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Nicholas Brandemarti in High School
Attacks took hero from football crazy town

By Rick Hampson, USA TODAY

WEST DEPTFORD, N.J. — For a season he was Friday's hero, the biggest star on the biggest night of the week in a half-rural town half-crazy for high school football. And on one Friday night, when he ran 340 yards with the ball under his arm, he was the greatest running back in the history of West Deptford High. Nick Brandemarti, class of '97, went on to play football at Fordham, to land a good job with a big financial firm and to work on the 89th floor of 2 World Trade Center. He was there on the second Tuesday in September, a day almost everyone in America lost something. This week, and for weeks to come, those losses will be measured in hundreds of funeral services and ceremonies across the nation.

Americans have lost their children, their associates, their sense of safety. And West Deptford has lost its hero.

"For us, Nick personalizes this whole tragedy," says Kathy Behnke, his former guidance counselor. West Deptford is in South Jersey, a long way from Manhattan. "Nick brought it home," she says, choking out the words. "We knew this boy."

This boy was smart, funny and charming, darkly good looking and incessantly hard working. He pulled the chair out for his friends' mothers. He knew how to talk to girls, including ones he didn't know. He had a tight circle of friends yet was friendly to all.

He was on the Student Council and in the National Honor Society. He managed to be popular with teachers without seeming like a suck-up.

"He was the big man on campus," says Al Nicolosi, the local caterer. His classmates voted him "Best All-Around."

But to understand Nick Brandemarti's place in this town across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, you have to understand Friday night football.

In a sprawling community with 20,000 residents and seven different post offices, high school football brings people together for a sort of raucous town social. The atmosphere is electric, with the lights, the band, the cheerleaders, the PA system, the tailgaters.

It starts when the Eagles, in green and white, run out under the goalposts. It ends after a victory, when they circle the flagpole, raise their helmets and sing the alma mater.

"It's an event," says Nicolosi. "Everyone comes, from the mayor on down."

No one loved Friday night games more than Nick. They're listed in the yearbook among his favorites, behind God and ahead of Dad's jokes.

And in the fall of '96, he was Mr. Friday Night. He gained 1,204 yards that season, breaking a school record. He scored 12 touchdowns, 11 more than he had as a junior. It seemed at times that No. 44 carried the team on his broad shoulders.

After he left for college, he always came back to hang out or work out, and people can't believe he's gone. His former coach, Clyde Folsom, says he still expects to look up at practice and see Nick walking across the field with that big soup-eating grin on his face.

A star made, not born

Nick Brandemarti was a self-made star. When he entered high school, he weighed 110 pounds. Coach Folsom's initial diagnosis: too small, too slow.

But he didn't know Nick, who began showing up for voluntary practices and weight-lifting sessions. He'd run up the hill on Crown Point Road with a weighted vest. He'd squat jump up the stadium steps holding barbells. He'd circle the track wearing a parachute.

Folsom was impressed. "I'd walk off the field after practice, and I'd look back at him — he was always coming off after me — and all I'd see were blues eyes and a lot of dust. He'd say, 'Coach, how was your practice?' ... When I'd drive home at 8 or 8:30, I'd see him still out on the field."

The coach had to change his diagnosis: "average talent, tremendous work ethic."

By senior year, the freshman had bulked up to 180 pounds and dropped his time in the 40-yard dash from 4.9 to 4.6 seconds. With his quick feet, sharp eyes and low center of gravity, he rolled through the defense like a bowling ball.

The team's motto was "You Gotta Believe," and No. 44 did. "I simply love to play football," he said. "I love to hit, and I don't mind being hit." He was in on every play except kickoffs.

Nick played the game of his life against Gateway High, a traditional rival. After a slow start — 19 yards on five carries — he broke away for a 51-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.

By halftime he'd worn down the defense. All the squats and bench presses were paying off. In the third quarter, No. 44 scored two more touchdowns, from his own 43rd yard line and from Gateway's 1.

Leading 27-0 early in the fourth quarter, Folsom was ready to pull his star fullback. First, however, he called a "belly" play, a dive into the line designed to gain a few yards, eat up some time and keep possession of the ball.

But Nick had only one gear — high. "His motor was always running," Folsom says. He turned the dive into an 86-yard touchdown.

When it was over he'd gained 340 yards on 25 carries, more yards in a single game than all but two players in South Jersey high school history, more than greats from the region such as Franco Harris, Ron Dayne and Mike Rozier.

