In the beginning the Beckers, who have two other sons, were excited about Todd going to Pitt. "We were the proudest people in Fitchburg," says Al. "Nobody around here ever goes to a big school." But like the parents of any heavily recruited athlete, they knew their child would face disappointments if things didn't work out.
"My wife was just mentioning that it could've had a large effect on Todd that he wasn't first team, that he could've been hurt inside," says Al. "From 10th grade on he never sat on the bench. His senior year at Fitchburg High he broke the school record for tackles and led the team in rushing. I drive a trailer truck, and I'm unfamiliar with college life, but did they have to ban him from the dorms for two years? He didn't do anything malicious. He was a tough kid, but he had feelings. Maybe they punished him because he wasn't a starter."
"I'm glad he went to Pitt, because he wanted to," says Todd's mother, Virginia. "But now I'm just filled with what-ifs." One of those is what if Todd had gone to UCLA, which had recruited him but wanted him to spend two years at a California junior college before joining the Bruins. But as Al says, "My wife's never been out there." Besides, Al continues, his driving experience made it "nothing for us to drive to Pittsburgh and see all Todd's games."
The Pitt team delayed its trip to the Cotton Bowl for a day to attend a memorial service on campus for Todd. Fazio, Bozik, part-time Assistant Coach Jim Miceli and several players, including Maas, Puzzuoli and Caito, later flew from Dallas to Fitchburg for the funeral. In the game against SMU, the Panthers wore patches on their jerseys bearing Becker's number, 38. The school flew his parents to Dallas and promised their youngest son, Jason, now 14 and a 170-pound linebacker at Fitchburg High, a scholarship to Pitt.
Virginia is ambivalent about the offer. "The athletic department was very good to us," she says. "But the school itself never sent us one line of condolence. It's almost as though my son wasn't even a student. I wonder if anybody is even thinking about him there."
Fazio is—all the time. Indeed, Fazio has changed not only because of Becker's death but also because of everything he and his team went through last season. He has come down out of his tower to get closer to his players, and he has tried to institute new codes of discipline. Players can no longer wear caps at the training table. They can't put their helmets on the ground during practice. They must wear coats and ties to both home and away games. Further, at the start of the year Fazio hired 38-year-old Carmen Grosso, a former Green Beret who saw action in Vietnam, to serve as a combination tight end coach and low-key disciplinarian.
Fazio knows there's a paradox in such measures. As he told the Pittsburgh Press last August, "We don't want them to be the best-behaved, best-dressed, most clean-shaven—and be the worst football players." Fazio still exhorts his defensive players to be "wild and reckless and fearless" afield. He still laughs at their antics, and he screams at them when they mess up. Most of all, he just wants them to make it through this tough period in their lives performing their best, unscathed.
"Todd's death had a sobering effect," says Fazio. "I learned that you have to keep things in the proper perspective. You're trying to mold these kids, but you also know you can't change their personalities. You hope that they learn to do things the right way, that they learn to walk away from the bad things...." Fazio, who openly marvels that he, the son of immigrants, is now the football coach at this proud school, pauses. On his office wall is a 2½' x 3' photo of the '63 Panther team, which went 9-1, losing only to Navy. Fazio didn't play on that squad, and he didn't coach it. The picture is there because he likes what the team accomplished after its victories. Of the 61 players on the roster, 57 graduated and 34 went on to obtain advanced degrees, to become doctors, dentists, engineers, lawyers, coaches, teachers, businessmen—successes. The boys grew up.
Fazio thinks once more of Becker. He looks at his desk top. "You can't go half speed in football, or you'll get hurt," he says. His voice then drifts off and he shakes his head. "If only I'd been there that night...."
"The imagination of a boy is healthy," wrote John Keats, who died of tuberculosis at 26, partly because he didn't believe the disease would kill him. "and the mature imagination of a man is healthy; but there is a space of life between, in which the soul is in a ferment, the character undecided, the way of life uncertain, the ambition thicksighted." It's a pity Todd Becker didn't make it past that ferment of the soul, into adulthood.