Gagliardi Remembered by Fans, Former Players at Tommies/Johnnies Game Saturday

October 13, 2018 11:06 PM

It's an often told story. 

But former St. John's wide receiver Jeremy Forsell recounted it again Saturday.


It was the late 1990s, and one of Forsell's teammates had the misfortune to encounter John Gagliardi while wearing one of the t-shirts bearing perhaps unprintable messages that have become a staple on both sides of the Johnnies/Tommies rivalry.

The legendary former St. John's head coach demanded he remove it. 

Not later. Right there on the spot.

"The poor guy had to walk home without a shirt on," Forsell said smiling.

"The rivalry is always a big thing for the fans and students at both schools," he continued. "But John always tried to play that down. He stressed we needed to respect our opponents every week, no matter who we were playing."

But while Gagliardi - whose 489 career victories are the most in college football history - may have played down the rivalry with St. Thomas over the 60 seasons he spent as the head coach in Collegeville, he was certainly on the minds of his former players and fans alike when the Johnnies took on the Tommies Saturday at Clemens Stadium - seven days after his death at age 91 early last Sunday.

The emotional Johnnies responded, posting a 40-20 victory before a crowd of 16,922 - their first victory over their archrivals since 2014.

"Seeing all the stories and posts about John on social media this week, it's been like one long wake," longtime Johnnies fan Harry Burns said in a packed tailgate lot prior to Saturday's game. 

"Seeing so many of his former players and hearing their stories has been great. Some of them I've heard before. Some of them I haven't.

"But it's just nice to see so many people remembering him."

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A moment of silence was held prior to kickoff Saturday for Gagliardi, whose funeral is Monday at the Abbey Church in Collegeville.

"We've been really lucky to have so much support this week," said John's son Jim, a former longtime assistant coach under his father. "It's all been so nice. I wish I was able to respond to everybody who's reached out and posted tributes. There's just been so many people. But we really appreciate it all."

Tom Linnemann played quarterback for St. Johns and led the Johnnies to the Division III national title game in 2000.

"He created St. John's football," Linnemann said of the head coach. "Days like today, you realize how much he impacted so many people."

Linnemann compared Gagliardi to a parent or a best friend, and he said the last week has been difficult.

What helped, he said, was thinking back to the times that Gagliardi made each of his players to feel like they were his favorite player on the field.

"Throughout the last 40, 50 years, all these Johnnie football players have something in common, and that's John," he said. "And today we want to celebrate him."

Gagliardi retired as the Johnnies head coach following the 2012 season. But even current students at both St. John's and St. Thomas are aware of his impact.

"If you have any reverence for football, you know what a legend he was," St. Thomas sophomore Peter Thompson said.

Yet, no matter what the year, the Tommies/Johnnies game is always a festive atmosphere. Last year's matchup drew a crowd of over 37,000 at Target Field.

And a big crowd was on hand Saturday as well.

"It doesn't matter your background or who you are," Thompson said. "Everybody hangs out together and just has a blast. The atmosphere is always awesome."


Kirsten Swanson and Frank Rajkowski

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