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A Farewell to Brett Snyder, The Bravest Guy I've Ever Known

Too often, we define football players by statistics.

As sports obsessives, we try to come up with figures and metrics to measure people, their contributions and their relative worth.  QB rating, yards per carry, tackles for loss - all numbers of measurement.

Fans forget that there are human beings behind all of those numbers.  They don't encapsulate what it is to be a football player, teammate, person, fighter, boyfriend, husband, and father.

Brett Snyder, who passed away this past Sunday at the age of 41, spent his entire life proving, successfully, that numbers don't matter. 

He spent a lifetime going beyond mere numbers and showing that heart, fight, perseverance, and touching as many lives as possible in a positive way is much more important.

It is the toughness you bring to life, the faith you show, and celebrating life's blessings that mean everything. 

I learned this through Brett's extraordinary life.

It has been difficult for me to put into words what Brett has meant for the many people that he inspired in his life.

What is clear is that in his too short time on this earth, to those that knew him, even for just a short period of time, his impact was immense.

“The world lost a great human being last night,” Northwestern Lehigh athletic director Jason Zimmerman said. “Great, not in the statistics he put up at Northwestern Lehigh and Lehigh University, but great in the man that he was. So many kids in our community looked up to him. Was he awesome on the field, without a question, but he was such a kind, compassionate, caring man.”

I did not know Brett in the mid-1990s, when he was a football star at Northwestern Lehigh for the Tigers’ 1995 District 11 Class 2A championship team.  He was a three sport star for the Tigers, and a record-holder as well.

But Jeff Fisher, founder of High School Football America, did.

"I’ll never forget the first time I saw Brett Snyder on the gridiron in-person…it was the District XI Class 2A championship game between Snyder’s Tigers and Catasauqua in 1995," he shared this week.  "I remember the game like it was yesterday, because it was the first time as the weekend anchor at WFMZ-TV in Allentown that I ever personally picked-up a video camera to shoot the highlights for my evening news broadcast. Quite honestly, when you are looking through the camera lens, you get to see more than with the normal eye.

"On that Saturday, I saw Snyder rip through the Catasauqua defense for 204 yards, including a 50 yard touchdown run that helped Northwestern bounce back from a 7-0 halftime deficit on the way to a 23-7 championship.  Snyder’s high school career ended a week later with a total over 4,300 yards rushing. He amassed 2,362 during his senior season with 33 touchdowns.  [And] amazingly, those statistics didn’t lead to a lot of college coaches traveling to New Tripoli to recruit the 6-1, 190-pound running back. In fact, I remember putting together a highlight reel for Brett at the request of his father, because of his lack of offers."

The Morning Call's Keith Groller interviewed his former high school football coach, Bob Mitchell, where he said that Brett to him "was like a son.  It was never about him.  It was about you, his teammates - everybody but him."

Still grieving too is Brett's brother, Josh Snyder, who is head football coach at Northwestern.  "He's touched the hearts of so many people above and beyond athletics," he shared.  "That's one of the things I love about athletics, how you can use that as a platform to touch so many different lives in a good way.

* * * * *

His athletic and academic exploits at New Tripoli did, however, not go unnoticed by the coaching staff of nearby Lehigh University, led by head football coach Kevin Higgins. 

The group in Brett's incoming class included a bunch of other local stars, including Northern Lehigh's Kody Fedorcha, Becahi's Brian Baker, and two huge talents out of Pius X named Nick Martucci and Phil Stambaugh

Along with the incredible talents of RB Ron Jean, CB Kevin Joseph and OLs Steven Ludwig and Michael Ludwig, Snyder was a part of an incoming class that might very well have been the best ever at Lehigh.

They rapidly turned a 4-7 team in 1996 into a dominant Patriot League squad.

Over the course of three years, Snyder and his teammates went an unbelievable 32-1 in regular season play that put the league on the map nationally.

