It’s difficult to imagine what might’ve become of former Father Judge student-athlete Gregory Hennigar mainly because he could’ve done just about anything, according to those who knew him best.
Hennigar wasn’t the biggest kid on his high school football team, nor the fastest or most talented, but his work ethic was second to none, as was his wit and his leadership ability.
“He was just ‘that guy.’ His greatest quality was bringing people together,” said Ryan Nase, who graduated from Judge alongside Hennigar in 2002 and was devastated when the aspiring Penn State quarterback died in a car crash on May 31, 2003, less than two months before his 19th birthday.
Almost a decade later, Hennigar continues to bring family, friends and even folks he never met together for events associated with a memorial fund established in his name. In July, hundreds took part in the 10th annual Gregory Hennigar Memorial Football Tournament. And this Sunday afternoon, dozens more are expected to attend another fund-raiser at McNally’s on Rhawn in Fox Chase to coincide with the telecast of the Eagles vs. Cowboys game.
Nase and one of Hennigar’s three brothers, Sean, will be guest bartenders as other volunteers will orchestrate various raffles for gift baskets and sports memorabilia. The bar, at 427 Rhawn St., will offer patrons drink specials during the game. All proceeds and tips will go directly to the Hennigar fund.
In the past, the fund has supported mainly athletic programs at Judge, including a $25,000 contribution for renovations at Ramp Playground, where many of the school’s sports teams play. But now, its organizers have decided to expand their mission.
“We’re looking to branch out and provide opportunities for kids all over Northeast Philly, not just at Judge,” said Nase. “We’re still committed to that $25,000 and we hope that in ten years, the fund is still providing opportunities to young kids to be able to attend Catholic high schools, and to give high school kids opportunities to attend college.”
In his own path to college, Hennigar capitalized on the opportunity afforded to him by football, as did Nase and another former teammate at Judge, Derek Talley.
“I never would’ve gone to Lafayette if it wasn’t for football and Greg probably never would’ve ended up at Penn State,” said Nase, a former offensive lineman who parlayed his strong athletic and academic resume into a degree from the highly rated Easton college.
Nase now teaches history at Olney Charter High School.
“And I would’ve never gone to Ursinus [without football],” added Talley, a former wide receiver who now works as an account representative for Penn Distributors in Roxborough. “Football gave us the opportunity to gain a great education.”
Despite a modest start, Hennigar was looking to do a lot more than earn a degree at Penn State. After a high school career highlighted by almost 2,000 passing yards, but marred by two broken collarbone injuries, he passed up recruiting offers from smaller schools to enroll at Penn State.
Based on videotapes and referrals, Joe Paterno offered him a chance as a “preferred walk-on,” meaning he got to work out with the team, but he was not on scholarship and didn’t suit up for games.
“He’d probably get mad at me for saying this, but he wasn’t the most athletic guy,” said Talley.
But Hennigar worked his way onto the depth chart and by spring practice of his freshman year, played two quarters in the annual Blue-White intra-squad game. And he still had four seasons of eligibility left.
Hennigar might’ve become the first former walk-on to start at quarterback for Penn State. Matt McGloin earned that distinction in 2010 when he started for the Nittany Lions against Michigan.
Hennigar was planning to begin studies in Penn State’s communications program in his sophomore year. He would’ve been a natural, friends say. He famously performed spot-on impersonations of Judge head coach Tommy Coyle as well as Joe Paterno, making a lasting impression on the legendary Penn State coach.
“He was always the character, the comedian,” Talley said. “But when it came to football, he was always the work horse.”
“The same thing we saw in four years of high school, he had that impact as a walk-on freshman,” Nase said.
Hennigar died just six weeks after his breakthrough performance in the Blue-White game when the car he was driving collided with a tractor-trailer on State Road near Linden Avenue.
The entire Penn State team gathered in Father Judge’s gymnasium for Hennigar’s funeral Mass. Paterno delivered a eulogy.
“I’m really sorry we didn’t have a chance to spend more time with him,” Paterno said at the time. “I just hope the good Lord is ready to be mimicked.”
In retrospect, Hennigar’s friends are saddened by the scandal that rocked Penn State and tarnished Paterno’s legacy: “The fact that he came down and nobody asked him to do that eulogy, [it was like] he lost a member of his family,” Nase said.
“It showed a lot of class on his part and a lot of respect for [Hennigar] as a person,” Talley said. ••
Reporter William Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or firstname.lastname@example.org