Surveying the packed Ramp Playground football field on Saturday morning, Tommy Coyle remembered a smile with one of his own.
Despite sweltering early-summer temperatures baking down on the people who dotted the complex across the street from Father Judge, the turnout was impressive for the 12th annual Gregory Hennigar Memorial Tournament, an all-day football showcase to honor the memory of Hennigar, a former Judge and Penn State quarterback who died in a single-car crash on State Road in May 2003.
Everything about the day — like Hennigar’s infectious smile and personality — was first-class: eight area high schools sent some of their football players to compete in the newly-formatted 7-on-7 (the previous 11 installments have featured local bar and neighborhood-made teams), while coaches and spectators were sprinkled in all corners of the field. Standing in one of them was Coyle, whose first two seasons as Judge’s head football coach coincided with Hennigar’s junior and senior years.
“He had a great smile, and when I walked out of my house this morning to drive here, I knew he would be smiling down upon this event,” said Coyle, now the head football coach at Penn Charter. “These kids here today are the epitome of what Greg was. He loved to play football, just like them. Everyone here could be laying on the beach or making up an excuse as to why they’re not here, but they’re here on a hot day, competing, which is what Greg was all about.”
Coyle shared a story about Hennigar, who had a childhood dream to play football for the Nittany Lions despite having each of his final two seasons at Judge cut short by shoulder injuries. When the rest of his classmates were unwinding down the shore for Senior Week following graduation, Hennigar remained in Philly, having already been invited by Penn State to join the team as a preferred walk-on.
“Most high school guys wanted to go enjoy their time down the shore, and they felt they had earned that,” Coyle said. “But Greg knew in order to get on the field at Penn State, he would have to work hard, and that meant getting his body ready in the weight room. He wanted to make sure when he stepped on campus to compete for a spot on that football team, he was ready to give his best, and that’s what he did.”
As a preferred walk-on, Hennigar worked out with Joe Paterno’s team despite not being offered a scholarship and unable to suit up for games. Undeterred, he pressed onward, performing admirably in the annual Blue-White spring intra-squad game following his freshman season in April 2003. He died a little more than a month later, never able to reach the endless opportunities in front of him. Paterno and the entire Penn State team made the trip down to Philadelphia for Hennigar’s funeral. Paterno delivered a eulogy about a kid who hilariously imitated him during his short time in Happy Valley.
“Football was his passion and his life, even though it was unfortunately a short life,” said Ryan Nase, one of Hennigar’s offensive linemen at Judge and president of the Gregory Hennigar Memorial Fund. “Greg touched so many people’s lives with his personality, and we knew that one day going forward his memory would have an impact on as many young kids’ lives as possible.”
On Saturday, football players from Judge, Penn Charter, Lincoln, Bonner-Prendie, Archbishop Carroll, West Catholic, Del-Val Charter and Bristol participated in the tournament, with each game being played with a 30-minute running clock. Later on in the afternoon, Hennigar’s alma mater, led by current quarterback Zach Carroll, defeated West Catholic on a touchdown pass from Carroll to Quadir Gibson with 36 seconds left to win the tournament, 18-14.
The Crusaders winning was a fitting result, but everybody agreed that this day was about much more than winning and losing.
“I told my kids that everyone that contributed to the cause won today,” said Judge head coach Mike McKay, himself a former quarterback at the school. “Who cares who wins at the end of the day, when you get to have so much fun with such a great turnout? This community lives in the past by honoring memories and tradition. That’s what Father Judge is all about. We don’t want this to fizzle away. We want it to stay big.”
While the games were being played on the field, Marie and Sean Hennigar were shielded from the sun in a nearby tent, selling food and T-shirts in Greg’s memory. Greg’s mother and older brother, himself a former Judge football player, were on hand for the 12th consecutive year, and the memorial tournament’s exponential growth never ceases to amaze the both of them.
