POTTSTOWN - Justin Dantonio's story as a student-athlete is a remarkable, touching one.
The Phoenixville Area High School senior football player and wrestler is also a top academic student as well as a model citizen.
Dantonio's difficult life journey was told Sunday afternoon during the Pioneer Athletic Conference Football Coaches Association 21st Annual All-Star Banquet at the Pottstown Elks Club.
Dantonio, a backup quarterback and defensive end, received two special awards, the David L. Freed Award and the Joseph Edwards Scholarship Award, to highlight presentations. He also was honored as Phoenixville's football member on the All-Academic Team.
Phantom teammate Joe Galie, an inside linebacker, was feted as the Defensive Player of the Year.
Phoenixville head football coach Bill Furlong delivered the speech introducing Dantonio.
"During the spring when he was in seventh grade," Furlong said, "Justin was alone with his father unloading a car. The family had just been to his young sister's Holy Communion and they were unloading the car. His dad had a massive heart attack and died in his arms. Justin became the man of the house at the tender age of 13."
Dantonio began working two jobs as a sophomore, and his mother, Sandy, took an overnight job at Kohl's so she could see Justin play sports during the day. Justin's grandmother, Joan Dixon, moved into the home, too.
Yet Dantonio continued to play two varsity sports and carry a 3.5 grade point average while taking advanced placement courses. He also became a Life Scout, which is just short of becoming an Eagle Scout. He is a member of the National Honor Society and Future Business Club, and has scored 1,250 on the math and verbal section of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT).
Justin's father, Michael, died at the age of 60.
"I was in seventh grade, but I have visions and I remember it," Justin Dantonio said. "I have had a lot of help from my family. You have to. He liked football and used to come to my games when I played at PMYC (Phoenixville Marian Youth Club)."
Justin's sister, Kiley Ann, is now age 13 and was present at the banquet along with the mother, grandmother and uncle, Joe Rowan.
"We came back from the party after the Holy Communion," Justin Dantonio said of the incident. "We were carrying stuff from the car down the street at Franklin Avenue. You had to walk uphill to get to the house and he died on the way up. We had a real close family. It was tough."
Justin, whom his friends have nicknamed "Juice," is now 17 years old and will turn age 18 on March 16. He plans to study business or finance in college but is unsure of where at this time.
Furlong talked more about Dantonio in a speech that drew a standing ovation. He said how Dantonio learned how to play middle linebacker in a day when Galie was injured during the squad's first scrimmage. In a varsity game against Perkiomen Valley, Dantonio was inserted into the lineup to help spark a comeback and then was taken out with no complaints as the Phantoms fell in a close contest.
Against Lansdale Catholic, the Phantoms needed an especially disciplined defensive end to help cope with the Crusaders' option offense. Dantonio helped the Phantom defense control the game and earn the homecoming victory at Washington Field.
Furlong remembered meeting Dantonio four years ago in a health class. At the time, Justin was a reserve guard who weighed 112 pounds and also wrestled for Furlong, who was an assistant coach.
The backup quarterback at the time decided to pursue another sport, so Dantonio provided a dependable replacement at quarterback during a full junior varsity season as a sophomore. As a junior, on the last play of the second scrimmage, Justin suffered a compound fracture of his collarbone and missed the complete season before staging a comeback for his productive senior campaign.
Spring-Ford head coach Gary Rhodenbaugh spoke about the David L. Freed Award, which is given annually in memory of former Spring-Ford lineman David Freed, who died on the practice field during a tragic accident in the 1970s.
Rhodenbaugh said the award is given to a student-athlete who overcame limited physical talent to play varsity football and also succeed academically. The player's characteristics are dedication, self-improvement, team success, self-discipline, coachability, loyalty and faith.
Galie, a two-time first team All-PAC-10 inside linebacker, received another special postseason honor. He is looking at Bucknell, Lafayette and Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) schools for college.
"It is good to be recognized," Galie said of a career that included more than 400 tackles. "(Defensive coordinator) Don Jackson and coach Furlong have a good program going. We just have to do what we are told."
Boyertown running back/defensive back Chris McGee received the Most Valuable Player award. Pottsgrove's Shane Gross, a runnning back and outside linebacker, took home the Two-Way Player of the Year. Upper Perkiomen quarterback Sean Nevin was named Offensive Player of the Year.
Head coach Ron Zeiber of league champion Boyertown gave remarks.
League president Joe Edwards served as master of ceremonies and received special gifts from the PAC-10 coaches. Owen J. Roberts assistant coach Hank Coyne made the presentations to Edwards.