"He was the classic, smart, old school, gritty guy," Pete Lembo, Brett's position coach on these legendary Lehigh football teams told me.  "He could see the big picture, but was also very detailed in his approach. We could ask a lot of him mentally and his skills gave us great flexibility. He was a strong runner, had good ball skills and was a reliable blocker at the point of attack or in pass protection."

Lehigh's offense at this time was truly one of its greatest ever, with the steady leadership of Stambaugh under center, the surprising slashing power of 5'2 Ron Jean out of the backfield, and a tremendous offensive line and receiving corps.

But it was Snyder's "glue" as the H-back that really put everything together for the Lehigh offense in my opinion - his ferocious blocking paving the way for Jean, his receptions out of the backfield, or simply being the go-to guy on the ground when the team needed to convert a 4th-and-1 or punch the ball into the end zone at the goal line.

It would have easy for Snyder, who had set records at Northwestern Lehigh, to be a prima donna and to simply say just give me the damn ball.  But that wasn't Brett's way.  His way was to embrace where he was and do the absolute best he could at it.

Casual football people don't often think of Number 39s as such a critical part of the offense, but Brett truly was.  The number 39, and the rushing yards weren't important.  Winning, and making his teammates better, was.

 "I was always campaigning to get him a few runs each week," Lembo said.  "I recall some key first downs on inside traps vs Colgate in 1998, as well as a TD on a check down swing pass vs Harvard the same year. He would typically get some screens as well."

He also scored a huge touchdown in one of Lehigh's most important victories nationally, Lehigh's win over Richmond in the I-AA Playoffs in 1998. 

Before Lehigh's win, the Patriot League was seen nationally as a non-scholarship conference that couldn't compete with schools like Delaware, Western Illinois, Hofstra, or UMass, who offered conventional football scholarships.

The 1998 team changed all of that by going down to Richmond and shocking the Atlantic 10 Champion Spiders, a upset few thought would happen.

In the video of the game, down 14-0 (at about the 45 minute mark), you can see Brett paving the holes for Ron Jean and Phil Stambaugh to run through, including a critical 3rd and inches to create a 1st down on a Stambaugh sneak.  One play later, he gets the draw play where a overwhelmed Richmond defense parts like the Red Sea, and Snyder gets Lehigh on the board to cut the deficit to 14-7.  Eventually, Lehigh would win 23-21, announcing to the I-AA world that Lehigh, and the Patriot League, were nobody's Patsy anymore.

Snyder never led the team in rushing, receiving or touchdowns, but he was such an instrumental player and leader that, by his senior year, he was one of four team captains on a team where there were so many great candidates.  The way he played the game, the non-stop drive he had as a football player, had earned the respect of his teammates and his coaches.

"I loved that guy like a son," Lembo told me.

Frequently his senior year he'd be the guy with the pre-game quotes in The Brown and White, talking about his fellow players or what needed to be done.   Accordingly, he took on a more vocal role in press conferences, though as ever he would talk about others, not himself.

Josh, his younger brother, followed Brett to Lehigh where he in his own right would etch his name among the best wideouts in Lehigh football history.  During Brett's senior year, much was made of the fact that the Snyder brothers were a huge reason why Lehigh was a I-AA football force.

"Coming from a small high school, I didn't really know what it was like to play in front of a large crowd," he told The Brown and White.  "I didn't know how supportive and loyal the new fans would be.  After four years of playing at Goodman Stadium, I can honestly say that this Lehigh crowd is one of the best in the country.  I would just like to thank our fans and supporters who have made my time here so exciting."

I was in the stands for many of those games at Murray Goodman stadium, one of the 10,000 watching Brett and those legendary Lehigh teams execute at the highest level.  It was thrilling, and I was happy to be a small part of what made his time at Lehigh special.

