Sunday, May 3, 2015

Tragedy strikes Penn football again

For the second time in five years, a Penn football player has died on campus.

Tragedy strikes Penn football again

Four and a half years ago, Penn fullback Kyle Ambrogi committed suicide.

I still remember being at the church in Bryn Mawr a few days after Ambrogi's death on October 10, 2005. So many people came to the service that I had to stand outside and listen to the eulogies through an open window.

The event shook the Penn community to a degree that nothing else I've covered at the school has matched. I thought for the longest time that nothing ever would.

Then yesterday came. Out of nowhere, Quakers defensive end Owen Thomas was found dead in his off-campus apartment in the middle of the afternoon.

There is no known cause of death right now. There is just shock, horror... and for me, and I'm sure many others, a tidal wave of memories.

The memories weren't just triggered by the news that a Penn football player's life has ended prematurely for the second time in five years.

What did it for me was Penn coach Al Bagnoli's reaction, and how similar his words were to the ones he uttered after Ambrogi's death.

"Unfortunately, I have a little more experience handling this than I did then," Bagnoli told the Inquirer's Joe Juliano yesterday. "Certainly, there was no outward indication about anything being wrong."

After Ambrogi's death, Bagnoli told the Daily News' Mike Kern:

You're dealing with robust 22-year-old kids who seem invincible. You're always around them, so we think we're invincible. You get jolted back to reality, and realize how fragile everything is.

Bagnoli knew, as did Ambrogi's family, that Kyle was suffering from depression. This time, we don't know the cause of death - and let's emphasize that as loudly as possible.

But the shock is just as strong, that's for sure. Bagnoli said yesterday:

We know we can't get through this on our own. We're going to handle it as one big family. We want to make sure his roommates are OK. We're going to pay particular attention to them because they stumbled upon him. It's a delicate situation but right now; our whole team is an emotional mess...

The kids gravitated to him all the time. So this is devastating under any circumstances, but he's the most popular kid on our team. He was a kid that reached out to everybody, embraced everybody. He was always positive and upbeat.

Penn running back Bradford Blackmon, a current junior who will be one of next season's captains, told the Daily Pennsylvanian that Thomas was "a fun-loving guy [who] made you smile because he always had a smile."

Comppare those words to how Bagnoli described Ambrogi in an Inquirer story written by Mike Jensen and Natalie Pompilio:

He was as popular as any kid we've had. He had an unusual combination of skill, personality, grades. Not too many kids put all that together, to the levels he could. He touched everybody ... He was able to balance a lot of things, and balance them well.

St. Joe's Prep coach Gil Brooks, for whom Ambrogi played in high school, told the Daily News' Ted Silary:

He was funny and easygoing and so humble. He treated the 65th kid on the team the same way he treated anyone on the team. And his work ethic - incredible.

Every time it snowed, Kyle and Greg would go around their neighborhood [in Havertown] and shovel people out. Not for money. Just to help out, because they were great kids.


And there was this from Penn's running backs coach at the time, Steve Downs, in a big piece that ran on ESPN.com:

He made you feel good about who you were. He didn't have a negative bone in his body.

It is surely mere coincidence that the worst of all fates befell two young men of such character. Yet if sport teaches us anything, it is how to turn emotions into energy that powers the efforts of individuals and groups.

Six days after Ambrogi's death, I covered Penn's game at Columbia for the Inquirer. The Quakers usually blow out the Lions, and the 44-16 final score was no different in that regard.

But I will never forget watching Penn channel all of its pain and anguish onto the football field that afternoon. Dan "Coach Lake" Staffieri wore a blue cheesehead-style hat with Ambrogi's number 31 on top. Penn running back Sam Mathews bullrushed his way for two touchdowns, then spoke afterwards about how much the game meant to him.

There was a lot of frustration, a lot of sadness. For three hours today we were able to forget about everything and work on getting this game for Kyle.

Bagnoli had encouraged his players to let it all out on the gridiron.

That was my hope. That once the game started, we were going to be an angry team. Angry at everything that happened, the lack of rationale for how something like this could happen, and play angry and play emotional, and I think we did that.


This time, there won't be a game on Saturday. Bagnoli and his players have plenty of time to mourn, heal, and return to the field before autumn.

But the present is still here and now. Just because this has happened before does not make the situation any less painful.

"When I addressed the kids, I got a lot of blank stares," Bagnoli told the Daily News' Mike Kern yesterday. "Everyone's living a bad dream, a nightmare. For a lot of people, I'm sure it hasn't really sunk in yet. But it's real."

And we cannot forget this either: Thomas was only 21 years old. Who knows what opportunities were to come for him.

I wish I didn't have to bring back all these memories. I am sure that this blog post has ben uncomfortable reading for some of you.

But an event like this is so tragic and stunning that to put down some words might at least help place everything in some context - and perhaps lessen the burden of carrying those memories around once again.

Philly.com
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Soft Pretzel Logic is Philly.com's college sports blog, with a primary focus on the University of Pennsylvania. You'll also see coverage of the Big 5, other major college sports events in the region, and the annual Penn Relays track and field meet.

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