The Presidents celebrate on the field after winning the PAC championship in honor of Tim McNerney.
Presidents capture championship in memory of star running back
With five fingers held high, members of the Presidents football team, along with cheerleaders, parents and fans, rushed the field at Wiley Stadium seconds after capturing Washington & Jefferson College’s first Presidents’ Athletic Conference (PAC) championship since 2007. Tears streamed down players’ faces as the celebration turned into a massive embrace around Head Football Coach Mike Sirianni, who raised the trophy in the air before presenting it to the parents of Tim McNerney ’13.
An Unthinkable Loss
It was an emotional close to a season that will be remembered more for love and respect than tackles and touchdowns. After starting the first half of the season with a 4-1 record, the Presidents were well on their way to realizing McNerney’s goal of regaining their spot atop the conference standings. However, on Oct. 4, just 48 hours before W&J was set to play Thomas More in Kentucky, McNerney was found dead off campus, stunning the close-knit team of players who looked to the senior captain as their leader and friend.
“We lost our best player, our captain and the most popular guy on the team,” Sirianni said. “Tim packed more into his 21 years of life than anyone I’ve ever met. He taught his teammates, friends and coaches to live each day to its fullest. We’ll never forget him, and we’ll never be the same without him.”
“Tim packed more into his 21 years of life than anyone I’ve ever met."
-Mike Sirianni, Head Football Coach
Faced with a decision of whether or not to play a game five hours from campus after a tragedy that deeply affected the W&J community, the coaches and players resolved to travel to Crestview Hills, Ky., to take the field in McNerney’s honor. Co-captain DeAndre Simmons ’13
wore his fallen teammate’s No. 5 jersey during the game, where a pregame ceremony honored McNerney’s life. Understandably, the Presidents appeared to have trouble focusing from the outset, committing seven turnovers and falling to the Saints 54-18.
Players join hands as they run out onto the field at Thomas More with five fingers held high for McNerney.
A Campus Community Unites
The days that followed were ones of grieving and healing for the team and campus community, but also of remembrance for a vibrant life that, though cut too short, touched everyone around him. Whether selling memorial bracelets or finding inspiration in the young musician’s lyrical rap tracks, McNerney’s teammates and classmates banded together to honor their friend’s legacy. Under the Twitter hashtag #RIP5, students used social media as a means to communicate and share memories, creating a virtual memorial for McNerney that continues to evolve.
“We are going to honor Tim by winning football games and treating each other well, with respect,” said Sirianni, who led his emotional team in a pivotal Senior Day game against Westminster, the first at Cameron Stadium since the tragedy. Fans packed the stands as McNerney’s family took part in the festivities, releasing red and black balloons into a clear blue sky at the announcement of his name. The Presidents fought hard in honor of McNerney, and topped Westminster 24-21 behind 168 all-purpose yards from running back Dion Wiegand ’14.
A week later, W&J hosted Saint Vincent in a Homecoming game that brought hundreds of alumni to Washington, Pa., in a show of support for their alma mater, including the players and coaches of the 1992 team who were celebrating the 20th anniversary of their appearance in the NCAA Division III national championship game.
Referring to the support his team received as “remarkable,” Sirianni said the players were inspired by all of the calls, texts, emails and visits from alumni. “I’ll never forget the people who supported us when we needed it most,” he said. Bill Dukett, W&J’s director of athletics, agreed, saying that during the toughest of times, the tight-knit W&J community makes its biggest impact.
“This tragedy affected not only the team but the entire campus,” Dukett said. “When you lose a team leader, it is a blow to everyone on the team. When you lose someone who is beloved by the entire campus community, reminders surround you every day—wherever you go on campus, whomever you talk to. The support our faculty, administration and alumni displayed to our coaching staff and student-athletes has been extraordinary. Former players calling to not only inquire about the situation, but also to lend support and counseling, assured me that the long-held saying of ‘once a President, always a President’ is alive and well.”
Players, cheerleaders and members of the campus community come together to honor McNerney’s memory.
Winning for Tim
A 40-14 victory over Saint Vincent at Homecoming and a 27-17 triumph at Geneva the following weekend set up a showdown in Greene County for the final week of the regular season—the 40th edition of the PAC Backyard Brawl at Waynesburg.
After linebackers Ian Hennessy ’13 and John Hunter ’13 stuffed a Waynesburg ball carrier on the third play of the game to force a punt, W&J dominated, winning 31-14 and setting off a wild postgame celebration. For the first time in nearly 40 days, tears were accompanied by smiles.
“Winning this title meant a lot because our guys were playing for a purpose—they wanted to grant Tim’s wish,” Sirianni noted. “Was this the most talented team in W&J history? No. But, I believe this is the best championship this football program has ever won. The key game was the Westminster win. The tragedy was still so fresh in our minds, but we found a way to come out on top and then got on a roll.”
“This team will remember fulfilling their teammate’s dream their entire lives."
-Bill Dukett, Athletics Director
Dukett commended Sirianni, who was named the PAC and D3football.com South Coach of the Year, and his staff for keeping the team focused during the most difficult circumstances. “This team will remember fulfilling their teammate’s dream their entire lives,” Dukett said. “Celebrating on the field with the championship trophy will be just as memorable to them as playing in a Rose Bowl or Stagg Bowl game was to our alumni. This game teaches you to overcome any obstacle. Hopefully, they will carry this lesson on in life and be better prepared for the difficult challenges they will endure.”
Following the season, McNerney was a unanimous first-team All-PAC choice and earned a spot on the D3football.com All-South Region Team. Sirianni said that the star running back’s No. 5 jersey will remain distinguished at W&J. “As long as I am head coach of this football program, no one will wear the number five again,” explained Sirianni, who added that a new weight room in the basement of Henry Memorial Gym will be named after McNerney and John Heisman, W&J’s 1923 head coach and namesake of the Heisman trophy. “Every future W&J football player will know Tim McNerney.”
– Scott McGuinness