Statistics don’t always tell the story in sports and that’s especially the case with the Dayton Flyers junior punter Christopher Papalia.
If you look at the numbers, you see he has punted just two times in his three-year career. And both of those kicks came in his very first game as a freshman. Since then he’s been the backup to fellow junior Sean Smith, who is a three-time All Pioneer Football League first team selection.
But if you surmise that Papalia hasn’t done much as a Flyer, you would be so wrong.
Over the past three years, the 6-foot, 212 pounder has become something of an action figure. Among other things he has:
•Twice taken part in the Running of the Bulls at Pamplona, Spain, including last summer’s derring-do moment when he wrapped an arm around one of the horned hoofers and gave it something of a hug as it charged past.
•Jumped out of a plane at 12,500 feet in a skydive he described as “amazing.”
•Zip lined in the Coast Mountains of Whistler, British Columbia.
•Bungee jumped off the 1,148-foot Stratosphere Tower in Las Vegas.
•Trekked around the Grand Canyon.
•Taken up acting., He’s now in rehearsal for a podcast presentation at UD called “Standards in Behavior.” In late February he had a part in the Steve Connell production “Unfinished” that was presented at the Black Box Theatre at Fitz Hall on campus.
Part of the theme was how others carry on the unfinished work of those who have died. And that idea may well have special resonance with him
Nine years ago his dad, his longtime coach — 49-year-old Dominic Papalia — died of cancer.
He left behind his wife Stacey and four children, oldest son Dominic who was then 14, fraternal twins Christopher and Joseph who were 12 and 9-year-old daughter Emma.
“We had to come together as a family,” Christopher said. “Mom was obviously hurting, but she had to grieve differently and be strong. If we saw she was OK, then we could feel OK.
“But it changed all of us in some ways. We began to understood things like how life can be short and how we shouldn’t take everything for granted. I began to understand you’ve got to make the most of life, even when you’re scared (out of your mind.) You’ve just got to go do it.”
A championship to cherish
Dominic Papalia had been a multi-sport star athlete at Mt. Lebanon High School in suburban Pittsburgh and then played football at Washington and Jefferson College, an NCAA Division III school in Washington, Pa.
Stacey — who is from Ossining, New York and went to Syracuse University — met him when they both worked for Nestle Foods in New York. Eventually they settled in Bethel Park, which is part of the Greater Pittsburgh area.
Stacey said Dominic was “a real hands-on father.” He coached the kids in football and baseball, but then was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2005.
While she said she was truthful with the kids, Stacey said she didn’t tell them the full extent of the situation:
“He was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer and they told him he’d have six to nine months to live. But he lived four years and the first three he really lived. That last year he was fighting for his life.”
Christopher said at first he didn’t understand what was at stake:
“When my dad was first diagnosed, I was eight so it was hard for my parents to explain to me what was going on.
“As I grew up, I started to understand what cancer was. Dad battled it and it went away for a while, but then it came back and had spread. That’s when I knew he didn’t have a long time to live.”
It was during that time that something quite remarkable happened.
Dominic coached a team that included Christopher and Joseph, then sixth graders, to a football championship in November of 2008.
“I have so many memories of my dad, but No. 1 is when we won that championship,” Christopher said. “I was the quarterback and back then he would be on the field calling plays and showing us pictures of the plays before he backed out of the action.”
Stacey remembers that championship season, as well:
“He was pretty sick at that point. He was very weak and frail. It was exciting to watch, but also very moving because you knew that’s all he wanted. And the boys played really hard for him.”
Christopher especially remembers the end of the title game:
“We were up 13-0 and we were trying to run out the clock. I remember the ref telling us we didn’t have to run another play and my dad suddenly looking up from his playbook and looking at the clock.
“That’s when he just grabbed my face mask and started screaming, ‘We won!… We won!’
“He threw his playbook and started jumping up and down. He was so excited, so happy.”
Seven months later Dominic Papalia died in hospice care.
“Me and my twin brother watch the DVD of the end of that championship game all the time,” Christopher said. “It’s just the coolest memory. That moment just makes me happy.”
A new stage
After her husband died, Stacey planned to sell the house and move the family to New York. But her kids heard her talking about it on the phone and she said they strenuously objected:
“They said ‘No way! This is our home This is where we’re from. We don’t want to move to New York. That’s where you’re from.’”
That plea struck a chord with her:
“We stayed here and from that point on, I gave my children everything I had. I let them know ‘Look, we’ll make it here.’”
Christopher marvels at the way she has strengthened the family bond:
“She always told us blood is thicker than water. She is one of the most amazing, most loving human beings there is.”
