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Starkey: Support pours in for Pitt's Janocko

| Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2009

Don't forget the feeling. Get out of bed and go to work.

Andrew Janocko wrote those words on the photograph he taped above his bed Sunday. The photo, from this newspaper, shows him dropping the ball Saturday. He was about to set it for an extra point that would have given Pitt a 45-38 lead in its biggest game in decades.

Instead, the Panthers clung to a 44-38 lead as they kicked off with 1:36 on the clock. You know the rest: Cincinnati drove the field and clinched a berth in the Sugar Bowl by the slimmest margin possible. One point.

As the gun sounded, television cameras captured Janocko's tears. His was the face of an all-time agonizing defeat.

For those watching, the story ended there. But another story — a much deeper one — began to unfold in the locker room. It expanded to the player-greeting area outside of Heinz Field and all the way to Janocko's hometown of Clearfield, 2 1/2 hours northeast of Pittsburgh.

The story speaks powerfully to what it means to be a good teammate, friend, coach and parent.

Janocko, a redshirt sophomore holder and third-string quarterback, was writing a term paper Tuesday when he took time out for an interview. He has replayed the hold "a hundred times" in his head.

"It was a good snap," he said. "I had it in my hands. When I went to set it down, the ball slipped out on the grass."

He added that while there has been some negative fan reaction, it's been "too minor to even talk about."

Mostly, the pain comes from within.

"It hurts," Janocko said, "and it's going to hurt for a long time. But it's not something I'm going to let drag me down."

Janocko was so distraught after the game that he wandered out of the locker room. Assistant head coach Greg Gattuso reeled him back in. That was fitting, because Gattuso is a friend of Janocko's father, Tim, who was a Penn State fullback just before Gattuso played there in the early 1980s.

Once back in the locker room, Janocko received counsel from several coaches, including Dave Wannstedt, who told him, "That was one play, and one play didn't decide the game."

Janocko's family waited to greet him outside, accompanied by the parents of quarterback Bill Stull, who'd been booed earlier in the season. Debbie Stull greeted Janocko by saying, " 'Hey, we've been there; keep your chin up.' "

Janocko's mother, Trina, was ready with open arms.

"She hugged me," Janocko said. "That meant a lot."

Meant a lot to her, too.

"It's just really hard to see your son hurting," Trina Janocko said yesterday, growing emotional over the phone. "I just wanted to hug him and hold him and tell him it was going to be OK."

Originally, the family had planned to celebrate a victory in Pittsburgh before parting with Andrew. Instead, all four of them — including Andrew's younger sister, Ann, a college freshman — piled into the car and headed back to Clearfield.

"It was challenging," Tim Janocko said of the ride. "But there are families who have a lot worse things happening. We have faith in God. You move on."

During the ride, and throughout the weekend, Andrew fielded supportive texts and phone calls.

Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett checked in. So did former Pitt quarterback Tyler Palko, ex-assistant coach Matt Cavanaugh and ex-kicker Conor Lee, who reminded me yesterday that Janocko saved last year's Notre Dame game by corralling a bad snap to force overtime.

"It means a lot," Andrew said, "and it means that a lot of people care about this program."

None more so than Andrew Janocko, who wants to be a coach. A former walk-on who earned a scholarship, he arrives at the practice facility before the sun and breaks down more film than Bill Belichick.

Speaking of films, on Saturday night the Janockos rented the movie "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past."

Interesting choice.

"That was Andrew's choice," his mother said, laughing. "He wanted a comedy."

On Sunday morning, Andrew and his father, the longtime football coach at Clearfield Area, read multiple accounts of the game. That was Tim Janocko's idea. His son played quarterback for him at Clearfield, so they've been through some other challenging times.

"I said, 'We're going to take this head-on,'" Tim said. "That's the way we handle things."

By 1 p.m. Sunday, Andrew was back with his teammates, preparing for the bowl game against North Carolina. He hadn't forgotten the horrible feeling of the day before, of course. He might never.

But it was time to go to work.

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