Todd Stuter delivered a handful of straightforward descriptors this week, all fitting perfectly for East Pennsboro football senior Trent Fries.
Somebody who “takes the bull by the horns.”
But Stuter, the longtime Panthers head coach, wasn’t describing his star linebacker, fullback and tight end.
Stuter, instead, was referencing DeAnna Fries.
The mother of Trent and Emily, wife of Todd Fries, employee of the East Pennsboro School District, and friend to seemingly all in the community, was as much a part of the Panthers’ football fabric as any of the boys who’ve strapped on the uniform and guided the 2017 team to an 8-2 regular season.
“She didn’t put up with crap from people,” Stuter said after a practice this week, where his Panthers were preparing for Friday night’s District 3 Class 4A playoff quarterfinal at Susquehannock.
“I liked that about her. She wasn’t afraid to tell you if you weren’t toeing the line or if you pissed her off. That’s the kind of lady she was.”
DeAnna (DiVittorio) Fries was just 46 when she was struck in the middle of a January night by a ventricular brain hemorrhage.
Emergency personnel rushed her to the hospital, where she fell into a coma. Though she never regained consciousness, for nine days she hung on before dying on Jan. 22, sending a shiver of anguish that reached far beyond the Fries and DiVittorio families.
“It just kept going back and forth,” Trent, now 18, said of his mom’s agonizing hospital stay. “We would have hope she’d be OK, and then something else would go wrong.
“When I said good night to her [on Jan. 12] was the last time I spoke to her.”
Yet DeAnna Fries’ impact on her family, on the Panthers’ football team, and on those who knew her, sustains through today and the foreseeable future.
Pillars of the community
Well before she was helping coach daughter Emily through the youth softball ranks and serving as a team mom and chief organizer for Trent’s East Pennsboro football teams, DeAnna DiVittorio enjoyed her own athletic success.
A star softball and basketball player at Lower Dauphin High School in Hummelstown, she ranked among the conference’s best hitters and established myriad records for the Falcons’ softball team.
A center fielder in softball and point guard in basketball, she landed a scholarship opportunity to join the Notre Dame softball program.
Inexplicably, and to her parents Joseph and Charla’s surprise, she turned it down.
Meanwhile, across the river, Todd Fries’ surgically repaired knees weren’t going to allow for a career beyond his time as a two-way lineman at East Penn.
Ahead of a scheduled blind date in the summer of 1989 after both graduated high school, Todd accompanied a friend to watch DeAnna play a recreation league softball game.
Ultimately, they fell in love. Neither went to college, and they married on June 4, 1994, one day before her 24th birthday, a date mishmash that continues to perplex Todd.
“I always made that mistake [of confusing the two dates] when she was here with me,” he said after stumbling over it yet again. “She’s probably laughing at me right now.”
Settling in Enola, with DeAnna working various jobs within the school district — she was most recently a secretary at the administration building — and Todd as a natural gas line mechanic, the family fully embraced athletics.
DeAnna helped coach Emily, now 20, throughout youth softball, and Todd continues to coach youth football.
“Some families you see as pillars,” said good friend Jennifer Nugent, a biology teacher at the high school and mother of Panthers senior wide receiver and defensive back Nic Nugent.
“Todd and DeAnna together, that’s what they are.”
DeAnna’s passion for the football program only grew as Trent and Nic graduated through the youth ranks and were joined by fellow class of 2018 standouts Payton Morris, McGee Schnarrs, Tyler Radabaugh, Shawn Edmondson, John Smart, Noah Alejandro and Onasis Neely, among others.
“Most of our friends we met through the youth program,” Todd Fries said.
When Nic tore his anterior cruciate ligament two years ago, DeAnna was among the first to reach out to the Nugents offering support.
“If you needed anything, all you had to do was ask and she’d be there,” Jennifer said.
At the end of last season, after the Panthers finished a 7-4 campaign with a loss to Berks Catholic in the opening round of the District 3 Class 4A playoffs, DeAnna began implementing a plan to expand the 2017 team banquet.
She thought this special group, headlined by the class of 2018, would enjoy its postseason celebration at The American Legion rather than the usual school cafeteria and auditorium.
DeAnna was in the midst of organizing the banquet at the time of her death.
Without so much as a second thought, those preparations continued, and the banquet will now also serve, in part, as a memorial to the ultimate team mom on Nov. 19 at the Legion.
‘Unwavering role model’
Though Todd Fries played football in his day, Trent Fries more closely resembles his mother, both physically and in terms of personality and competitiveness.
Trent’s grandfather recently shared a picture of 17-year-old DeAnna with Trent, and the resemblance struck him as uncanny.
“It’s just freaky weird,” Trent said. “It’s just me with longer hair.”
While Todd wears his emotions on his sleeve, Trent reveals very little.
