Sunday, March 18, 2012

Remembering Marco Giovengo

On Friday evening March 16th this world lost the best man I know. Marco Giovengo suffered a heart attack in his on campus apartment in Lexington. But that's enough about his death. I am writing this today so people will remember him for the way he lived, because that is what he would have wanted, and that is what he deserves.

My relationship with Marco began in our Sport Coaching class.  He had asked me to help him out on an assignment through a message on Facebook and after I had helped him he challenged me to a video game of NBA 2k11.  It was definitely a different experience for me at first.  I had never had a friend who was handicapped, growing up as an athlete I had very few friends who weren't athletes, and I had a very minimal understanding of the disease muscular dystrophy that he was suffering from.

The first time I met him it made me sad because I had trouble understanding everything he was saying. I felt bad asking him to repeat himself, but he understood that I was trying my best so he didn't mind too much.  But despite not being able to hear him very clearly that first time we hung out there were a few things that I learned about him right off the bat.

Marco is one of the passionate people you will ever meet, and that passion carries over to everything he does, especially the Pittsburgh Pirates.  He loved baseball more than anything. He told me about how his Pap would teach him about the game, how to hold a bat, how to break in a glove, how to throw a ball, and he loved all of it.  He played baseball at every chance he could, both when he was physically able to and even when he wasn't, and he could talk baseball with you all day.  His love of the Pirates also showed you his loyalty. The Pirates have been the worst damn team in baseball since he was 2 years old, but he never once thought about switching his allegiance.  He loved his "Bucco Brothers", as he so affectionately referred to them, for life. His favorite Pirate was local kid Neil Walker who he had built a very close relationship with. Marco had a 20 game season ticket package, and before each game he attended, he would text Neil to let him know he would be there, and Neil would make sure to come over and talk with him in the pre-game, and than give him the ball he had warmed up with.  I had the privilege of seeing this relationship first hand, as Marco insisted that I meet Neil, because as he put it "he wanted to be just like the two of us someday, and we both made his life a much better one."

He also loved and appreciated people way more than anybody I know.  After leaving his apartment one time after we had hung out, he texted me and said "hey man thanks for coming over, it means a lot to me. I love you bro." I wasn't sure what to think at first.  I mean how many guys tell their friends on a daily basis that they love them. The next time we hung out he said to me "I know you might think it's weird that I say I love you. But I really do man. You don't know how many people can't accept me for who I am. So the fact that you look right past all of this, and treat me the way you do, it really means the world to me." It just about broke my heart when he said that to me, and I told him I loved him every day after that.

Another thing is he would never be afraid to speak his mind.  That first time we hung out, he beat my butt in that game of NBA 2k11, and he was talking trash to me the whole time.  He had used the Orlando Magic and I used the New York Knicks.  His favorite player was J.J. Redick and he was yelling things like "J.J. Redick baby", after he hit shots with him, and "New York sucks" the entire game.  Another thing that stuck out to me, was that in the entire three hours I spent with him, he didn't say one negative thing.  He had this terrible disease, but he was not about to let it define him by any means.  He was a regular college student, pursuing his degree, talking about girls, and living on his own.

This past summer I lived on campus, interning with the Washington Wild Things and training for football, and Marco stayed on campus as well taking summer classes. When he found out I got the internship and I would be staying on campus he was overjoyed. Every morning after working out I would play a game of NBA2k with him or MLB the Show before I left for work.  Every night after I got back from working the game around 10:30, we would watch some random West Coast game on my account, or if we were lucky enough the Pirates would be on a West Coast trip.  One night specifically stands out to me where the Pirates lost to the Atlanta Braves in extra innings on a very questionable call. We had stayed up until 2:00 in the morning watching and it was the most angry I have ever seen him.  While we were watching the games we would have "bullpen sessions" as he liked to call them, where we would talk about our days, anything new that was going on, how we were going to make his senior year the best year yet, and just life in general. He referred to me as Manager DBon, and he was my young pitcher that I was trying to lead to the Cy Young award.

One afternoon when I had the day off my friend Heather came to visit me. The Pirates were playing at 4 that day so he came over to watch the game with me.  When he got there he saw Heather, and he couldn't take his eyes off her. That was the only time I've ever seen him be distracted from a Pirates game. I introduced him and the three of us talked for about an hour before Heather had to leave.  After she left he said to me "she is the most beautiful girl I have ever seen." He told me that he wanted me to make sure that she was his Homecoming date for when he ran for King in the fall and I promised him I would do everything I could to make it happen.  I asked her if she would come over with me one day to his apartment, and although he was extremely nervous, being the courageous and polite guy he was, he said to her "Heather I'm running for Homecoming King, and it would be an honor, and a privilege, if you would be my date and escort." She happily agreed and Marco was so happy he could barely contain himself.

This year Marco has had some great memories, despite finishing as a runner-up for Homecoming King, he loved Homecoming weekend. I would be lying if I said he wasn't bitter about not winning, because he absolutely was. But he had a great time regardless.  I threw him a birthday party at my apartment and he said to me "Dan I got the invites for the guys, but out of us two you're the pimp so I want lots of ladies there." We had about 40 people crammed into my apartment for the party, and at least half of them were girls, and during the midst of it, he called me over and said to me "I love you Dan, this is the best night of my life."

