Penn football season began in tragedy, ended in triumph

Al Bagnoli's team won its second straight Ivy League crown.
Al Bagnoli's team won its second straight Ivy League crown.
Posted: December 08, 2010

For Al Bagnoli and his Penn football team, the 2010 season was bookended by tragedy and triumph.

Two weeks after they concluded a 9-1 season with a second straight Ivy League championship, a second straight unbeaten record in the league, the only question left unanswered is what other postseason recognition awaits them.

Already Bagnoli has been named a finalist for the Eddie Robinson Award, given to the NCAA's outstanding Division I Football Bowl Subdivision coach. That is to be announced Jan. 6.

Sophomore quarterback Billy Ragone was a finalist for Ivy player of the year that was shared Monday by players from Dartmouth and Harvard, and 20 Quakers were named all-Ivy.

But sadly, for all of them and certainly for all those beyond the program, the indelible memory of the 2010 season will be of two losses that happened five months before it even began.

"All championships are special. They're hard to get," Bagnoli said as, in between recruiting trips, he sat in his Weightman Hall office last week. "But this one is going to stand out. Maybe not for the right reasons, but it's going to stand out."

On April 8, Dan Stafferi, a Penn assistant for 33 years and one of the program's most devoted loyalists, died of bladder cancer. Eighteen days later, the body of Owen Thomas, who would have been a captain in 2010, his senior year, was found in his off-campus apartment. He had hanged himself.

Somehow, in the months that followed, dealing with doubt and sorrow as determinedly as X's and O's, this Penn team managed to climb out of its despair and become just the third team in Ivy history to win back-to-back titles with unbeaten league marks.

But this one, as Bagnoli noted, was different. Stafferi's death, at 85, wasn't completely unexpected. The loss of Thomas, a strapping and energetic 6-foot-2, 240-pound defensive end, was. A rising senior, a captain-elect, a Wharton School student, perhaps the team's most outgoing and popular member, his sudden passing briefly paralyzed the program.

"How did we feel when we heard about Owen?" said Joe D'Orazio, a senior offensive lineman, pausing to choose his words carefully. "There are no words to describe it."

When the news came, a veteran-laden team had already begun preparing for 2010. Suddenly, what had been a focused group was stranded between grief and disbelief.

How would they respond? Would they disintegrate into their emotions? Would they come together more profoundly? Bagnoli wasn't sure.

Five years earlier, Bagnoli had faced a similar quandary. Back then, senior running back Kyle Ambrogi also had killed himself. Those Quakers, understandably, fell apart. They were 3-1 when he died on Oct. 10. They finished 5-5.

"The odds of going through this even once are high," said Bagnoli. "Twice in five years is just astronomical. Not that there's ever a good time for it to happen, but that one [2005] happened right smack in the middle of the season. At that point, you have no chance. This time, the majority of kids went home and they got around family, they got around friends, and they were able to collectively seek some reflective time."

Bagnoli needed time as well.

"There were a whole litany of things we learned [after Ambrogi's death]," he said. "Not that you ever want to be an expert in this area. We tried to apply those things the second time. But honestly, I was stunned. I was stunned both times. They were two completely different scenarios. Two of the most popular, most engaging, successful kids I've had in this program. That's the unusual part. You always associate suicide with someone who's very quiet. Not these kids."

The increasing suicide rate among college students is, in Bagnoli's words, "bordering on an educational crisis."

The American College Health Association has reported that the suicide rate among young adults (15-24) jumped more than 300 percent since the 1950s. Among college students, it is the second-leading cause of death.

"There are plenty of programs that have had that kind of thing happen," Bagnoli said, referring to the sudden death of an athlete. "We've never hid from it. We learned a lot from the first one. You try to rally everyone together. You make sure you have the mechanisms to double-check on the kids, especially [Thomas'] roommates. They were my biggest concern because they were the ones that found him and were closest to him.

"Fortunately, Penn has the resources to provide an exceptional support system. That was never the issue. It was just trying to get the kids to take the first step. So many athletes have never needed help. They've been successful at everything."

Unlike 2005, when those players never had time to gather themselves, this Penn team, independently and collectively, used the tragedy as a rallying point, a crusade.

"There were two ways we could have gone after Owen's death," said D'Orazio. "We ended up becoming even more close-knit."

All summer they trained and lifted and practiced harder to honor the 21-year-old teammate they called "Wildfire" because of his long, flowing red hair.

But until they returned to campus in the fall, Bagnoli and his staff, who had only the 2005 template to draw upon, weren't sure what to expect.

"We didn't know how the summer preparation was going," the coach said. "We talked to kids all the time and everything appeared to be fine. We got our first clue when they came back and we got to see what kind of physical shape they were in. It was very impressive.

"I knew then that they were still able to focus. Not that this thing was going to go away, because it wasn't. But at least the kids could kind of put it in the rear-view mirror and prepare the way you need to prepare to defend a championship. That was our first inkling that maybe we could balance the two."

For the first half of their Sept. 18 season-opener against Lafayette, it looked as if the coach might have misread his team's psychology. The Quakers looked anything but balanced. They'd outplayed the Leopards badly but trailed, 14-3. More than a few people watching that day felt 2005 was about to repeat itself.

But Penn rallied for a 19-14 victory, played favored Villanova tough in a close loss a week later, and never looked back. The Quakers strung together eight straight wins to close out the championship season, and in doing so managed to honor Thomas' memory.

They brought out Thomas' jersey for media day. They answered questions about his puzzling death wherever they went. And every time they broke a pregame huddle, they barked "Wildfire!"

"It was always there," Bagnoli said. "It's not like it was going to disappear. But the kids did a really good job of balancing respect for everything that happened and concentrating on what they had to do. Our concentration during the season was terrific, and we really had very few letdowns. We could have gone either way. To the kids' credit, they used it as a rallying cry."

They were helped in their coping - to a small extent, anyway - by news that broke the week of their first game. An examination of Thomas' brain tissue by researchers at Boston University had concluded the Allentown native suffered from the early stages of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a disease that, particularly in retired NFL players, had been linked to depression.

"His death was still tragic, still mysterious," said D'Orazio, "but maybe that news gave us a little bit of solace."

Bagnoli agreed.

"Everybody looks for reasons because there's none on the surface," he said. "Now we have bright kids, kids that are pretty logical thinkers. They're trying to get a logical answer that isn't there. So, just like the parents, just like us, just like the kids, if there's something we can point to that can at least maybe partially explain what happened, I think we all feel better. It's just human nature."


Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or

at ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.

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