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published January 1, 2001

JOHNNY PEPE AWARD: Chad Fette, West Middlesex Big Reds, and Fette family
Even devastating house fire couldn't slow Big Reds star

By Jeff Greenburg
Herald Sports Editor

Following every scholastic football season, stories of courage and heart are sought by The Herald in order to bestow recognition as the Johnny Pepe Award winner.

That search wasn't very difficult this season.

Chad Fette

The prestigious award, named in honor of the late Herald sports editor who was widely known for his contributions to youth sports, is presented annually to any player, coach or fan who has had a special impact on high school football in the county.

And this season, that honor has been given to West Middlesex High School senior football player Chad Fette and his family, who suffered through a devastating house fire that leveled their home Aug. 31.

Fortunately there were no injuries.

A day later, Chad, a son of Doug and Robyn Fette, and the Big Reds football team were scheduled to open their 2000 campaign. (Chad is also a son of Marie Darby Fette, Hermitage). And open it they did.

Despite dealing with the loss of all of his family's possessions, Fette rumbled for a career-high 226 yards on 22 carries while rushing for four touchdowns of 4, 35, 15 and 3 yards as West Middlesex rolled over Neshannock, 41-3. And although no one could have predicted it at that moment, it was perhaps that determination -- permeating in Fette -- that sparked the Big Reds during the 2000 season, carrying them to an 8-2 mark and Fette to 1,284 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns.

"I think it did set a little bit of a tone within the team," said Big Reds coach Rick Resatar, referring to the tragedy. "The kids did come together and then Chad just went out and responded. And like any team, if you get off to a great start, good things will follow.

West Middlesex's Chad Fette (3) and his family lost all of their possessions in a devastating house fire on Aug. 31. A day later, Fette rushed for 226 yards and four touchdowns as the Big Reds crushed Neshannock, embarking on an 8-2 campaign. (Herald file photo)

"It was unfortunate, but I think it did help us. I wish it had never happened, but I think it did set the tone."

That tone, however, was far from everyone's minds on that late-Summer afternoon as the word began to spread that the Fette house at 55 Burrows Road, Shenango Township, had burned to the ground, leaving Chad, 18, his parents and siblings, Josh, 15, Roscoe, 9, and Marlaina, 6, as well as a handful of pets, homeless.

"I was at work," said Robyn, recalling that fateful day. "It was like a feeling of unbelieving. My sister-in-law (Chris Wheeler) called me. I knew she wouldn't joke about it, but I couldn't believe what she was telling me."

That disbelief became reality as Robyn headed up Burrows Road in time to see flames completely engulf what had been her home.

"It becomes reality, but it's kind of a sense you just don't know what to do," she said. "I kept thinking about the kids; that all they had left was what they had at school and what was on their backs."

Robyn said she then went to get the kids out of school so that none would have to learn of the fire riding on the school bus.

"It was a shock for them, but I have to say they were really good," she said.

Chad was apparently mature enough to recognize he had to be.

"When I heard (about it from my mom), it was devastating," he said. "At first you want to think she's joking, but the look on her face was serious. So I tried to be as courageous as I could because I knew she needed someone to lean on. I knew if I showed disappointment, then she would too."

While gaining a place to live was certainly the top priority for the Fette family, there was also a football season to be played for Chad and Josh, a freshman member of the squad.

And those who follow sports know what a God-send they can be in washing problems away, at least temporarily. A successful team just makes that easier. No one could have imagined how easy, however, it would be for the Big Reds, who opened the season with seven consecutive wins and put up some of the area's finest offensive and defensive numbers.

The rout of Neshannock was only the beginning for the Big Reds, who vanquished all their foes in 2000 except league rivals Sharpsville and Kennedy Christian.

"The winning was great," Chad said. "It was a nice thing for everyone: the family, community and school. I'm not saying winning made it easier at home. But if we had (a losing season), it would have made it a lot harder."

A little more than 24 hours after a fire had taken virtually all they own, the Fette family was at West Middlesex High stadium for the Big Reds' opener.

"It was real important," Robyn said of attending the opener. "And I have to say there were people who couldn't believe we went to the game. But Chad had been playing since he was eight and it was his senior year. It was devastating what happened to us, but this was important to us. It was his first game of his senior year."

It was a game that Chad almost didn't play.

"I went to practice Thursday night and everyone was in disbelief," Chad recalled. "My coach (Resatar) came up and said, 'If you can't play, I'll respect that and understand.' But I was ready to go. I figured whether I played or not my house was still burned down. And it would give everybody something else to think about."

Four touchdowns, 226 yards and a 41-3 rout sure did.

"It was awesome," Robyn said of her son's spectacular game. "I always knew he had it in him. I was very proud of him."

"I was satisfied," Chad added. "And it wasn't so much that only my house burned down, it was the fact that we actually did well as a team and we won, which at that time was weird. It was nice because everyone was rooting for me, but I don't know if anyone believed it could happen."

Resatar did.

"He came out of nowhere to people outside the program. But three years ago Chad helped us playing a little running back, quarterback, secondary and special teams," Resatar said. "His junior year he did similar things. This year, he just took control. He said, 'I want to be the guy in the backfield,' and he responded great.

"Chad made a lot of things happen himself. I've seen him grow the last three years on the football field. He was a hard worker and always was the last to leave the practice field and after a game. He loves football and loves to play."

There are probably few who would believe that love of the game, or any game for that matter, would provide a sense of emotional stability for a family in crisis. It did.

"We always knew on Friday that no matter what happened during the week we were going to be at the game watching him and Josh," Robyn said.

On Dec. 18, the Fette family moved back into their rebuilt home after spending more than three months in a home provided by family friends, Jack and Lisa Harper of Hermitage.

"They had a house in Wheatland that was up for sale and they let us stay there while we were rebuilding," Robyn said of the Harpers. "We just paid utilities. They wouldn't take rent."

In fact, Robyn continued, the "response of the entire community was overwhelming. Our church (New Life Baptist in New Wilmington) was also wonderful."

As, it seems, were all who surrounded the Fette family in the wake of what was a terrible tragedy.


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