By: Chris Bendel – Asst. Sports Editor
Gus and Mary Nuzzolese looked on anxiously as their son Pat, a redshirt freshman center on UD’s football team, battled during crunch time alongside his teammates. A tense atmosphere and a sense of urgency surrounded Pat and the team while precious seconds ticked away in an attempt to put down a timeless and familiar opponent.
Minutes later, after a hard-fought win, Nuzzolese rushed for a squirt of water and caught a glimpse of his parents. He didn’t know they were watching him in action, but their facial expressions expressed anguish and a sense of relief.
His parents had seen him play countless times on the football field, but this was different. Much more was on the line than a conference championship. As his parents began to make the short journey home, he began to take off his gear. He knew he’d see them shortly.
Yet, his helmet didn’t have a facemask and the equipment he shed consisted of much more than shoulder pads. As a volunteer of the Port Washington Fire Department in his hometown, Nuzzolese redefines the duties of a typical college student or student athlete.
When he returned to his Long Island house hours later, he found his parents sitting around the kitchen table, still teary-eyed recapping what they had just witnessed. Football games and their results eventually fade away, but Nuzzolese will never forget his parents’ faces on that night after they watched his squad beat back the blaze just minutes from their home.
“When [my dad] saw me coming out of a building that’s clearly on fire and taking the mask off, it might have been a wakeup call that this is the real deal,” Nuzzolese said.
If you ask him, he’d consider himself a firefighter-student-athlete, in that order. He loves firefighting and always has, even more so than what most people would identify him with at UD – playing football.
With the surrounding culture sometimes placing the role of an athlete before that of a student, Nuzzolese adds to the equation a component beyond the scope of the job description. He redefines how we see athletes in the community. Public service comes first. It’s a refreshing concept in the context of sport’s culture.
As for the desire to become a firefighter, Nuzzolese offers a simple explanation: he was just born with it.
The passion to serve his community by fighting fires has burned within him for as long as he can remember. As a kid, he snatched up every toy fire truck he could get his hands on and kept his parents at holiday parade routes until he was sure the trucks he greatly admired were out of sight.
Nuzzolese now returns the favor, attending community events on the other side of the parade route, looking out among the smiling faces of children trying to catch a glimpse of Port Washington’s public servants.
His firehouse duties remain constantly embedded in his daily routines. A call can come at any time during the day or night. While some students cherish the opportunity to catch up on sleep during breaks from school, Nuzzolese anticipates the possibility of waking up in the middle of the night at the whim of a phone call.
“It’s a lifestyle, being a firefighter, you kind of eat it and breathe it,” Nuzzolese said. “You have to love running into burning buildings.”
He credits his great uncle, who also volunteers with the Atlantic Hook and Ladder firehouse, for funneling his interest of firefighting into a path where he could join in the ranks of his childhood heroes.
Before Nuzzolese formally joined the Port Washington Fire Department in the spring of his junior year of high school, he familiarized himself with the industry with a membership in a junior firefighter program. After a few months of training, he was officially sworn in to his firehouse in April 2011.
This spring will mark his third year as a volunteer firefighter.
His hometown of Port Washington, N.Y., runs along the north shore of Long Island and is a residential area with a few commercial buildings sprinkled in. A coastal town, damaging storms create flooding and electrical fire hazards ,which his fire department frequently responds to.
In a close-knit community like Port Washington, everyone in town seems to know each other, which adds to Nuzzolese’s sense of duty. He has helped fight a fire of a friend who owns a local establishment that his family patrons.
“Going up to the owner and telling him that we took care of everything… It was really cool. We ended up saving the deli. He was able to open up in a few months,” he said.
Nuzzolese draws on memories of playing Friday night football under the lights, in front of thousands of cheering fans, as a baseline to help explain the adrenaline rush of running head-on into a burning building.
“The adrenaline rush is like the Friday night lights of a football game times ten,” he said. “You’re literally running into flames with the smoking going over your head and people screaming at you. There’s no way to describe it.”
Like most firefighters, Nuzzolese said he considers himself an adrenaline junkie, something that also aids him on the football field, besides his 6-foot, 3-inch, 260-pound frame.
During a training exercise in June 2013, Nuzzolese attempted to dismount a ladder onto a roof. In doing so, he lacerated two fingers on his left hand which led to the amputation of his pinky and half of the ring finger.
While he snaps the ball with his right hand when lining up as a center, the injury affected his blocking style and after 6-8 months of physical therapy, he is finally beginning to regain feeling in his left ring finger.
“I wasn’t able to hit people head on, just cause of the impact with my ring finger and the shoulder pads so that was tough to get used to,” he said.
With spring ball right around the corner, he anticipates making further adjustments to his game, with the hopes of returning to his pre-injury level of play.
While he takes his duty of protecting the UD quarterback seriously, Nuzzolese understands the stakes are much greater in his duties back home.
“If you don’t do your job, the quarterback might get tackled,” Nuzzolese said. “As a firefighter, if the guy behind you isn’t doing his job or the guy in front of you isn’t telling you which way to go, both lives are at stake.”
He connects his two passions by the camaraderie among his team, whether they have oxygen strapped to their back or available to them on the sideline after an 80-yard touchdown run.
“The guys [at the fire house] are my brothers at home,” Nuzzolese said. “I have my brothers on the football team here. I know I can call them any time, day or night.”
A mechanical engineer at UD, Nuzzolese is not quite sure what the future has in store, but knows he wants firefighting to remain a part of his life in some capacity.
Nuzzolese’s passion to help his community provides a reminder that athletes can be more than just on-field warriors.