For Frankie

Published in the February 13, 2008 issue of Stow Independent

By Jordana Bieze Foster

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They'll remember his dry sense of humor, and the way he always had a tube of Chapstick on hand. They'll remember the gift he had for wrestling, and his quiet leadership. But what those who knew Francis J. DeMeo will remember most is the the irony that such a slender frame could contain so much heart.

DeMeo, the senior captain of the Nashoba Regional wrestling team who died last Tuesday in a car accident, was laid to rest on Monday at Brookside Cemetery in Stow after a memorial service at St. Isidore's Church where every seat in every pew was filled. That final ceremony followed a week in which stunned classmates, teammates, coaches and even rivals from across the region found a range of ways to pay their respects to the young man whose commitment and perseverance made him one of the sport's top athletes.

“He did everything we expect out of a captain,” said Nashoba athletic director Tom O'Brien. “He led by example and was an extremely hard worker, not only in terms of wrestling and training but also in the classroom. The rest of the team had the utmost respect for him, as a captain and as a person.”

Within hours of the accident, the internet became a safe haven where loved ones could share their grief and their memories of the boy they knew as Frankie. The home page of the Nashoba wrestling team, normally a collection of photos and links in the school's colors of green and gold, was replaced with a stark black field on which the Lord's Prayer appeared in white type, along with links to two online memorial forums. Teammate Robb Enzmann of Stow created a group titled “R.I.P. Frankie DeMeo” on the popular social networking site, through which anyone was welcome to post memories of DeMeo or share their feelings about his loss. A similar forum evolved on, where wrestlers and coaches from as far away as South Carolina extended their condolences, and at least 10 of those who posted mentioned that their teams would ask for a moment of silence before a meet or practice in DeMeo's honor.

But perhaps the most poignant tributes came on Saturday, at the Division II Central sectional wrestling tournament in Marlboro, which marked the first time the Chieftains had competed without their captain. DeMeo had finished first at sectionals the past two years in the 112-pound weight class; a third consecutive sectional victory would have been a first for any Nashoba wrestler, but it would not have surprised anyone if DeMeo had achieved it, given his success this season. Just prior to his death, had ranked DeMeo fifth out of all 112-pound wrestlers in the state. In a post on that same website on Wednesday, Nashoba assistant coach Chris Welch relayed a message from DeMeo's father, Anthony DeMeo, who encouraged all wrestlers to continue their preparation for the sectional competition, and wished them good luck.

At the sectional meet, wearing custom-made black t-shirts that read “FOR FRANKIE” on the back, the Chieftains battled to a fourth-place finish, which earned the team a trip to the state team tournament. Wrestlers who qualified for this weekend's divisional tournament as individuals included Blake MacLeod (first place, 189 lbs), Dan Trefry of Stow (second, 215), Keith Schleyer (second, 160), DJ Siewierski of Stow (third, 171), Josue Guerra (fourth, 135) and Matt Holfinger (fourth, 119). Freshman Jason Zelle of Stow, who finished fifth in the 103-pound weight class, is an alternate.

“They're a tight-knit group, probably the closest team we have here at Nashoba,” O'Brien said of the Chieftain wrestlers. “When tragedy strikes, that closeness can make it that much harder to lose a teammate, but having that group around you can be very supportive too. They're really helping each other through this.”

DeMeo's teammates weren't the only competitors to honor his memory at the tournament, however. Bobby Monks of Monty Tech, who had challenged DeMeo several times in the 112-pound weight class but competed in the 119 weight class at the sectional tournament, had “F.D. 112” inked onto his left shoulder. And Conner David of King Phillip High, who won the 112-pound weight class in Marlboro, gave his first place medal to Nashoba coach Matt Schiller in honor of his absent rival. The medal was displayed Saturday at the wake held for DeMeo at the Acton Funeral Home.

DeMeo had been so successful for so long that it was often difficult to remember that he had ever been a beginner. But Phil Riccio, a former wrestler who coached DeMeo both in middle school and as a volunteer coach at the high school level, recalled wondering at first if the shy youngster was too passive to succeed in a sport where controlled aggressiveness can be an advantage.

“He was a very quiet kid,” Riccio said. “I didn't think he was going to make it two weeks. But after two weeks, I was thinking this kid's going to be good.”

To say DeMeo turned out to be good is something of an understatement. He worked hard to improve, attending clinics and camps during off-seasons. But part of what makes a wrestler great really can't be taught, Riccio said, and DeMeo had it.

“He never lost his composure,” Riccio said. “There's a thing in wrestling where you break somebody mentally, and if it happens to you, you know that no matter what you do, this guy's going to beat you. But I never saw Frankie get broken.”

Jeremy Roche, Nashoba's principal, recalled learning after DeMeo’s death of the strength of the wrestler's commitment to his teammates. According to Roche, DeMeo’s teammates slipped word to the principal last week that, if an opposing team did not match up well against the Chieftains, the captain would let a junior varsity wrestler compete in his place. This answered the question for Roche of why a wrestler of DeMeo's caliber "didn't have more matches under his belt," though he also pointed out that DeMeo won more than 100 matches in four years, a record that’s one of the school's best.

Although he wasn't a vocal leader, Riccio said, DeMeo would let his teammates know when their efforts were lacking. And, constantly, he led by example.

“Some kids can be successful and people still don't necessarily follow them,” Riccio said. “But people did follow Frankie because they saw his dedication and what it meant not just for him as an individual but for the team.”

-- Additional reporting by Ann Needle

Copyright 2008 Jordana Foster – 24 Kirkland Dr, Stow, MA – Email: – Fax: (815) 346-5239