By Joseph Santoliquito
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J.(CBS) – He comes up about shoulder high in the picture. It’s a portrait of a smiling blonde crew-cut kid in a red jersey, holding his helmet and shoulder pads in his left hand. It’s a bright, perfect moment of a father and son after a football game—forever embraced and powerfully, uncannily prescient.
Fran Walsh looks at the shot of him and his dad that adorns his bedroom wall every day. He can’t escape the kind eyes that still seem to follow him. Or the knowing presence leaning over his right shoulder in the picture is still there.
It has to be.
How else can Walsh, Archbishop Wood’s 6-foot-1, 245-pound center and the Maxwell Club Pennsylvania Henry Award winner, explain it?
The last game Matthew Walsh ever coached his son was at Villanova Stadium. As Matthew and Fran were walking off the field, father and son took a moment to pose for a picture on the surrounding track. A brief minute that now holds indelible meaning to Fran. It marked the last time they were on a football field together.
Matthew died of brain cancer on June 20, 2008.
As the recruiting process was winding down, a number of schools were interested in Fran. The two-year starting center for Wood had anchored the Vikings’ vaunted ground attack, which led to the PIAA Class AAA state championship in 2011 and Wood finishing as state runner-up with a young team in 2012.
Army and Navy called. Franklin & Marshall was interested. But no one school really shined. No college seemed to come with a concrete offer. Fran began getting a little concerned. He had a great season. He has great grades. He began to wonder where he was headed.
“Then Villanova came into the picture, and they came late, really late, you can almost say out of the blue,” Fran said. “A week before national signing day, they came and said they had a spot for me. There was no doubt about it. I was signing with them. It’s a great school. I’m close to home. My family and friends can see me play. But it’s kind of interesting how this all came about. The craziest part about it is the last game my father ever coached me was at Villanova Stadium. That’s my last football picture me and my father ever took together, on the field after the CYO championship for the Bux-Mont Saints.”
Walsh’s senior season at Wood appeared to carry a magical touch. The revamped Vikings had lost five Division I players from the previous state championship season. They were also starting a freshman at quarterback—meaning even more responsibilities would be heaped onto Walsh. He didn’t mind. Wood’s coaches carried the utmost confidence in him.
“You really won’t come across a better kid than Fran,” Wood coach Steve Devlin said. “He’s the kind of kid you can lean on and ask to take on more, and he’ll readily do it. Everything we asked of Fran he did here. He was the cornerstone of our offensive line the last past two years and a big reason why we won the state title in 2011 and why we got back to the state championship this year.”
There is a deep sentiment that motivates Walsh. That’s the memory of Matthew. Prior to each game, Fran will seal off everything for a few moments, say a little prayer to himself, and then kiss the cancer rubber wristbands his father once wore.
Matthew coached his son since fifth grade. He’s the one who spent countless hours working with Fran on blocking and tackling technique, instilling in him the values of practice and diligence.
So when Matthew died, Fran thought, that connection with football died with it. Fran’s mother, Colleen, suddenly saddled with raising five children by herself, implored Fran to continue playing. She was the unbreakable pillar. The time then was a blur. Fran did play, though the car rides to and from practice always carried an empty feeling, like something was missing.
The oldest son, Fran also found himself somewhat of a father figure to his three younger siblings. His child’s world turned into a real world with real issues.
“I had to step up a lot and I had to think things out before I did them, before I did everything,” Fran said. “I had to be a good role model. It makes you grow faster than a lot of kids the same age. Football was still important to me. I loved football. I just had to be convinced to keep on playing—that was my connection with my dad, the thing me and my dad did together.
“My mom always said my father wanted to play and I was wanted to stick with it and keep going. But it was tough. I was angry, angrier with God than anything else, for taking my dad away. I was young and that’s the way kids think. That came out in football—that was always a great way to release all of my emotions. As I started getting older, I made peace with myself and my faith. I am very religious. I began to understand things and that helped me grow in every aspect of my life.”
This year has been beyond anything Walsh ever imagined. State runner-up. First-team all-Catholic League. Maxwell Award winner. Henry Award winner. He says he’ll never experience anything like it again. But there are some, who know Walsh, which will readily dispute that.
“He’s awesome—there aren’t too many other words I can think of to describe Fran,” Devlin said. “He’s the kid you want your daughter to grow up and marry. Fran is going to continue doing great things. Our world is going to be a better place because kids like Fran Walsh are going to grow up and change it.”
So on tonight, March 1, sitting on the Maxwell Club dinner dais with Colts’ coach Chuck Pagano, a cancer survivor himself, Walsh may be reminded again of the picture. The lasting image of a father and son after a football game.
“That’s pretty wild,” Fran said. “It’s one of the first things that came to mind after I signed with Villanova. Before that, I really hadn’t thought about the connection. The picture still hangs in my room of that day at Villanova.”
Walsh will be taking it with him to Villanova, always with the sense his father is coming along, too, still there over his right shoulder.
Joseph Santoliquito is a contributing sports blogger for CBS Philly.