mound of ice in the center of the field and the surface blanketed with snow, the NCAA made a decision to postpone the contest until Sunday.

Few at David Person Field that morning know of the deteriorating condition of Ricky Lannetti.

The senior from Philadelphia practiced with the Warriors on Tuesday and began to feel ill on Wednesday. Sean Hennigar, Lannetti’s high school and collegiate teammate spoke of his dear friend’s rapid physical depreciation to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

“It started with coughing and sneezing, then he went to throwing up,” said the fellow senior receiver. “Then his legs started killing him. We thought it was because he was dehydrated. He kept saying he was going to try to play. Then the pain got so bad he could barely walk."

Media arrive sporadically at the press box on Saturday morning to learn that no game was to be played. The absence of a security guard with a list of media parking passes and credentials outside the stadium were, in retrospect, a sign.

A small, misnamed construction vehicle, known as “The Hustler” scurries to remove snow from the field. The plow on the front slowly and methodically displaced the snow from the field and onto the sidelines. Overall, the process takes about two hours. A tractor fitted with a large, rotating brush buffs the field, spraying the remaining snow and ice, along with portions of dirt and grass, off the field. The result is a patterned grid of solid earth.

NCAA committee representative Debbie Warren speaks to the media at midday from the Person Field press box, defending the decision to delay the game. While the game could be played after a delay of about 90 minutes, the condition of the field warranted a postponement in an effort to save catastrophic injury to a player. There are no major injuries reported at the conclusion of Sunday’s game, a testament to the tireless work of the maintenance staff and volunteers.

Jerry Girardi, an assistant coach and son of Lycoming head coach Frank Girardi, wanders the press box with his two sons. The younger Girardi speaks of the game and a desire to play. He seemed anxious to get his alma mater’s squad out on the field, almost not knowing what to do with the time afforded by the unanticipated delay.

D3football.com publisher Pat Coleman takes up shop in Lycoming’s athletic department offices. Two computers in the office play the broadcasts of other playoff games, piercing the still of the room. Frank Girardi walks in and exchanges pleasantries as Girardi inquired about the score of the other games. Despite the audio playing off of two computers, the second all-time winningest active coach in Division III asks if people wanted the television on.

Without a response, Lyco’s coach of 32 seasons tunes into Syracuse’s rout of Notre Dame. “Get some background noise in here,” he says as broadcasters from the games at RPI and Mount Union blared in the office.

Browsing the Post Patterns section of the website at 2:43 p.m., Coleman notices a post from “WidenerFan.” The message was brief, saying only that Lannetti was hospitalized in the intensive care unit of a Williamsport hospital and that he was praying for a recovery.

The comments are stunning. Girardi emerges from the office two minutes after they appear.

When asked of Lannetti’s condition, Girardi responds that the situation was “not good.” He has just come from the hospital and reported that the medical professionals attending to the well-liked and much-respected leader of his team had no idea as to what was attacking Lannetti’s body. The head coach can't speculate as to whether the condition was viral or bacterial. Girardi knows at the time Lannetti was not responding to medical treatment.

A glazed appearance over his face, Girardi goes on to talk about how important Lannetti’s character was to his team. “Everybody keys off of him,” says Girardi, “he works harder than anybody else. The young guys would try to emulate him.”

Bridgewater comes to Lycoming’s Lamade Gymnasium for a walk-through at 3 p.m. Girardi leaves the office to speak with Eagles coach, Mike Clark. Lannetti’s condition isn’t discussed. As the Eagles practice, more Lycoming players began to gather at the fieldhouse, some sitting in the same outer office, watching the game on the television that no one had yet paid any attention to. Coaches file in and out of Girardi’s office, some would close the door, others did not. The local newspaper beat writer stops by to catch up with Girardi.

He is satisfied after 10 minutes and left, not knowing Lannetti’s condition, now posted online. Girardi never mentions Lannetti’s condition, and leaves to return to the hospital.

Bridgewater’s practice hour comes to a close and the hallway outside of the gymnasium filled with Lycoming players. The typical noise generated by 50 or so football players was muted. Those who sit in the offices make reference to Lannetti’s illness, few seeming to be aware of the severity of the situation. Warriors trainer Frank Neu, who had been with Lannetti on Friday, appeared pale. He picks up two pieces of paper from the office and quickly departed.

The coaching staff debates briefly how to inform the players of Lannetti's deteriorating condition. "You should tell them (yourself)," one of the assistant coaches tells Girardi. The coach agrees, saying he would address the team at the beginning, and then start their practice.

While some players are throwing the ball around, warming up, many stand on the sidelines or sit in the gymnasium bleachers.

Girardi points out Tim Schmidt, who Girardi says is one of Lannetti’s close friends, sitting in the bleachers. Schmidt stares at nothing in particular, waiting for practice to start.