Marco always loved the Pitt Panthers, but he really loved his Robert Morris Colonials and his university.  He said that this was his second home.  He was more involved than just about anybody on campus.  He was a member of the band, the Secretary of the Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity, which he was Damn Proud of, as he liked to constantly say, and a Sport Management major who was ready to walk in May and graduate in August.  He was at every basketball game, and every football game, and he swore that we could beat anybody.

Marco is the most courageous person I have ever known, and I consider it a privilege and an honor to have known him so well, and to call him my friend.  Just think about all of the people you know, or maybe even you are guilty of it, who go through life just floating along, not working towards anything, wasting the gift, and the blessing they have been given.  Here was a kid who was dealt a bad card, but refused to let it hold him back.  Marco lived his life to the fullest until his last moments. I spent that afternoon watching March Madness with him. We were watching 15th seeded Norfolk State, upset 2nd seeded Missouri.  He was yelling about how embarrassing Missouri was, and that they sucked, mainly because he had picked Missouri to go to the Final Four in his bracket. But than he said to me "you know how I love underdogs, so I can't really be that mad." And I did know, he had said to me once, the reason he cheers for underdogs so much is because he is an underdog himself.

Marco always said to me and my teammates that we were an inspiration to him, but the truth is that he was an inspiration to us.  He has taught me so much, and he really has given me an entirely new outlook on life.  So although Marco is no longer physically with us, I hope that his passion, his courage, his love, and his unbreakable, and undeniable spirit, will live inside of all of us, and I can promise you that it will always live on inside of me.  Rest In Peace man. I love you.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Robert Morris sets themselves up for an extended stay in NYC, with vengeance on the mind

For somebody on the outside looking in, one without much knowledge of the Northeast Conference, it may have seemed as if the Robert Morris Colonials and the Long Island University Blackbirds were on a collision course all season for a rematch in the Northeast Conference Championship game.  On Wednesday night in Brooklyn, we will be seeing the rematch of the overtime thriller that we witnessed a year ago. But there is always more to the story than what meets the eye, so first let us take a look at how our Colonials have reached this point.

Coming into the 2011-2012 season, expectations for the Colonials were high. The Colonials roster features talented guards in Velton Jones, Coron Williams, and Anthony Myers, swingman Russell Johnson, and forwards Lijah Thompson and Lawrence Bridges, add in a talented freshman class and mid-season addition Mike McFadden (after transferring from Iona, Mike finally became eligible in December), and a young rising Head Coach in Andy Toole and you knew this team had the chance to be special.  But just how special?

Robert Morris played well in their non-conference schedule going 9-4 with quality wins over Ohio, James Madison, Youngstown State, Duquesne, and La Salle, and tough losses against, Pittsburgh, Cleveland State, and Memphis.  But as we all know, if you're going to be successful in college basketball, you have to perform well in conference play, especially at the mid-major level, if you want to make your presence felt on the national stage.  In smaller conferences like the Northeast Conference, where it is a one bid league, you need to win your conference tournament to earn the automatic bid if you want to make the NCAA tournament, and you need to perform well in your conference schedule to set yourself up for the conference tournament.

Although many media outlets who have covered our Colonials throughout the season have pointed out that they have struggled with consistency at times in the season, I always believed that this team was going to be great.  This team didn't necessarily struggle with consistency, but rather they went through the growing pains, and maturation process that a team goes through as they build chemistry. The Colonials struggled with injuries at times as they missed Russell Johnson, and Lucky Jones an All NEC rookie performer, for extended periods of time, and they simply dealt with a much improved Northeast Conference.  At one point this season the Colonial Athletic Association, the Northeast Conference, and the Big 12 were the only conferences in the nation that boasted three teams with 20 wins or more.

After going 13-5 in conference play the Colonials found themselves in third place headed into the NEC tournament.  On Thursday March 1st the Colonials welcomed the sixth seeded Monmouth Hawks to the Sewall Center for the opening round.  Robert Morris put on one of the most impressive shooting performances we've seen from them in recent memory.  Coron Williams finished 8 for 11 from long distance and lead all scorers with 25 points.  That win set them up with the second seeded Wagner Seahawks on Sunday March 4th in Staten Island.

Despite finishing in second place, Wagner was the team that received the most press time of any Northeast Conference this season.  That is because they had the conference's most impressive non-conference win over Pittsburgh, and the most famous Head, and Assistant Coach in the conference in Danny and Bobby Hurley respectively.  In just their second season the Hurley's have changed the culture of Wagner Basketball, and this season they established a new school record with 25 victories.  But heading into a hostile environment at the Spiro Sports Center, where the betting line had them as seven point underdogs, and they had already suffered an ugly 80-69 loss earlier this season, the Colonials were anything but intimidated.  Robert Morris put together a brilliant team effort, led by an outstanding performance by Velton Jones, who showed why he earned first team All-NEC accolades this season, and pulled off the 71-64 upset victory.  Down at the half 31-29, the Colonials went on an 11-1 run to start the 2nd half and never let up.  Despite battling a tough Wagner defense, a late Wagner run, and the referees at times, Robert Morris advanced to their fourth straight NEC Championship Game.

After LIU made a late comeback to stave off Quinnipiac's upset bid, the stage was set for the conference title rematch.  In the regular season Robert Morris won the only matchup between the Colonials and Blackbirds by a margin of 75-66.  This time the stakes will be much higher with a conference title and the berth to the NCAA tournament on the line, and the Colonials will be ready to go, with vengeance on the mind.