Still in the game

Ry­an Nase (left) and Derek Tal­ley talk about the Greg Hen­nigar Me­mori­al Fund, which was star­ted in the memory of their friend, Gregory Hen­nigar, a Penn State quar­ter­back who died in a car crash 10 years ago. His fam­ily and friends raise money for youth sp

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

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