HUDSON — If his mother was still here, Eric Vitale Jr. knows what she would have done.
She would have seen the Fivay High School quarterback wincing after banging his right hand on an opponent’s helmet. She would have seen the junior’s frustration after throwing away a shot at the starting job he’d spent three years battling to win. She would have seen the pain on his face as he felt the bone trying to rip through his skin.
And, had she not died on his 16th birthday, just before dad left and never came back, she would have told her youngest child to quit feeling sorry for himself, strap his helmet on and get back out there.
So he did.
• • •
In a chaotic west Pasco County home with six children from three different relationships, football was the one constant. The boys played. The girls cheered. The adults watched.
“I was probably watching football when I was 1 and don’t remember it,” Vitale said.
His mother, Lori Conley, would spend a whole autumn day at the Pasco Police Athletic League fields, running up and down the sideline, yelling at her sons to keep fighting for extra yards. Her longtime boyfriend, Eric Vitale Sr., would use what he learned playing against Boomer Esiason in high school to offer critiques.
When Vitale got to high school, his mom was a fixture at games, a 5-foot-1 firecracker with a high voice that cut through the crowd. In the last year of her life, she watched her baby duel with Tyler Degen in the Falcons’ first full varsity season. The rivals smiled and shared advice, but neither wanted to sit on the bench.
“They seemed friendly on the surface,” tight end Kevin Faulkner said, “but underneath, you know they’re competitive, they’re fighting for the starting job.”
Degen was 5 inches taller and a year older. Vitale tried too hard and forced too many throws. His mom still attended every game.
“That was her life,” said her brother, Mike Trancucci. “Football.”
• • •
The pain started shooting through Conley’s right shoulder near the end of the season. Doctors found a tumor, but she was healthy enough to stand over a dinged-up Vitale on the sideline in November and tell him to get back up.
She missed the end-of-the-year banquet after the cancer spread to her chest. In December, doctors gave her 10 months to live.
Vitale watched his 50-year-old mother agonize in the hospital bed. For three days, she told her 15-year-old son that she didn’t think she’d survive the night.
“You’re like, ‘What do I say to that?’ ” Vitale said.
The self-described mama’s boy decided to say what his mom always told him: Stay strong. Keep fighting.
When Vitale’s half-brother walked into his room with teary eyes on his birthday, Jan. 19, Vitale knew their mother was gone. His brother caught him before he hit the floor.
Vitale Sr. left for North Carolina soon after to grieve with his family. Two months later, the 49-year-old former lineman died of a heart attack. Vitale couldn’t go to the funeral.
“I almost feel like my dad died of a broken heart in a way,” he said.
With his parents gone, Vitale assumed more responsibility. He stopped fighting with his older sister, Danielle, and went to her cheerleading competitions. He got a job as a cashier at Publix. If the baby of the family could stay strong, so could everyone else.
“He had to become a man a lot sooner,” said his half-brother, Keith Conley.
But he needed help.
• • •
Degen had known Vitale and his mom for years. He heard her cheers from the stands, too.
So when he found out about Conley’s cancer, he texted Vitale every day, telling him to stay strong, to keep his head up.
“I was just constantly being a motivator,” Degen said. “I know he looked up to me. I took him under my wing.”
Degen’s mom made French toast and bacon and popcorn chicken for the Vitale family, and the rivals grew closer. Degen was at school when he heard that Vitale’s mom was dead. He stepped outside, called Vitale and told him he loved him.
“He was crying right with me when everything went on,” Vitale said.
After spotting his mom at all of his games, Vitale didn’t know how he’d handle seeing her empty spot in the bleachers. He wanted to quit. Then he saw Degen and the whole team at his mother’s funeral and reception.
“Once I saw Eric, I just broke down,” Degen said. “That’s my friend.”
Vitale vowed to get back on the field again.
• • •
Vitale is still adjusting to life without his fishing buddy and best friend. He and his sister moved in with their Uncle Mike and Aunt JoAnn in Hudson, 3 miles from the school. The home is cleaner and quieter, with a dog and four people instead of 11 relatives, but the rules are stricter. Curfews are tighter. Grade checks are every other day.
“It’s very difficult for two children, 16 and 17, to start over and have nothing,” JoAnn Trancucci said. “They’re still grieving.”
After completing only four passes last fall, Vitale earned another shot at the starting job in the offseason. Fivay tinkered with Degen at receiver, letting Vitale take snaps at quarterback during 7-on-7 summer games.
Degen challenged him to take the position, and Vitale started last month’s preseason game against Sunlake. He completed his first pass but broke his throwing hand on his second attempt. He kept playing, staying loose with Degen on the sideline, until doctors shrouded his hand with a Fivay-blue cast the next day.
“I’m devastated for him,” Degen said.
Vitale was distraught, but didn’t break down. He went to practices and doled out advice to Degen. He recreated the Falcons on Madden and bragged on Facebook about the 99-yard touchdown pass his avatar threw to Degen.
“I think breaking his hand might have been the end of the world last year,” Fivay coach Chris Taylor said. “This year it’s just another setback for him, which he’s able to overcome.”
Though his bones are still mending, doctors removed the cast last week. Vitale returned to practice the next day, fighting in Fivay’s scorching stadium for the starting job he thought he had finally won. He warmed up with Degen and asked his teammate how his throwing motion looked.
And when the starting offense took the field, Vitale dropped to one knee with his helmet in hand, in front of an empty set of bleachers, ready to get back in the game.
Matt Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org