IN THE MOMENTS when memories can override the grief,
Gennaro Gambardella can search his mind's eye and clearly see a past made rich
by the times shared with his firstborn son, Jerry. It seemed to be all
baseball, all the time.
"When I'd be playing in centerfield," Gambardella said, "I'd be able to
look up at the hill right behind me and he was up there with his wiffle ball
Jerry was born when Gennaro was a 16-year-old sophomore at West Haven High
School in Connecticut. There was never any question that Gennaro would stand by
the baby and Marianne, who would become his wife. "He was more excited than
anyone ," Mrs. Gambardella said. "He knew it was going to be a boy. He was
already having baseball dreams."
The baby was embraced by the couple's classmates. "Everybody in school knew
him, loved him and played with him," Mrs. Gambardella said.
A ball, bat and glove were the requisite baby gifts. Baseball was the first
order of business in the Gambardella household. "Every field he played on, I
played on first," Gambardella said. "Little League, junior high and high
Gennaro was an all-star for the high school team but never went beyond that
so he could provide for his wife and baby. When he stopped playing, he started
watching his son.
Now it was Jerry who looked into the stands and could see his father.
"He used to wear a jersey with my name on it; now I wore one with his name
on it," the father said. "He played 91 games in high school and I never missed
The 6-foot, 205-pound first baseman batted .293 as a Hofstra freshman. His
family saw as many games as it could, even traveling to New Mexico for a road
trip. "It was almost like we were in college with him," Mrs. Gambardella said,
"my husband especially, since it wasn't in the cards for him to play in
This fall, in Jerry's sophomore year, there was some worry when he could
not be reached by phone on Sept. 11, the day the World Trade Center was
attacked. His mother knew he and his girlfriend, Hofstra soccer player Lea
Trojanowski, had planned a trip to Manhattan.
It turned out the pair had visited the city a few days earlier and were
safe on campus. But about two months after the WTC tragedy, the family had one
of its own.
On Nov. 14, a Wednesday afternoon, Jerry collapsed while playing touch
football on an athletic field at Hofstra. He could not be revived and at 19,
his life was over. No diagnostic procedure could have prevented his death from
cardiac arrhythmia, his parents were told. Contributing factors, his autopsy
revealed, were a respiratory infection, physical exertion and an enlarged
Everyone who knew Jerry knew he had a big heart. That was evidenced by his
insistence on signing the organ donor box on the driver's license he received
last June. His cornea, veins and heart valve were harvested to help others. And
portions of his skin were used in grafts for firemen burned on Sept. 11. "That
made him my hero," said Gennaro Gambardella, a Connecticut firefighter.
Someone once said the way to make God laugh is to tell Him your plans.
Jerry had big plans. Get his degree in physical education, maybe play pro
baseball and, most importantly, marry the girl of his dreams.
"We were sitting around and watching TV on Monday," Trojanowski said,
recalling the Monday before his passing. "He turned to me and said, 'Lea, will
you marry me? I don't have the money for a ring yet but I have to know you are
going to be mine.' I said, 'Of course. We have to be together.' "
The two had met over the summer. She lives 10 minutes away in Shelton. "The
guy, the one, had come along when I was 19," she said. "We had only been
dating for five days when he said, 'I think I'm falling in love with you. No,
that's not it, I know I love you.' "
Trojanowski will fall in love again someday, but she will not forget the
love she once knew. "I can still look at his picture," she said. "When I do
something silly, I can still hear him laughing. I can still tell him I love him
and I can still hear his voice saying he loves me. Nothing's lost ... except
The Gambardella family, which includes Andrea, 14, Nico, 12, and Tyler, 6,
will spend a quiet holiday remembering Jerry. They will try to remain strong
and face all the days and years that lie ahead without him. "Jerry wouldn't
want us to be mopey," Mrs. Gambardella said. "We want our other kids to play
with their friends, play their games. That's what Jerry was always doing,
Gennaro Gambardella can always look at that hill behind the ballfield where
his little boy used to play. There was so much forever about those days. The
field is right next to the Gambardella house and just a long home run away from
another field of green, the one where a young man who loved baseball was laid