Northeast Times

Win one for Greg

Friends, family and strangers flocked to Ramp Playground on Saturday to support the memory of Greg Hennigar, a Judge grad who died in May 2003.

  • The taste of victory: In the 12th annual Gregory Hennigar Memorial Tournament — the first that featured high school teams — Father Judge prevailed, 18-14. Hennigar played at Judge and Penn State before dying in a car crash in 2003. PHOTOS COURTESY OF TED SILARY

  • Ryan Nase, who was an offensive lineman for Hennigar at Judge, is the president of the Gregory Hennigar Memorial Fund.

  • In memoriam: Some of the $100,000 raised by the Hennigar Memorial Fund paid for renovations at Ramp, including the scoreboard that bears his name.

  • Players participate in the tournament, which was won by Judge.

  • Players participate in the tournament, which was won by Judge.

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 

You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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