“It’s just really neat, because it started from nothing, just a few of Greg’s friends wanting to do something for him,” said Sean Hennigar, the fund’s vice president. “We (the family) weren’t all that involved for a few years beyond coming out to celebrate the event. Now you look at how much it’s grown, and it’s just awesome. We’ve been so lucky to come to it every year.”
Sean Hennigar was quickly whisked away due to an overflow line of interested T-shirt buyers, but his mother was happy to shed some more light on what the day means to the entire family.
“The sport itself just breeds camaraderie,” an emotional Marie Hennigar said. “All of his friends and brothers go out of their way every year to make it so special. It warms my heart. It’s amazing. I’m so proud of Greg, his friends, family and everyone who’s worked hard to make this happen.
“Greg was the best, and so are all these people here today. It’s awesome and admirable. I’m just speechless. Every year it’s a very emotional time for me. He was my son, and he was a great kid. The love, it’s just unbelievable. I always cry the whole way here, and I’ll cry the whole way home.”
On a day where he was toting around his newborn 2-month-old twins, Nase was happy to share his own memories of his friend, as well as to marvel at just how much this singular event has been able to accomplish over the last dozen years.
Since its inception in 2003, the fund has raised somewhere in the area of $100,000, and all of it except the start-up costs for the next year’s tournament are donated to various charities and causes. In the beginning, the donations focused mainly on gifts to Judge, including a $25,000 betrothal toward the pristine renovations to the Ramp facilities, including an enormous scoreboard that bears Hennigar’s name. Nase and the foundation have also donated money to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the American Diabetes Association, Lauren’s First and Goal (benefitting pediatric brain cancer), Stay Tough Fight Hard (an ALS foundation)and various neighborhood youth organizations such as the Rhawnhurst Raiders and Bustleton Bengals.
“It started as a fund for kids with financial hardships to be able to attend Catholic school, and it’s really taken off where we’ve gotten involved with as many charities as we can,” said Nase, now the athletic director at Tacony Academy Charter and defensive line coach at Penn Charter. “Greg was a very good friend of mine off the field. The thing we talk about so much is that football can be an avenue to bring you to whatever your goals are. Football got Greg to college; it brought me through college. It teaches kids skills on the field and in life.”
Those who participated in the tournament agreed with that sentiment.
“It was really important to us and to the community,” said Penn Charter sophomore Michael Hnatkowsky, a Northeast resident. “You have all these people out here on a beautiful Saturday morning, and kids are coming out to play and work hard. It shows that we take our football seriously around here.”
Added PC teammate Alex Slook, also a Northeast denizen. “I didn’t know Greg personally, but I’ve heard Coyle talk about what a great guy he was. To participate is a big thing for our coach, Judge and everyone here, so it’s great to be here. You put the person in front of everything. You come out and you do it to support him, to keep everything alive. To come here with our coach and play with and against these guys for a good cause, it’s a real good thing to do. That comes before vacation or anything like that. We wanted to make our coach proud by coming out to do this for him and his former player.”
Coyle appreciated the tremendous turnout, as well as those in attendance coming together to remember his fallen friend.
“You come here and share the stories of a guy who had an opportunity to do well in his life, and he grasped that,” Coyle said. “Kudos to everyone in the Hennigar Foundation for keeping his memory alive. It’s simple to allow that to drift into the back of your mind, but his memory lives on in so many of us. Greg found his dream and enjoyed every minute of it. Unfortunately, his life was tragically cut too short.”
Nase said he’d like the tournament to grow from eight teams back to the original allotment of 16. If the event continues to grow, then so will the impact of Greg Hennigar.
“Everyone here has some sort of personal connection to us, or to Greg through us, which makes it even greater,” Nase said. “Everybody here has bought into that mission, to try to help youth and amateur athletics.” ••
To donate to the Gregory Hennigar Memorial Fund, visit https://www.booster.com/GHMF7on7?beta=true