Former Knoch football star found dead in Washington County
WASHINGTON, Pa. — Those who knew former Knoch High School football star Tim McNerney were stunned to learn of his slaying early Thursday during a street robbery as he walked back to his dormitory at Washington & Jefferson College.
A moment of silence was observed at the Knoch football game Thursday night and McNerney's No. 5 was painted along the Knights' sideline.
Hundreds of students, his family and friends held an outdoor vigil at W&J. The college will make grief counseling available to students.
McNerney, 21, of Penn Township, Butler County, was W&J's featured running back. Police say he was killed when he and a teammate were attacked by perhaps a half-dozen men.
McNerney and Zach DeCiccio, 22, of Jefferson Hills, were walking home from a downtown tavern in Washington, Pa., about 2:30 a.m. when they were confronted “by as many as six guys,” said city police Lt. Dan Stanek.
They were on the sidewalk at the side of an automobile repair shop at the corner of South College Avenue and East Maiden Street.
McNerney, who was found about 90 minutes later, was pronounced dead in The Washington Hospital.
DeCiccio, who suffered a broken nose and bruises, told police that he fought with three men who tried to steal his cell phone, Stanek said.
The senior defensive back said he managed to break free and ran back to his dormitory where he told friends what happened and called campus police, who called city police at 2:54 a.m.
Washington police searched the area and couldn't find McNerney. His friends began looking for him and found him in the repair shop's front parking lot shortly before 4 a.m.
They and campus police began CPR before paramedics arrived.
An autopsy showed that McNerney had “trauma to the back of his head,” possibly by being “punched or shoved (and) falling back and hitting his head,” Stanek said.
The police department's lead detective, Stanek said it's not clear if McNerney, perhaps stunned by his head injury, wandered away from the repair shop or was hiding from his assailants when police initially searched the area.
Stanek said DeCiccio said that he did not recognize any of his assailants and that the attack appears to have been a random street robbery.
McNerney's wallet and cell phone were not found Thursday.
Stanek acknowledged that there have been several street robberies in the city in recent months but that the campus and surrounding areas have generally been safe.
“There is no evidence they are targeting students,” police Chief Robert Lemons said.
“The campus community is heartbroken, and our deepest prayers are with Tim's family and friends,” said Karen Oosterhous, director of communications of Washington & Jefferson College in a press release.
“The safety of our students, both on and off campus, remains our highest priority,” she said.
2 communities stunned
“Those cowards took Tim's life,” Presidents football coach Mike Sirianni told hundreds of students, family members and friends of McNerney during a campus candlelight vigil on the Burnett Lawn on Thursday night. “They cannot take away the spirit of Tim's family, this football team and this community, the W&J community.”
Sirianni told those at the vigil: “I knew every day I went to practice (with McNerney), I knew I would yell and I knew I would laugh more than once. ... As a coach, you're going to have favorite players, kids you bond with. Tim will always be one of those players.”
The coach, stopping often to compose himself, said McNerney's mother told him that her son once “made the comment that he was ‘always in the wrong place at the wrong time.' I know (it's) the wrong time, but he's in the right place. He's with us here, telling me to shut up again.”
Damian Bosiacki, 21, a W&J senior, remembered McNerney as “a great rapper and a great playwright.”
“When you lose someone...you lose part of yourself,” Bosiacki said. He told McNerney's family at the vigil: “We are here for you. We are here to help you through your loss.”
A former team captain, McNerney was W&J's leading rusher through five games this season, with 483 yards and four touchdowns on 89 carries.
A big-play back known by some Presidents' fans as “The Cut-back Kid,” McNerney was nearing fifth place on the school's career rushing list. He had 2,339 yards in two-plus seasons as a starter.
“We got a text from coach and a call from (team) captains at 6:30 (a.m.) saying we had a meeting at 7,” said W&J senior linebacker Brendan Lucchino, a Highlands graduate. “We knew it had to be something serious. When we were told Timmy was no longer with us, it hit me like a train.
“I don't feel like this is real. It's like a bad dream. We are all so sad and angry.”
McNerney holds Knoch's rushing record of 2,842 yards, which he accomplished in less than three seasons. He was named Class AAA first-team all-state selection by The Associated Press.
“I'll remember how big Timmy's heart was,” Knoch football coach Mike King said before Thursday night's game.
“Active in school activities and athletics, Tim was a positive influence on friends, classmates and fellow teammates,” the South Butler County School District said in a press release.
“He was a great student and athlete and he was well-liked by both the students and football players — a very popular kid,” said Frank Gigler, 23,of Manassas, Va., who graduated from W&J this year.
A Lower Burrell native, Gigler was captain of W&J's football team and played with McNerney.
Tragedy struck before
This is the second straight season a tragedy has loomed over Knoch.
Last fall, cheerleader Alexis Summers was killed in a car accident just before the start of the WPIAL football playoffs.
“We are all just devastated right now,” King said. “We had the same feeling last November.”
The community pulled together and Knoch honored Summers by granting her “last wish,” and advancing to the WPIAL championship game at Heinz Field.
King said he had stayed in touch with McNerney, and had planned to attend an upcoming W&J game.
“I always wished him luck and he did the same for us,” King said. “He was about what Knoch football should be. He was super tough. He was everything you'd want in a football player.”
Former Knoch running back Curtis Howard was shot and killed in July 2009.
Staff writer Liz Hayes contributed. Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or firstname.lastname@example.org.