"Brett was the consummate teammate, scholar and athlete," Lehigh Dean of Athletics Joe Sterrett said this week. "He was and will always be the epitome of a 'team-first' guy, whose values and actions were admired by everyone.  This is a sad day for the Lehigh community upon which he made such a big impact.  Our hearts and prayers are with the entire Snyder family."

Back then, it was easy to see the potential in Brett becoming a really good football coach if he chose, even though his mechanical engineering degree ensured that he'd have a tremendous career whatever path he chose.  As any Lehigh student or graduate will tell you, earning a mechanical engineering degree at Lehigh is a grueling, challenging experience, made doubly tough by the extra demands made for a Division I athlete.

But all of that would change in a blink of an eye.

* * * * *

My blog was only about a year old, no more, when now Lehigh head football coach Pete Lembo announced the awful news that Brett Snyder was diagnosed with ALS, or more commonly, Lou Gehrig's disease.

The news hit everyone surrounding the Lehigh football program extremely hard, as you might imagine.  For me, too, whose wife was expecting, my instinct was to try to do something, even just small and insignificant, to see if I can help.

I asked coach Lembo if there was anything the fans could do, and he suggested that interested fans could possibly send money to the athletic department, which would be forwarded to the Snyder family for expenses for this new challenge in their lives.

I did my small part - sending some money, and trying to spread the word I online, to try to help.

I knew a little bit about ALS in the sense I knew that Lou Gehrig had contracted it, and that it was a degenerative disease.  I watched a Frontline directory which detailed the life of someone who was fighting ALS, and the enormity of the challenge that faced Brett really hit home. 

I knew that, barring a miracle cure, his body would deteriorate.  The football player that paved the way for so much success would see his body shrink and get smaller.  Eventually, all his muscles would no longer work.  He'd have to communicate through special technology, wheelchair bound.

The average lifespan of someone diagnosed with ALS is somewhere between two and five years.  During his initial diagnosis back in 2003, he was given eighteen months to live.

It seems like almost immediately,  Brett decided that he was going to fight. 

On the football field, giving up was not in his nature.  He wouldn't give up on this, either.

“He was an amazing guy," Phil Stambaugh said this week.  "His battle with ALS showed how tough a person he really was and he was equally tough on the field. He was an unselfish player and human being. His legacy will be carried on by his family and in the memories of all his friends and former teammates. He was great friend and we will all miss him dearly.”

I'm not sure you could call me Brett's friend, but I sure as admired the hell out him.

"The way he played the game, giving it all he had on the football field, people admire him," his teammate Kody Fedorcha said back in 2011. "He's so proud. It's hard for him to admit to sometimes that he needs help from his friends. This disease takes a lot away from you, but the one thing it hasn't taken away from Brett is his spirit."

Along with Kody, Brett and his family founded Tackle ALS, a not-for-profit dedicated to fighting the disease.   Like many others, I contributed money for his fight for a cure, and for years on my website I had a banner on my site asking visitors to "Tackle ALS".

But it quickly became apparent that Brett was going to need fundraisers to be able to afford his medical care, which, according to one report, totaled more than $250,000 a year.

"As the years passed, Brett's challenges changed to facing the most basic tasks at home," Kody said back in 2011.  "These challenges carry a cost that is not just physical and not always covered by insurance, such as home modifications to accommodate a wheel chair, treatments not acknowledged by insurance providers, etc... In short, we cannot fight Brett's battle versus ALS but donations can ensure he is focused strictly on beating this disease."

The Lehigh and New Tripoli communities rallied behind him and his young family - his wife, Carissa Snyder, and two sons - inspired by his grit in fighting this terrible disease.

"It couldn't have been better," Fedorcha said of a fundraiser I attended in 2011. "We can't thank Rich Knupp of Lehigh University enough. He really did a lot of the setup. We sent out e-mails to all of the alumni and within a day or two, Rich called me back and said 'You're not going to believe this, but we've already raised $2,000 or $3,000. We had a goal of raising $10,000 and we blew that out of the water."