Throughout the course of the practice, coaches continue to file through the athletic office. Lycoming’s first-year men’s basketball coach Don Friday sits in his office, chatting with one of his players. If he's aware of the situation, he isn't saying anything publicly.

A Lyco football parent brings four tomato pies from a restaurant in Hazleton, part of the typical postgame meal for the players, but the players left two untouched.

Calls come in for the head coach throughout the day, often answered by one of his assistants. The local reporter, now having read the story posted on the Web site, calls Girardi for confirmation, and alerts other members of the Lycoming athletic department, some of whom had not been aware of the grave nature of Lannetti’s condition.

Following the practice, Girardi returns to his office and met with all of the assistant coaches. Plans were made to attend a 7 p.m. Catholic mass where Lannetti will be prayed for. Girardi asks his assistants to notify the team and said doctors had summoned a medical flight to take Lannetti to Temple University Hospital in Lannetti’s hometown of Philadelphia. Girardi’s opinion on Lannetti’s status worsens by the hour.

Lannetti died at 7:36 p.m.

Less than an hour later, WidenerFan posts again on the message board. Without specifically saying that he had passed away, Lannetti's friend's post says, in essence, that Lannetti has lost his battle.

Confirmation comes from Lycoming officials an hour later, once the team is notified. Returning from an interview with Clark and without access to a computer, Coleman phones D3football.com broadcaster Gordon Mann and asks him to post a message that the Web site had received the official word.

Lycoming quarterback Phil Mann notes that some of Lannetti’s friends were at the hospital either at the time of his death or shortly thereafter. “We were all in the hospital last night, got to see his family, got to see him one last time.”

The following morning, the lack of noise from David Person Field is itself audible. Mann sits in the locker room, pondering the empty seat next to him. “Ricky’s locker is right next to mine. Before the game, we turn the lights off and listen to music, get focused. I’m always real nervous before a game, but I would always look over to Rick and get that confidence for the game. Ricky would give that to me.”

Lannetti had been Mann’s favorite target this season, catching 70 of Mann’s passes, more than any other Warrior in school history.

Lycoming cheerleaders honored Ricky Lannetti's memory.
Lycoming cheerleaders honored Ricky Lannetti's memory.
Photo by Dick Hostrander, Williamsport OnLine

The sun toys with David Person Field during warmups. A man with a shovel carves “19” in the snowy hillside surrounding the field, then crowned the number with a pair of perfectly formed snow angels. The Warriors emerge from the locker room with the number 19 visible everywhere: arm sleeves, shoe tape, helmets, eye black. Lycoming cheerleaders take athletic tape and framed “#19” to the back of their jackets. As the crowd stands for a moment of silent reverence in memory of Lannetti, the sun breaks through the clouds.

“I had him on my mind all game,” says Mann afterwards, “they had those 19s on the hills, in the snow. We have this play called ‘club right’ where we put Ricky in the backfield and just say, ‘Ricky – go,’ it’s just a play for him. It was tough to call that play (for someone else) in the huddle.”

Mann finds Hennigar on a narrow crossing pattern early in the first quarter for a touchdown. For Hennigar, the score is a communication from Lannetti to his long-time friend. “I spent all last night with his mother and she told me I was gonna score for him. I can’t explain the jolt I got, the feeling of joy that went through me.”

Hennigar takes the football with his left hand and straightens his body towards the now-clear skies, stretching the ball towards the heavens.

After the thrilling, though disappointing, conclusion to the game, the extended Lycoming family gathers outside of the Warriors locker room, tears flowing. Parents embrace their Warrior sons. Girlfriends console their boyfriends. Those who speak do so in muted tones.

Girardi appears at the postgame press conference with five of his players. Mann breaks down and Girardi chokes up from the emotion. Girardi’s closing thoughts are above just the game or Lannetti’s death, but all encompassing of the values and the character of his players.

“I just think that it shows the character and the courage, the courage under fire, of just what these guys are made of.

“Anybody that starts saying that the youth of America is going downhill, send them into my locker room,” he says, his voice quivering. “Send them in.”

WidenerFan provides his final thoughts on the message board.

“Hey Buddy, I made that trip up!

It’s real hard now although, I know your still around no matter how much snow.

I'm back home now with the ‘fellas, good friend, knowing in the end our paths will cross again.

Your my man Rick, built with a heart strong as steel, built with courage, along with humbleness and zeal.

I love you good friend, you make us all so proud, you are a legend old buddy, just ask your rowdy crowd.

We all miss you Ricky, leaving us with nostalgic memories for a while, but with you in our hearts there will always be a smile.

No pity, no shame, no one to blame, just your lovely voice that says, "you know the name".

There was really no answer and God was not ‘tellin, but when we think of you now we know you are ‘gellin.

Love ya Buddy!”