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Milford grad plays with spirit, heart

By Lenny Megliola
Globe Correspondent / October 13, 2011

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The layers of the young man’s life are many: tragic, uplifting, inescapable.

Nick DiAntonio lost his father, Jay, to cancer in 1995. The boy was 5.

“Two days before he passed away, he told me, ‘I’ll always be the little guy standing on your shoulder,’ ’’ said DiAntonio.

The boy learned much from one of his football coaches at Milford High, defensive coordinator Tom Cullen. But when the coach had intentions of courting DiAntonio’s widowed mom, Cullen had to go through her son first.

“I don’t think Nick wanted anyone to date his mother,’’ said Cullen, now the head coach of the Scarlet Hawks. “He had a hit list. He didn’t believe anyone was good enough for her.’’

Cullen didn’t push it, but he also didn’t back away. “Tom’s my significant other,’’ said Mary DiAntonio. “Nick looks up to him now. They talk about football and life every day. They read the Bible.’’

“He told me, ‘I’m never going to try to take your father’s place, I want you to know that,’ ’’ said DiAntonio, who has a tattoo on his right bicep, JD 17, his father’s initials and his ID number when he was a firefighter in town.

DiAntonio was a standout linebacker at Milford High. He hoped to play at Boston College. Cullen took him aside and gave him the reality. “I told him that at five-foot-eight, he wasn’t going to play football at BC.’’ DiAntonio swallowed hard, and accepted.

He went to Assumption College in Worcester instead. The 195-pound linebacker is having a sensational senior year. In a 38-24 loss to Southern Connecticut on Oct. 1, DiAntonio had 21 tackles. “When my brother Danny told me how many I had, I said, ‘No, really, how many did I have?’ ’’

The 21 tackles was also the highest total this year at any college level. DiAntonio was named national player of the week. He found out when he went on the Division 2 website. “I was on the phone with my mom at the time. It was pretty cool,’’ he said. He had nine more tackles in Saturday’s 41-10 romp at Pace.

“He’s impressive, with his work ethic, his discipline,’’ said Assumption coach Cory Bailey, who returned for his second stint as the Greyhounds’ coach when DiAntonio was a sophomore. “He was a wrestler in high school, and that’s how he plays the game. He’s tough and intelligent.’’

It didn’t take long for Bailey to size up his undersized linebacker. “He’s almost too good to be true.’’

Assumption defensive coordinator, Pete Leonard, added, “If he was six feet tall, we probably wouldn’t have had a shot to get him.’’

Nothing DiAntonio accomplishes surprises John Dagnese, his high school coach. “It was always about his intensity with Nick. When he was in eighth grade he came to our offseason workouts at the high school and worked out with us. There was no way we could keep him away.’’

He recalled DiAntonio, as a junior, on a blitz stuffing a fourth-down bid by Westborough on the 3 yard line, propelling Milford to the first of consecutive Super Bowl appearances.

“He always had football sense. Even as a freshman he was the best at his position. It wasn’t like we didn’t have someone else to put in there,’’ Dagnese said. “Nick’s short of stature, but his body’s carved out of stone. He’s extremely strong.’’

DiAntonio was always doing special things in high school. He was president of his senior class, a Special Olympics and Best Buddies volunteer. He was a tutor. DiAntonio wrestled at 171 pounds and won the state title his senior year.

He was a top student and has carried that over to Assumption. Yesterday, DiAntonio (3.8 grade point average) was presented with the school’s Ray Marion Award for academic excellence.

“I treat sports and the classroom the same,’’ said DiAntonio. “No one is going to outwork me. My future is not in football. It depends on how I perform in the classroom. I want to be a high school math teacher and football coach. I love the game too much to give it up.’’

Jay DiAntonio played football at Milford High (a teammate of Cullen’s, coincidentally) and later coached his son Danny’s Mighty Mites youth team. “I was the team mascot,’’ said Nick DiAntonio, three years younger than Danny. “I went to all the games and practices. I wore a football uniform.’’

He was injured as a freshman at Assumption in his first collegiate game, against Sacred Heart. “My hip popped out of its socket. I didn’t want to miss any games. I brushed it off and told the trainers it was just a pulled muscle.’’

After the season, an MRI showed he had sustained a torn labrum and torn ligament. He had surgery. Further tests revealed a congenital problem. “My cartilage was pretty worn down,’’ he said.

He had played through severe pain. The following season, he didn’t know what to expect. “I was tentative at first. But I could run without pain or a limp. I didn’t have to take Motrin or Ibuprofen after a game.’’

Last season he started most of the games, but “didn’t get to play as much as I would have liked,’’ he said. This year everything has worked out.

Both Dagnese and Cullen swear that DiAntonio would be NFL material if he were a couple of inches taller.

Cullen, a physical education teacher at Milford High, played on the 1975 team that beat Pittsfield in the Central Mass./Western Mass. Super Bowl.

Cullen and Nick’s mother have been together for seven years. Danny is a senior at Stonehill College, where he plays rugby.

“The job Mary’s done with her kids is second to none,’’ said Cullen. When he finally earned Nick’s blessing to date his mother, “I felt honored.’’

Danny and Nick played one season together on the Milford High varsity, and their mother never missed a game. “I loved having both of them out there,’’ said Mary. “I’d yell at them and they’d look up in the stands.’’ It became a ritual.

Her sons are her life, and Cullen has helped in a big way. “Things were so bad when my husband died,’’ said Mary DiAntonio. “I promised my sons I’d give them as normal a life as possible.’’

Mary and Cullen have no plans to marry. The way it is now feels right for all of them. DiAntonio said that Cullen “changed my life. He’s taught me how to handle situations. He’s one of the wisest people I’ve ever met.’’

DiAntonio is a math major at Assumption, with a minor in theology. “Faith is a big part of my life. I think it’s because my dad passed away. I was trying to connect with him.’’

Lenny Megliola can be reached at