Signs of strength

Matt Romano. KEVIN COOK / FOR THE TIMES

In the moments following Saturday’s gritty season-opening win over archrival Father Judge, Frank McArdle reiterated the team’s motto to his victorious Archbishop Ryan Raiders:

Keep chopping.

For Jon Liguori, those words carried some extra meaning.

In Ryan’s thrilling 21–20 victory over the Crusaders, Liguori kept on chopping after a short five-yard catch turned into a 57-yard jaunt to the Judge 1-yard line early in the fourth quarter. Fullback Bob McDevitt scored on a short run the very next play, and the Raiders never relinquished the lead again in the back-and-forth contest.

“I just had a five-yard out pattern … I did my route and saw (sophomore quarterback) Matt (Romano) looking at me,” said Liguori, a 5-foot-11, 200-pound senior tight end/defensive end combo. “The defender and I each got our hands on the ball at the same time and I just ripped it out of his hands. I felt another guy hit my back, but I didn’t go down. I got my feet under me and just sprinted for my life trying to win this game.”

Liguori wouldn’t be denied, which is no surprise, given that the kid knows a thing or two about determination and overcoming adversity. His mom, Sheryl, was diagnosed with breast cancer toward the end of the last school year, an unexpected bomb dropped on the Liguori clan — Jon, Sheryl, dad Robert, older brother Nicholas and younger sister Aubrey. In addition to going to school and getting ready for his senior season, Jon worked about 20 hours a week as a host at TGI Friday’s to contribute toward the family bills. He sports a tattoo on his left ribcage of a pink ribbon with two boxing gloves and the words “My Mom is a Fighter.”

On that big fourth-quarter play — and every play, for that matter — Liguori was thinking of his mom.

“It was heartbreaking to see her go through that,” Liguori said later. “She had four months of chemotherapy and lost her hair, and that’s a real tough thing, seeing a woman lose her hair. She was always tired, so I just wanted to help the family out any way I could. Everything I do, on the field and off, is for her. On that play, I know she was in the stands, smiling. And what a great feeling, knowing she’s there to see me my senior year. I want her there every game supporting me … it lifts my confidence when she’s there.”

Sheryl Liguori’s cancer is in remission, and her youngest son said he learned a lot about mental toughness (one of his greatest weapons on the football field) from witnessing his mother’s courageous battle.

“She is truly my idol,” Liguori said. “I’m just completely stunned by her courage. When everything was going wrong, she still always had a smile on her face, telling us everything would be all right. A woman never deserves to go through that, but she handled it perfectly. She was always happy and confident and never thought of the worst. I’m so proud of her.”

And Sheryl is undoubtedly proud of her son, who totaled three catches for 84 yards in the fifth annual Northeast Philly Catholic Classic. The trophy switched hands for the fourth consecutive year following Ryan’s one-point win and served as a beacon of optimism in a season with high expectations. Despite the fact that Ryan went 8–3 last year, the team missed the playoffs (thanks in part to a 28–17 loss to Judge), something Liguori and company aim to rectify in 2014. The all-time series stands at 24–24–2 between the two teams.

“Last year after we lost to Judge, I was heartbroken seeing all the seniors crying,” Liguori said. “I promised myself that it wouldn’t repeat itself next season. Father Judge is a great team, so this is a huge confidence booster to start off the season. Everyone was doubting us, saying we lost too many seniors, we’re too small or whatever else. This game proved a point. We gutted our way to that win and really came together as a team. I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

Senior running back Samir Bullock bruised his way to 140 yards and a touchdown on 33 carries, and senior wideout Seneca Williams hauled in a 25-yard TD catch from Romano. For Judge, Prince Smith scored twice — on an 84-yard kickoff return and a 30-yard hookup from QB Zack Carroll. Junior star running back/safety Yeedee Thaenrat, dealing with cramping issues, managed just 60 yards on 12 carries (and a TD) in what turned out to be a stalwart Ryan defensive effort. The offensive line — seniors John Ferry and Kevin Schaeffer, juniors Sean Devine and Ryan Kidwell and sophomore Brendan Ruskowski — which absorbed heavy losses to graduation, was superb.

“We’re young, but we all have potential,” Liguori said. “We’re tough Northeast dudes.”

McArdle loves his team’s toughness, both mentally and physically, and he sees Liguori as one of his most headstrong leaders.

“Back when he was a sophomore, he saw a kid getting bullied and he stepped up and basically said, ‘If you mess with him, you mess with me,’ ” McArdle said. “As far as what happened with his mom, we didn’t even know. He didn’t tell us, because he wasn’t looking for sympathy or excuses. He’s a very strong, special kid. He cares about people.

“After what he’s been through, football isn’t that hard. Life is much harder, and to me that’s the explanation as to why he’s playing so much better. He always had the talent, so I think something just clicked for him. I’ve seen him grow so much as a player and a person.”

Liguori said he sees parallels to football and real life. In both scenarios, you’re often faced with unexpected obstacles, and how you respond shapes the person and his character. He acknowledged that while his mother’s cancer is in remission, it could still return at any time. As a result of this thought process, Liguori said he’s not taking a day for granted as far as his family goes.

“This last year was a big learning point for me,” he said. “It taught me a lot about support — how to care for your family and not just yourself. Football helped get my mind off things, and helped me feel like nothing was wrong for awhile. I love football so much. It’s fun to play, and it teaches you how to be selfless and think about others. If I didn’t have it, I don’t know what I’d do.”

Luckily for Liguori, he’s still got football on his side, just like he’s still got Sheryl in his corner. All of that should add up to a special year for the Raiders.

“Her cancer in remission is a big weight lifted off all of our shoulders,” Liguori said. “It showed me that I can’t take anything for granted. We know the cancer could come back anytime, but that’s something we can’t control. But as of now, she’s cancer free, and it’s the best feeling of our lives. We’re living every day like it’s our last. We’re going to keep it together, keep supporting her and keep living our lives. It’s as simple as that.” ••

Samir Bullock. KEVIN COOK / FOR THE TIMES

John Liguori. PHOTO COURTESY OF TED SILARY