For another kid, such a night would have been as intoxicating as a double gin martini on an empty stomach. For Nick, it was an occasion to deflect the credit to everybody but the water boy.

"The blocking is what did it for me tonight," he told reporters. "The line was opening up holes the entire game. All I did was carry the ball through."

Another player might have dwelt for years on such a game. "I never heard him bring it up again," says Hunter Kintzing, the quarterback.

The team, even though half the players were sophomores, finished 6-3. At the breakup banquet, Folsom talked about Nick: "I really can't believe I'll be on that practice field next year and he won't be there." Some people thought they heard a crack in the coach's voice.

On to New York

Nick's great senior year helped win him a scholarship to Fordham, where he found there was a limit to what hard work and determination could accomplish.

At Fordham, he reached a level of competition where he really was too small and too slow. He didn't play very often. And when he did, he didn't play very well. He suffered three concussions. Fordham didn't win many games.

You could tell none of this by looking at him.

"I can't recall a single play, but I remember that I never saw Nick without a smile on his face," says Ken O'Keefe, head coach in his sophomore year. "He was a lifter. If you were down, he lifted you, even if you were the coach."

As Nick's football career waned, he focused on business.

As usual, he worked hard — one summer he made $12,000 in 2 months selling motorized scooters. There's a photo from a spring break trip to the Bahamas, in which Nick's buddies are sprawled around an airport lounge, chatting or dozing. In the corner is Nick, reading The Wall Street Journal.

After Fordham, he landed a job with Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, researching the finances of publicly traded companies. He and two friends moved into a nice $3,400-a-month apartment across the Hudson in Hoboken, N.J.

Nick had the second floor to himself — master bedroom with hardwood floors, walk-in closet and bathroom. "It's the pad, man," he'd tell friends. "It's THE pad."

And it was THE job. He'd arrive at 7 each morning and not return for 11 or 12 hours. He liked everything about it, including the view from the south tower of the Trade Center. "Mr. Nick, you gotta come visit," he told Nicolosi, whose son Tom was one of his roommates. "You can see for miles."

"Nick felt he was on top of the world," his mother Nancy says. "We called him 'Mr. Manhattan.' "

He posted a list of personal and professional goals on his bedroom wall, including, "Meet a new person each day and leave him better off for the encounter." His reading list included Speed Reading the Easy Way, The Art of Warfare and the autobiographies of GE's Jack Welch and Philadelphia 76ers' president, Pat Croce.

He joined a gym and started jogging to get back in shape. And he was studying for his broker's exam in October.

All three roommates loved to eat. On Monday night, Sept. 10, Tom Nicolosi prepared chicken cooked in lemon and garlic sauce.

The next morning, Nancy Brandemarti got a call from her son who saw "a ball of fire" in the neighboring tower after the first airliner hit. He sounded nervous. When his father called, Nick said he had to go.

His roommate, Tom, was working nearby in lower Manhattan. Tom looked out his window and saw a second jetliner crash into the 89th floor of Nick's tower.

Not a trace

The Brandemartis have heard nothing of their son since Sept. 11. But they have received visits, calls or notes from everyone from the mayor to the water meter reader. So many people stop by the house, says Nick Sr., "it feels like a pilgrimage."

On the Friday after the attack, the Brandemartis stepped outside their front door at 7 p.m. with candles and found 150 neighbors singing God Bless America. The following Sunday, they returned from a day trip to New York to find their friends had erected a lighted 15-foot flagpole in the front yard and hung a flag at half-staff.

Now the flag has been raised to the top of the pole, and a memorial Mass has been tentatively scheduled for Sunday.

It will be a sad day. In his poem To an Athlete Dying Young, A.E. Housman wrote of a young runner carried through the streets of town after a victory. And after his premature death, the runner is carried through the same streets by the same hands in a funeral procession.

Nick Brandemarti may not even enjoy that melancholy symmetry. There is still no body, no trace of him — not even the watch his father gave him for college graduation.

For now, Folsom says he wants Nick's old number on the field. It's worn by this year's star runner, Damon McWhite, who offered to give it up. But No. 44 will be retired at the end of the season, which has been dedicated to the star of '96. So far the Eagles are 4-0.

No West Deptford player will ever wear 44 again, nor stay in a game long enough to break the 340-yard record — "not as long as I'm coach," says Folsom. He pauses before adding, "Unless the game is close." He knows Nick would agree.