He’s driven, intense, focused and cognizant of his surroundings, all qualities that have helped him thrive on the field. This season, has has caught three touchdown passes, helped pave the way to Neely’s 2,000-plus rushing yards with his blocking, and accumulated 46 tackles, two sacks, three interceptions and a fumble recovery.
Though the 6-foot-3, 225-pound senior doesn’t possess a scholarship offer, there’s interest from schools like Lehigh, Shippensburg and Kutztown, as well as Army and Air Force.
While he was outstanding last year, Fries this season has played with an extra dose of inspiration.
“I’m definitely working a lot harder and taking initiative in [realizing] how important family really is,” said Trent, who’s interested in studying veterinary medicine in college after both grandfathers helped spark a love of wildlife through hunting and fishing.
“I’m really trying to get closer to all my family. I’m not messing around with certain things.”
Stuter, who also works as a teacher in the high school, has admired Fries’ resilience through the heartbreak. He was astonished when Trent showed up for an East Pennsboro Mini-THON event the evening DeAnna died and surprised at how matter-of-factly he’s played this season, but he understands it, too.
“We’ve all been looking for when he’s going to break, and he hasn’t,” Stuter said. “He’s just kept so strong through this and has stayed so focused. Some people are like, ‘Is this OK? Is he OK?’ But he seems OK.
“I just think he feels like he’s honoring his mom because she would want him to keep going. She was super proud of him. So I think he’s a little more inspired now. I just see him playing with a little more desire, like he has someone out there with him.”
The testimonials for Trent come from every corner, too.
From his dad: “I’m proud of him. Even though life will never be normal, we try to make it as normal as we can. And he’s been a really upstanding young man through it all. He’s taken it and dealt with it as best as he can.”
From Jennifer Nugent: “He’s very strong, and I don’t mean physically. I mean emotionally. He’s handled this impeccably, at least from my perspective. He seems to have handled this as well as you can.”
From Neely: “I’ll tell ya, Trent is a strong individual. He missed school for like four days and came back and acted like nothing happened. But I told him after it happened, every yard, every touchdown, every game and every tackle was for his mom.”
From Nic Nugent: “Honestly, he’s been a rock for us as a team. He never missed a practice, and he helped all of us get through his mom’s passing because she was a big part of the football family. He’s the best teammate and captain you could ask for and a great friend. He’s an unwavering role model and a pretty good football player, too.”
More than memories remain
DeAnna Fries might be gone physically, but she’ll remain a vivid part of many lives.
Todd Fries estimates that 1,500 people showed up for her memorial service in early February at Emmanuel United Methodist Church in Enola, a fact that struck a chord with her husband of nearly 23 years.
“When bad times fell upon us, everybody from youth through the high school, the school district, the community in general, provided an outpouring of emotion and support that was overwhelming,” Todd said. “It was nice to see the rewards of touching so many lives over the years.”
DeAnna’s contributions continue in other ways, too.
A few years ago, she took great interest in nutrition as a means to improve Trent’s physicality, and it spilled over into the locker room.
She would prepare specific meals to enhance performance and recovery. Included in that was having the boys eat pickles before games and at halftime to prevent cramping.
“And now Onasis has a bottle of pickle juice on the sideline!” Jennifer Nugent said.
The team dedicated its Sept. 15 game against Greencastle-Antrim to DeAnna, and it racked up 535 yards of offense in a 56-24 victory. Neely rushed for nearly 300 yards and five scores, and Nugent caught a pair of TD passes.
Before that contest, the players released orange balloons with notes to DeAnna attached. Incredibly, Todd Fries said, the balloons first seemed to form a heart in the sky after they were released, then took the shape of the No. 7 (Trent’s uniform).
You can also hear cowbells at East Pennsboro games, a tradition that dates to youth football days.
“She loved sitting [at the stadium], bundled up in the cold, ringing her cowbell,” Todd said. “We now ring it for her every night. The bell sits beside me on the bench, and my daughter and I take turns ringing it.”
There’s also the cup on the nightstand in the bedroom, the cup she drank from on her final night in the house.
DeAnna had taken Emily and Trent to Wendy’s for dinner, while Todd worked on a late call with the gas company.
She awoke around 3 a.m. in a great deal of pain, prompting Todd to call paramedics, who rushed her to the hospital.
The cup remains where she left it, a symbol of Todd’s emotional tie to his loving wife.
Trent, too, sees it, and perhaps it serves as a symbol for him as well.
“I think he just wanted to stay strong for his dad,” Stuter said. “He knew his dad was really suffering, and he just wanted to be a rock for him.”
He honors DeAnna with that strength.
“Trent knows what he wants, and he doesn’t settle for anything he doesn’t want,” Todd Fries said. “That was also my wife.”