At the literal and figurative heart of Tuckahoe’s 27-0 victory in Friday’s Class D state championship game was sophomore Joe Bellantoni. If you missed his story yesterday, you missed the story of the year in local high school football.
Among a sea of relative giants, Bellantoni is just a 5-foot-9, 140-pound guard, but the type of player who plays, coach John D’Arco Sr. said, “as if he’s 240.” The four linemen who flank him — Kevin Chen, Joe Jacopino, Jonathan Jubilee and David Paez — average 231 pounds but none brought more of a presence to the game Friday than Bellantoni.
On Tuesday night, at the family home right across the street from Tuckahoe High School, Bellantoni’s father, Lou was stricken from a heartattack. He died that night at just 45 years old.
I first learned about the tragedy on Wednesday night, but D’Arco wasn’t sure whether or not Bellantoni would play. He never asked him, knowing the family had far more important matters than a measly state championship game. “It really puts this into perspective,” an emotional D’Arco told me on the phone Wednesday.
Well, Bellantoni did play. Rick Carpiniello wrote a wonderful, heart-wrenching story about Bellantoni’s experience for today’s paper and how it motivated the Tigers to win this championship to honor him and the spirit of his father, who coached many of them in Pop Warner and Little League.
The families of seniors Luis Esquilin and Gary Jennings gave ribbons to every player and coach to wear during the game. On Wednesday, D’Arco and his captains walked across the street to offer their condolences to the family. Senior Jarett Sommer said it was then the enormity of the situation struck him.
“To see the heartbreak on the faces of Joey and his family … his dad was such a great fan in the stands, and to see them so heartbroken like that, it broke my heart as well,” Sommer told Carp after the game. “I just can’t imagine what he’s going through right now. His dad was one of my coaches in Little League, and just to see something like that, it’s almost like this was our destiny, just to do it for him, to do it for that family.”
Bellantoni spent Thanksgiving night at home with family reminiscing and grieving with relatives while the rest of the team left for Syracuse. His uncle Phil, Lou’s dad, drove Joe and a cousin, Mike Martino, to the Carrier Dome Friday morning to meet the team. Joe started at guard and played the entire game, helping pave the way to a pair of Tuckahoe touchdowns.
“It was hard,” Joe said of the decision. “But my dad was so happy when we made it, and I just wanted to play for him. I knew he would be proud and he was watching above. I looked up before every play and knew he was watching. … I’ll always look back and remember this time, and there will be happy thoughts and sad thoughts. But mostly happy.”
You could see the emotion in Bellantoni’s face after the game. He cried. So did D’Arco, who hugged Bellantoni near the tunnel that leads out of the Carrier Dome. It was the type of moment where emotions could not be more mixed.
If you’re wondering, that’s Bellantoni at the center of Tuckahoe’s celebration, holding the state championship plaque — again, fittingly, right in the middle of it all.