By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - One of the many condolence cards that was sent to Owen Thomas' family was signed by members of the Brown football team. It was the Bears' way, head coach Phil Estes says, "to let them know that Brown football was thinking of them."
People across the Ivy League have wanted Penn football to know they care about its loss this offseason. Thomas, a defensive end who this fall would have been a senior captain for the defending league champion Quakers, committed suicide on April 26 at his off-campus apartment.
Published reports claimed Thomas' intensity spiraled out of control despite attempts by others to help the 21-year-old gain perspective off the football field. A two-year starter, he received All-Ivy League second-team honors last season after he recorded six sacks for a defense that ranked first in the FCS in total defense and scoring defense.
It was the second such tragedy to hit Penn football in the last five years. Running back Kyle Ambrogi committed suicide during the 2005 season.
"And then to have something like that happen, there's no way of explaining it and understanding it sometimes."
Like many others, the Bears hoped to express how heartbroken they were for Thomas' family, and his extended family at Penn. Estes reached out to Penn head coach Al Bagnoli with a phone call and a text message. Linebacker Brendan Gallagher, who attended high school with Thomas in suburban Philadelphia, organized the signing of the card that he and his teammates sent to the Thomas family.
At Harvard, coach Tim Murphy reached out immediately to Penn and offered his sympathy and help. Dartmouth went even a step further, as head coach Buddy Teevens reached out to Bagnoli while his assistant coaches contacted Penn assistants that they had relationships with previously. Big Green players did the same with Quakers players, all offering condolences, and even signed several sheets of Dartmouth letterhead for the Thomas family, expressing their brotherhood with Thomas and Penn football.
Penn has sought privacy on the issue, with the highly respected Bagnoli, the dean of Ivy football coaches, still not wanting to talk publicly about it other than releasing a statement through the school, which said: "Owen was a remarkable young man, a true scholar-athlete, an ambassador for Penn, a tremendous teammate and leader on and off the field, as well as a caring and outstanding brother. It is a testament to the person he was that his teammates had voted him captain for the upcoming season. His loss will be felt for a long time. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family during this time."
The Ivy League has followed Penn's lead, basing its actions off the athletic department's wishes. "A lot of times you want to do something," said Scottie Rodgers, the league's associate director of communications, "but sometimes the best thing is to do nothing and let them manage it at their own speed, in their own way. Obviously, our heartfelt condolences go out to the Penn family, to the student-athlete's family."
The widespread response across the Ivy League has been typical to reaction when its brethren have been shaken previously. A year ago, when 2008 Ivy League rushing champion Jordan Culbreath of Princeton had his senior season ended by aplastic anemia, a life-threatening disease in which bone marrow does not produce enough blood cells, calls and emails offering support poured into his family and the Princeton program.
Similarly, the support was strong for Lawrence Rubida, a former All-Ivy offensive lineman at Brown who showed an indomitable spirit while he battled Ewing's Sarcoma, a rare form of childhood cancer. He died in 2005 at 23.
"We had just every team sending cards and calling and wanting to know what they could do," Estes said. "When they found out that we were trying to raise some money to help support Lawrence and his medical bills and his family ... Harvard stepped up right away. Their players gave a few thousand dollars towards that. Dartmouth did the same thing as well. It's pretty unique in this league because most of the kids know each other and are there to lend a helping hand whenever they can."