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Echoes From The Past

by on June 19, 2014 6:30 AM

On Tuesday I got a tweet from a friend of Greg Hennigar about an on-line fundraiser the Greg Hennigar Memorial Fund was doing. The tweet elicited echoes from the past.

Greg was a walk-on quarterback I coached at Penn State over a dozen years ago. He showed up on campus in the fall of 2002 with a rocket arm and a real chance to compete. More than that, he was a hilarious and charismatic presence in our locker room.

His freshman year he was part of the skits the freshmen did at the end of preseason football camp. They did a game show skit and Greg was introduced as Joe Paterno. Greg walked onto the "set" of the game show with his pants rolled up, black shoes, white socks and thick glasses; a dead ringer for Joe except for his very red hair.

In the game show they asked questions; "What is the capital of the United States?" and Greg/Joe would buzz in and answer "Brooklyn". Another question was unrelated to football and Greg/Joe answered "Vince Lombardi" because he'd heard Joe often talked to the team about Lombardi. For final jeopardy they were once again asked an obvious question unrelated to football or Brooklyn and Greg/Joe's answer was "Big Ups to Bed-Stuy" a reference to the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn where Joe had once lived and had talked about to the team.

The team was roaring at his spot-on imitation of their head coach and his nearly-perfect mimic of his high-pitched voice when he yelled on the practice field. In the back of the room Joe Paterno was howling, probably laughing harder at himself than anyone else in the room. But Greg couldn't see that.

After the skit he found me because he was nervous and sweating. He didn't realize that Joe was going to be in the room and he couldn't see Joe's reaction. When he asked I told him that Joe thought it was very funny. His new head coach had a good sense of humor.

Every once in a while when Greg would pass his head coach he'd say "Big Ups to Bed-Stuy" and Joe would laugh.

The players on the team really took to Greg. There wasn't a guy on the team that didn't like him and everyone was drawn to him because he just had a great way about him. Once his teammates saw him throw a football, that cemented his place on the team. He redshirted during his freshman year but he performed well in the 2003 Blue-White game. There was no doubt he had the stuff to belong and would contribute.

Just about six weeks later I came home from walking my dog and my wife was waiting for me.

"Your sister Diana called," she said "Greg Hennigar was killed in a car wreck."

Diana lived in the Philadelphia area and had seen it on the news. I sat down and it took a few moments to really sink in. It had come on the tail end of a period when our football program had been hit with several unexpected deaths of people close to our team. It seemed for a year that I saw our players at funeral after funeral from the spring of 2002 through June of 2003.

When our team went to Philadelphia for Greg's funeral I saw a community that came together unlike anything I have ever seen. Greg was from Father Judge High School and I soon learned that, at least for the Catholic School kids, you are identified in Philly by your parish/high school.

The Father Judge community came out in such huge numbers that it was clear how many lives Greg had reached and how many people really loved him. Unfortunately we would never get to see his full potential at Penn State, but in the time he was with us we saw what the people of his home community saw.

Even now if your bring his name up with guys who were on the team with him you get the same reaction "That Dude was one of the funniest guys I ever met." It doesn't matter if you talk to Michael Robinson, Scott Paxson or any of the guys who came in with him.

This was a very talented young man on the cusp of a big future but it was one that would never be realized. After getting that tweet, I thought about Greg and where the arc of his life's journey would have taken him.

I find there are no answers and that sometimes is what we have to accept in life.

Even 11 years later it doesn't make it any easier to understand or comprehend, but I take solace in knowing that his star crossed our path even if only for a bright fleeting moment and we are all better for it.

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State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JayPaterno
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