Six days prior to scoring the Springfield College football team’s only six points in a 33-6 loss to St. John Fisher, senior Erik Chiarella put on his practice jersey with his teammates cheering for the first time since last spring in a memorable return.
After reinjuring his left quad in the beginning of August while catching a pass in a 7-on-7 summer league game in his hometown of West Long Branch, N.J., Chiarella chose to redshirt his senior season and remain with the Pride as an assistant coach when he learned he would be out until week six or seven.
Yet after seeing Brodie Quinn and Mike Davis go down with injuries in Springfield’s 38-33 victory over Ithaca College, the coach decided to turn in his coaching script and make an attempt to return to the field on senior day against St. John Fisher.
“I was sitting there in the Union, and I was going over things in my head and I was like, ‘Hey why don’t I give this a shot and try and come back,’” Chiarella said.
Last year Chiarella rushed for 94 yards and a touchdown in three games. In the Pride’s 44-7 victory in week three over Wilkes, he injured his left quad when he was hit by an opponent’s helmet.
“I never put ice or elevated it on the way home and it turned out to be really detrimental to me,” Chiarella said. “It swelled up and I was out for two to three weeks from that. It started bothering me in spring ball and we don’t hit during spring ball, so I just brushed it over.”
Yet as a result of the trauma, the fullback’s femur calcified.
“Walking I was fine, but whenever I put pressure on it or got hit there it was like a jolt of electricity,” Chiarella said. “Emotionally it was a lot harder going into my senior year. I wanted to make it real memorable and be there with my friends. I didn’t think I was going to get that opportunity.”
On Saturday, the senior was set to split time with starting fullback Joel Altavesta, but in the second half Chiarella became the Pride’s featured fullback after Altavesta was lost for the game due to a shoulder injury.
In tremendous pain from a hip pointer suffered a few plays earlier, and with Springfield trailing 26-0, the former coach lowered his shoulder and bulldozed his way into the end zone for a three-yard score to end the third quarter.
“I told Josh [Carter] if we get the ball within the 10-yard line you better give it to me,” Chiarella said. “He actually did give it to me and I saw a hole open up and got in there. I would have liked to enjoy that touchdown a little more, but the pain was the only thing on my mind at that point.”
Coach Mike Delong and the rest of the Springfield sideline could not have been prouder of Chiarella (4 carries for 8 rushing yards) getting into the end zone.
“We are very proud of Erik,” Delong said. “He is a high-quality kid and has always been a great team player. It was something that really meant a lot to him.”
Earlier in the week Delong put in an appeal to the Athletic Department to get Chiarella placed back on the team’s roster. Delong’s initial request was denied, but later on Monday the Athletic Department reversed its decision and Chiarella was eligible.
“I was really bummed at first because I was emotionally getting ready to be a football player again,” Chiarella said. “I was like, OK I will continue what I have been doing coaching and what not. When I went out to practice that day I had my script and was ready to coach and everything.”
One of the toughest adjustments returning to the practice field was just getting back into game shape, something Chiarella is not afraid of admitting.
“I’m going to be honest. I was in horrible condition,” the senior said. “I was doing a body building workout and I wasn’t working my legs. I wasn’t running because I didn’t really think I was going to play this year.”
Prior to making his return as a player, the Health Sciences Administration major was working with assistant coach Travis Parisi and the fullbacks. Chiarella believed he was more of a laid-back coach, but did admit it was awkward at times coaching the men he played next to a year earlier.
“It wasn’t as weird with the freshmen because I never knew them before,” Chiarella said. “But with the other guys, even my best friends were calling me coach and it was a little hard to get used to.”
Delong said Chiarella worked just as hard as a coach as he did as a player.
“He really tried to do things really, really well,” Delong said. “Erik was at practice every day and he was very conscientious. He takes a lot of pride in how he does everything.”
As a coach, the fullback actually was able to learn a lot about his position, and he believes it will help him during the Pride’s final three games of the season, all away from Alden Street.
“You think you know the offense and your position really well as a player, but when you literally take a step back as a coach and say, ‘Oh this is what coach [Mike] Cerasuolo has been saying to me for years,’ you literally take a step back, look at it and you understand it more.”
Despite not being able to see victory against the Cardinals, Chiarella, who says his quad feels fine this week, has no regrets about ending his redshirt season and returning to the sidelines, this time as a player.
“Once this opportunity came up to come back on Senior Day and try and beat St. John Fisher at home, it was just too good to pass up,” he said. “It would have been nice to have a full season instead of four [games], but I want to finish with this group of guys. [They’re] my best friends.”
Justin Felisko may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org