A chilly day such as this one is expected in mid-November, with the autumn wind and early nightfall forcing the Alleman football team to bring out the long sleeves as they practice on the Ericson Field turf.|
Off to the side stands Sam Armetta in a gray hooded sweatshirt with a football in his hands as the players strap up the shoulder pads and buckle their helmets. Once the Pioneers take the field at the start of practice, Armetta stands back and lingers on the blue track as a spectator on this cold night.
Later asked why he watches practice in the cold, the Alleman senior speaks from the heart.
"This," Armetta said, "is my favorite sport."
Too bad his heart keeps him off the field.
Diagnosed with arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy midway through his sophomore season, Armetta was told the inherited heart disease that could cause death would keep him away from sports forever. That meant no more football.
"I was pretty much giving up on a lot of things," Armetta said earlier this week. "I was down. It was a huge blow. I can't even explain what I felt. It was the worst feeling I've ever had."
Given a tough blow, Armetta, who also played basketball and baseball, showed that absence really does make the heart grow fonder. He could not stay away from football, so he stuck with the Pioneers the last two seasons.
When the Pioneers take the practice field, he actively participates in a limited capacity.
On away trips, Armetta has a seat on the bus.
After Alleman scores a touchdown, he's cheering on the sidelines.
"Here's a kid who can't even dress for the games. And he's here putting in his time and doing what he can to try to get everybody better," Alleman coach Dave DeJaegher said. "That speaks to Sam and his relationship to his teammates."
Armetta can recite the number of practices he's attended the last two years, a figure that makes him proud. Before becoming a spectator, he was a key component to the Pioneers' feature.
In the midst of it all, the game was taken away.
There were warning signs something was wrong before the diagnosis, but Armetta simply played through them. Sometimes during a game or practice, he would "black out" before he kept playing. The game was his passion, so he would not stop.
Moments after completing a 78-yard touchdown reception during an Alleman sophomore contest two years ago in Galesburg, the warning signs gave way to reality.
"It just hit me," Armetta said. "I couldn't move."
During halftime, he felt "light-headed and dizzy" before passing out. The symptoms resulted in a hospital visit the next Monday. A few days later during a trip to University Hospitals in Iowa City, he was diagnosed with ARVC -- a heart disease that affects athletes and those in adolescence -- after passing out during a stress test.
A second opinion at the Mayo Clinic confirmed the original diagnosis.
"I knew exactly what (the doctors) were saying," Armetta said. "It was pretty tough."
Basketball and baseball were tough to give up, but football carried much more importance. Throwing that away simply was not an option.
Since then, he has not missed a practice or team activity.
"This means a lot," Armetta said. "For these guys to look at me as still being part of the team, it helps me through everything."
Seeing Armetta remain with the team provides a lift as well.
"He's always there," Alleman senior quarterback John Tracey said. "He's always got a smile on his face. It's great seeing that."
Considering the Pioneers are playing in today's Class 4A state semifinal at Evergreen Park, times are good and the smiles are constant.
"It's awesome," Armetta said. "It's tough to watch, but watching these guys go to the semifinals, it's huge. Definitely a dream come true."
Armetta looks forward with excitement and anticipation as Alleman seeks its second state championship game appearance in three years.
Doing that also brings back memories of how he reached this point.
It all started with with a touchdown reception in Galesburg.
"It was one-handed," Armetta said.
The highlight-reel catch ended up being a long touchdown reception. That was Armetta's final play in his career.
"I hate to say it, but it was probably meant to be," Armetta said. "It's great to look back and have that as your last memory in football."
Talk about a storybook ending.