Some fundraisers took place at Lehigh football games, where head coach Andy Coen welcomed back Brett with open arms.  I was there, where I had the honor to talk to my hero - six years after the doctor had given him eighteen months to live.

“I’ve gotten to know a lot of Lehigh football players over the years and I’ve loved most of them,” Coen said this week. “But without a doubt, Brett was one of my favorite guys. He was tough, but like many have said, he was a special person. He may have been the best person I’ve ever coached. He cared about everybody on the team."

I remember when I talked to Brett, that his passion for Lehigh football rivaled my own.  There was one day where Brett was watching a Lehigh game in the old press box above Murray Goodman stadium, before he was confined to a wheelchair and ventilator.  We talked, and we celebrated about some particularly good offensive play, or get upset when someone would miss a block.  I never did talk to him about ALS, which I was secretly proud of.  I felt it important that things were regular, that the game was a much-needed diversion from his daily fights with his disease.

Even as his health deteriorated, he never lost his fight or his faith.  He was blessed with four boys - "mini-Brett's," Carissa called them - and he got to be a dad for all four of them.  They all knew their father - the guy whose life could have stopped back in 2003.

“Brett and I have determined personalities and we have two [older] sons who share that same determined personality," Carissa told Keith Groller back in 2017. 

He attended Northwestern Lehigh football games, Colonial League contests, and Lehigh games when he could - even with a wheelchair and ventilator.  Most recently he attended a Lehigh game this past season where his squad was honored on the field - sixteen years after he was diagnosed with ALS.

He even found time to try to help others through the Bo Tkach Foundation. Bo Tkach, a Northern Lehigh football standout, committed suicide in July 2007. He was 25.

“Brett was the bravest person I knew,” said Bo’s father and former Northern Lehigh football coach Jim Tkach. “After Bo died, Brett called us and asked me to meet him and some friends for breakfast. He proposed the flag games with Northwestern and Northern Lehigh that to this day still exist as the Mountain Road Rumble [the annual Northern Lehigh-Northwestern game]. How could someone who was hurting as much as he was think of helping someone else? But he wanted to do something for his friend Bo.”

This week, Brett's extraordinary life ended at St. Luke's Hospital in Bethlehem.  He was 41.

“The end of his life was heartbreaking and my heart goes out to his wife and kids,” Coen said. “But he’s a guy who touched lives in such a positive way. He’ll never be forgotten.”

"I want them to realize what's truly important in life,” Snyder said back in 2011. "Faith and family are big for us. They have always been and always will be. Most of the other things in life aren't important. When you can't do anything else, you have a lot of time to think about what's important. And now I do know what's really important in life."

* * * * *

Some people, when faced with ALS, either fold and die, demoralized or fight and live the utmost to what God allows them to experience. 

I thought about that a lot this week as I was reflecting on Brett's life.  His faith, his fight, his defying the numbers and the odds was, and is, a true inspiration in my life. 

Everyone has times in their life where they flinch, wondering if they have the fortitude to fight if things really went bad.  You're faced with numbers that tell you the odds, but the numbers don't matter.  What matters is what's in your soul, what makes you fight.

Brett was one of those that fought, and by fighting, became the person that we all wish we secretly are inside.  He's the bravest guy I've ever known.


Chuck Burton - No doubt your best and most touching artistry yet. Many an excellent column before, but this compelling tribute captures the essence of everything good about Brett Snyder, everything good about those who knew and loved Brett Snyder and everything that makes life so difficult to accept sometimes. Yet, it is brave men like Mr. Snyder who give us reason to live, to have faith and to carry on. The Good Book speaks much and highly of men like him. Thank you for this wonderful testament to a brave man who lived for football yes, but for a whole lot more. Your piece portrays the life of a brave man who lived for his wife, children and family, a brave man who lived for his friends & others, a brave man who lived for his community, a brave man who lived for life. May we all be so fortunate to call ourselves Lehigh men in his mold.

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