Inspired by deceased teammate, Quakers out to lock up Ivy title

Thomas
Thomas
Posted: November 19, 2010

"Wildfire."

It has become the phrase that has driven this Penn football team. The Quakers use it to honor one of their own, who's no longer with them other than intangibly.

Senior defensive lineman Owen Thomas would have been a captain. But he took his life last April. Nobody knew how the defending Ivy League champions, who had a lot back, would respond to the tragedy. Maybe not even the Quakers. It was all anyone outside the program wanted to talk about before the season.

Probably inside the locker room, too.

Well, the Quakers (8-1, 6-0) have secured at least a piece of another title. They can claim it outright by winning tomorrow at Cornell (2-7, 1-5), or with a Yale loss at Harvard.

And Thomas has still been a significant part of making it happen.

"He was a guy who really loved the game," said senior linebacker Zach Heller. "More than almost anyone I ever played with in my life. His spirit and energy has kind of been an inspiration to us all. When we go out there early in the morning, when we're tired or sore, we try to live and practice and work like he did. So much of this is a reflection of him, what he meant to each of us and our team.

" 'Wildfire' was his nickname. He had that long red hair. He got it from his days on kickoff returns. And a lot of times, we break [our huddles] to 'Wildfire.' It just caught on, kind of a spontaneous thing. Our minds and thoughts are always on Owen. Every game, his [No. 40] jersey's on the bench. Each day, we walk by his locker. He'll never be forgotten."

Coach Al Bagnoli, who had to deal with the suicide of senior Kyle Ambrogi four games into the 2005 season, realizes the situation could have gone either way. That '05 team lost its last four to finish 5-5.

"When the season was dedicated to him, [the players] could have let it go into a downward spiral," he said. "Or use it as a rallying cry. Every step of the way, he's been front and center in everything we've done."

Maybe, it was suggested to Heller, it would only be right to present Thomas' family with a ring.

"That would be nice," he said. "I don't know what the procedure is on that, but there wouldn't be a guy on the team that would oppose it."

This is the Quakers' eighth title in 19 seasons under Bagnoli. None was shared. It's the third time they've gone back-to-back in that era (1993-94, 2002-03). Each of those teams went unbeaten in the Ivies. As did last year's. No other Ivy team has put together consecutive unbeaten seasons even once.

"There's a difference in winning it by yourself," Heller insisted. "I mean, for us, the outright title is the only thing we consider that we're going after. We don't want to share anything with anyone. That's kind of [Bagnoli's] mentality. And it trickles down to all of us. If we're within striking distance, that's what we've got to do.

"We've had one goal. We didn't know how a lot of things were going to turn out. But now, we have a chance to do something really special. It sets you apart. And obviously, it's something you'll carry with you for the rest of your life. I think that's pretty cool."

So is the way they've gone about it, keeping a friend in their journey.

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