Trojan in the Sky
by Tim Lavin
Mario Danelo # 19 PK
USC Trojans Football
Friday, January 12, 2007
Today, I attended the funeral services of a young man I did not know personally, yet we are part of the same family; the Trojan Football Alumni family. Today, I witnessed families, friends and teammates coming together to pay tribute to a young man who touched the lives of thousands of people. I was not planning on writing about my experience.
When I got to the San Pedro church, there was a crowd of hundreds, maybe over 1,000 people gathered around the front entrance spilling on to the blocked-off streets. All roads surrounding Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church were barricaded by the police department.
At 10:30am, the casket, flanked by eight young men in the prime of their lives, was carried from the hearse, parked directly in front of the church, up the steps to the front doors. With over 100 USC football players and coaches in coat and tie surrounding the front of the church, they slowly followed the casket in a procession that proceeded inside and down the center aisle to the altar.
From the outside looking in, a funnel of ominous young men disappeared into the wide open doors that welcomed their entrance. Swallowed up by the flow of their wake, patrons began to file in side by side.
Mary Star seats some 1,500 people. Its high ceilings cast the sun light through scores of stained glass windows. The pews are split down the center with a wide middle aisle. Three quarters of the way down the center aisle is a cross aisle, creating a “t” or a “cross” if you will. With standing room only, both of the side aisles were jam-packed, making the cross aisle completely full, and the center aisle filled up. When it was time for the crowd to sit down, those that couldn’t inadvertently created a standing human cross.
In the rear of the church, the vestibule was shoulder to shoulder, chest to back, twenty people deep. People continued to arrive only to find out there was no place left inside. Hundreds of mourners remained standing on the steps outside the church, spilling on to the sidewalk and into the street between parked limo’s and police motorcycles. They were forced to listen to the outside loud speaker of what was being said on the inside.
Mario Danelo was just 21 years old when he left this earth six day ago. He was the place kicker for the USC Trojans. When officials cleaned out his locker, amidst the socks, cleats, t-shirts and shorts, was Mario’s Bible. That Bible lay on top of his casket during the entire service.
During the homily, the priest spoke of doing mass services for the Trojan football team before games. He spoke of the tough loss at the end of the regular season being a tragedy. And then later, on January 1st, the victorious Rose Bowl game that turned into glory.
He spoke of the tragedy last week that took Mario away from us here on earth. And then, the victorious assention into heaven that has turned into glory. And he spoke of remembering the great big smile on Mario Danelo’s face.
When the mass had ended, four people got up to face the overflowing congregation, inside and out of more than 2,500 people.
First to speak was Joey Danelo, Mario’s older brother. For some ten minutes, Joey captivated us with moments of sadness along with outbreaks of laughter. Fighting back the tears, he actually told several humorous stories of Mario’s aggressive behavior from his childhood days.
He said Mario was the first five year old basketball player to foul out of a game in the first 11 seconds of the first quarter. Later on, in little league baseball, he was the first pitcher to hit four batters in the same inning. Regardless of what he and his brothers did together, they were constantly having fun, living the life, and always smiling.
Joey said that Mario once told him you can tell the content of a man’s character by how many people attend his funeral. He looked up from his written script to glance around the church through his watery eyes. It was beyond a chilling moment.
As they got older, they became even closer. In the past couple of years, they hung out with each other’s friends and became even tighter. Joey finished his eulogy by saying, “Thank you, I love you buddy,” and walked over and gave his brother one last little pat on the shoulder as his hand came down on the casket.
Brian, his friend of 20 years, took the podium. He too had several stories that created moments of laughter and sadness at the same time. Whatever happened while they were growing up, he could always remember Mario laughing and smiling.
Next to speak was from Mario’s San Pedro High School football team, Coach Walsh. During the coaches’ 26 year reign at the school, only three players were ever named to the All-Academic Scholar Athlete Team of Los Angeles, and Mario was one of them. On the field, he was an outstanding young football player who carried himself with grace, dignity and pride. Off the field, he was an exemplary student with the highest grades. On or off the filed, Coach Walsh always saw Mario having fun, and always smiling.
Lastly, Coach Pete Carroll came to the microphone. He reiterated what the priest talked about earlier of this being a glorious day, and actually a time not to mourn Mario’s passing but, to celebrate his life. And oh man, how he did live. He was living the dream. Coach Carroll, not surprisingly talked of that “Mario Danelo smile” that we had heard so much about from all the others.
And then, for the first time in my life, I experienced something that I had never experienced before at a funeral service. Coach Carroll talked about the NCAA scoring records that Mario has. He said “most of you don’t know that Mario has the highest scoring record for college football. I think that is something to cheer about!” Carroll went on; “…now when I say Mario has the scoring record, I want to hear you!” Nervous laughter seemed to fill the church. And then Coach Carroll yelled out for all to hear; “MARIO IS THE SCORING RECORD HOLDER IN COLLEGE FOOTBALL!” The sitting patrons rose to their feet in an eruption of thunderous applause, cheers, yelling, screaming and whistling. It was like being at the Coliseum and USC’s Mario Danelo just kicked the winning field goal and the place is going wild!!!
For nearly two minutes the church was going berserk with deafening cheers on the inside, absolutely booming roars that filled the day time sky on the outside and the entire building was shaking. People, blocks away, must have been thinking, “I thought there was a funeral going on at Mary Star????”
As the noise slowly started to subside, Carroll stepped away from the microphone, pointed at his 100 plus players in the front 15 rows and said, “COME ON, LET ME HEAR YOU!” The football players let out even loader cheers and cries that had to have echoed through the Coliseum Tunnel. The crowd went nuts again for another two minutes of constant clapping, cheering and whistling led by the Trojan team. It was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen.
Shortly there after, the priest gave his final blessing and the exodus of 2,000 plus began to overrun the streets and join those hundreds of others who had been out there for nearly two hours..
On my lapel I wore a Trojan Football Alumni pin. In my pocket, I had another lapel pin still in its package. I wanted the Danelo family to have it. But, not knowing them, it was certainly not appropriate for me to approach them at this time.
So, I wondered what to do as I stood on the grass on the side of the church. Not more than ten seconds elapsed when Coach Pete Carroll walked by, saw an opening on the sidewalk and stood alone only a few feet away from me.
Questioning my own thoughts of the right thing to do, I nervously approached Coach Carroll. With the pin in my hand, I reached out so he could see it. As he looked down at the pin in the palm of my hand, I said, “Coach, perhaps you can give this pin to Mario’s parents. When Mario walked on the field, he was a Trojan Football Player. When he walked off the field for the last time, he became a Trojan Football Alumnus. He will always be part of the Trojan Football Alumni Club.”
With that, Coach Carroll, took the pin out of my hand, looked me in the eyes and said, “Thank You. I will give it to them.”
Today I witnessed what the Trojan Family is truly all about. Regardless if we know each other personally or not, we are always Family. You may not know us personally, but if you need us, we are here for you.
May God bless Mario, his family, friends, and teammates during this most difficult time.
Trojan Football Alumni ’88-‘91
Club Secretary firstname.lastname@example.org