Along with a blue rubber bracelet he wears that reads “Remember His Smile,” Christopher is reminded of his father by the medallion on a chain his mom gave each of the four kids.
It bears a miniature likeness of their father’s handprint on the front. On the back are the words “My Guardian Angel.”
“It was an option after he passed and mom thought it would be a cool way for us to always remember him,” Christopher said
The only time he’d take it off was when he was playing junior high football — he was a wide receiver and safety, as well as a punter – and feared it could be torn off and lost during a tackle.
And sure enough that’s what happened one day not long after he got it.
“I forgot and wore it to practice and when I got out of the shower that night, I was like ‘Where’s my necklace?’” he said.
“It was gone and I started crying and crying and crying, I told my mom and she prayed and I prayed and she went back to the field the next day and found it.
“Someone had laid it on a bench and she saw it.”
Sitting there in the entrance to the UD football offices the other day, he suddenly reached up and gently rubbed the medallion the way he has so often in his life.
“I like to hold his hand whenever I get nervous or scared,” he said. “It just comforts me.”
He said since his father passed away, he and his siblings have been comforted by several father figures, especially their dad’s good friend, John Mascaro.
There have also been their uncles – especially their mom’s two brothers, Col. Rich Conforti (Air Force), who lives in Florida, and Joseph Conforti, from New York City. And their dad’s brother Michael has helped, too.It was during a trip to Las Vegas that Christopher said his “Uncle Ricky” brought up the idea to Joseph and him about running with the bulls:
“We made a pinky promise.”
The summer before he came to UD, Christopher said they made their first trip to Pamplona. Stacey admits she was nervous, especially with daughter, Emma, then just 15, joining them.
Her concerns weren’t unfounded. Since 1925, 15 people have been killed as the bulls and people run the half-mile along the narrow streets of Pamplona’s old town on the way to the bull fighting arena.
Every year some 200 or more people are injured, most from cuts and scrapes when they fall on the pavement.
Christopher admitted he nearly backed out the first year because he was frightened, but then found the experience so exhilarating that he was much bolder when they ran again last summer. This time, on the advice of a local competitor, he ran in front of the bulls who passed him without trying to gore him.
While his latest adventure – acting — may seem a lot tamer, it is just as nerve wracking in many ways.
Christopher had no previous training – he’s a finance major who has been a member of the PFL Academic Honor Roll three straight years– but he said growing up he used to go to his grandmother’s home to watch movies:
“I’d always say, ‘I want to be an actor!’”
Now he hopes that is beginning to happen.
Stacey laughed as she thought about her son’s switch from football to footlights:
“I heard his sister talking to him today. She said, ‘So how many years are you going to give yourself before you squash this dream?’
“He said, ‘Six years.’
“He asked us to back him for that long and we will. This year was the first time he was in a play and we all came over for it and my gosh, he did so good.”
A true teammate
With his new foray into acting – and the extensive study that comes as he continues to work toward his finance degree – Christopher wrestled midseason last year with his continued commitment to football.
He was putting in long hours, never playing and, he thought, sacrificing time he could use in developing his acting skills.
He came to head coach Rick Chamberlin’s office and said while he would finish the season, he wasn’t sure he wanted to return for his senior year.
“He could be punting at a lot of schools, but he just happens to be behind one of those kids here who comes around just once in so many years,” Chamberlin said. “Pap, that’s what I call him, never has complained, never has said he’s getting screwed. But he wasn’t sure he wanted to continue.”
Chamberlin said he loses 10 to 15 players a year because “they don’t receive scholarships and there may either be a burden financially or it no longer seems worth the time and commitment.
“Typically, I point things out to them, but I don’t try to talk them out of it because if you do, it will likely come up again down the road. So you let them make their own decision.
“I gave him my points and what he added to our team: the energy he gives us, the desire and the way he relates to his teammates. He does everything he can to help Smitty ( Sean Smith) and he jumps in on scout teams and special teams. He just wants to be involved.”
Christopher said he thought the matter over privately and he remembered another lesson he learned from his dad, especially during that battle with cancer:
He said while being relegated to the sidelines has been “really tough,’ he knows “at the end of the day (Smith) is the better punter.”
But if he left, he said he knew he’d miss his friends, the coaches and the game: “I just love football.”
He decided to return next season and is now going through spring football drills which conclude with the annual Spring Game next Sunday.
“He came to me and said, ‘Coach, I’m on board. I’m here to the end,’” Chamberlin said.
“And when I heard that, I was glad. He’s an example of the purest of teammates. He has sacrificed ego to make the team better for the other guys. He adds to the camaraderie a team needs.
“He just adds a lot more to this team than on-field stats – believe me.”
And that’s no bull.