With the Cougs and Trojans doing battle Saturday, the verbal jousting should be well underway in the Danelo household.
But it’s not. And the pain is deep.
“I think about it everyday,” Joe told CF.C in a recent interview near his home in southern California.
Nearly four years ago, just five days after Mario booted two field goals in USC’s 32-18 victory over Michigan in the 2007 Rose Bowl, he was found dead at the bottom of a 120-foot cliff near the family home in San Pedro.
He was a USC junior and had just earned honorable mention all-Pac-10 honors for the second straight season. He liked to say he was “living a dream.” His future, on and off the field, was bright.
MARIO DANELO ENTERING HIS JUNIOR SEASON IN 2006.
And then he was gone. Taken, at age 21, by the rocky terrain he had known like the back of his hand since childhood.
Investigators believe it was an accident and Mario fell to his death. An autopsy revealed that Mario’s blood alcohol level at the time of his death was 0.23.
Joe and his wife Emily don’t believe it was an accident. Though they admit not knowing what occurred on that fateful night, after drinking with friends at the family home, Mario took a walk and never returned. The Danelos believe foul play could have been a factor.
“We don’t know what happened that night,” said Joe. “(After it happened), we kept going to the police and they kept saying we don’t know what happened. It’s an accident. (But) it just doesn’t make sense to me. He knew where to stay away from, where he couldn’t go and where he could. He never took an elevator because he was afraid of heights. Now I know he had been drinking and everything, but…it just doesn’t add up.”
“There were people who confessed to it,” Emily Danelo said.
Asked to clarify the statement, Joe said: “There were people who said they knew what happened, but the police said they were just stories. We asked them if they had talked to these people and they said that they did. One of the kids (who claimed to have been with Mario) went to (older son) Joey’s house with his father and told Joey he knew what happened that night. They said (Mario) wasn’t alone. (But) the kid starts crying and then the kid and his father just left. Just like that. I asked Joey, ‘what kind of bullshit is that?’ ”
Sid Rodriguez, a detective for the Los Angeles Police Department’s Harbor Division, which investigated the Mario’s death, said foul play wasn’t suspected.
JOE'S SON TONY ESCORTS HIS MOM EMILY AT A 2007 PRE-GAME CEREMONY AT USC HONORING MARIO.
“There is no evidence that (Mario’s death) occurred at the hands of another person,” Rodriguez said. “We will never know what happened. It’s not unusual for families to feel (that foul play was suspected). But there is no evidence to support this (as a homicide). I feel sorry for the family. I know it’s got to be difficult.”
The wounds are still fresh for the Danelos. The emotions remain raw as they discuss Mario’s life and death. And the mysterious circumstances and questions regarding his death make it even harder to bear. As difficult as it is, they push on.
“He was gifted and a great kid,” Joe said. “He was the one player on the (USC) team that all the players looked up to. Don’t ask me why, but they did. Mario was the most upbeat person you would ever meet. He worked so hard and he always said ‘I’m living a dream.’ We miss him so much.”
SPOKANE HAS ALWAYS BEEN paradise to Joe Danelo. Though he doesn’t visit as often as he’d like, the area still holds a special place in the heart of the Lilac City native. The old Italian section of town, around Minnehaha Park, isn't so Italian anymore but it's still home deep down. Football, where he starred at Gonzaga Prep as the city's first soccer-style kicker, was of particular significance. And, as his good fortune would have it, he became a standout down the road at Washington State.
Danelo was one of WSU’s all-time greats. With the exception of record-shattering Jason Hansen, who is in his 19th season with the Detroit Lions, Danelo is arguably the best. So was his time at WSU.
JOE DANELO, CIRCA 1973, WAS THE FIRST WSU KICKER TO MAKE A 50 YARDER.
“Probably the best four years of my life,” Danelo said. “But it was a no-brainer for me going to Washington State. I went there because of Jim Sweeney.”
Sweeney, the beloved Smilin’ Irishman, molded Danelo into a solid and consistent kicker who would play 10 seasons in the NFL. In three varsity seasons at Washington State (1972-74), Danelo booted his way into the school record books for field goals made (31), total points (163) and converted PATs (70). At one point, he nailed 42 consecutive PATs, another school record. He also kicked the school’s first field goal of 50 yards or more and left with a 55-yarder to his credit, against Stanford in 1974. That kick still ranks No. 6 on WSU’s all-time list.
It was all Sweeney, Danelo said.
“We really didn’t have a kicking coach. All the things we didn’t know, some of us like myself, were fortunate enough to have Sweeney around,” Danelo said. “Coach Sweeney was a gifted guy and even though he was the head coach, he was my personal coach. He put guys like (Hall of Famer) Jan Stenerud and (former Pittsburgh Steeler great) Roy Gerela in the pros. He helped me tremendously.”
The coach also was an excellent cheerleader.
“Sweeney was like Pete Carroll was (at USC) before Pete Carroll came along. Sweeney would be out there at the pep rallies swinging his jacket around. He’d really get everyone fired up.”
No one more so than Joseph Peter Danelo. After finishing his career at WSU, Danelo became a 10th-round pick in 1975 of the Dolphins. He never played a down for Miami, ending up instead in Green Bay, where he played 12 games and converted 11 of 16 field-goal attempts in his rookie season. The best though was yet to come.
In 1976, Danelo began a seven-year run with the Giants. His best season was 1981, when he booted a then-record 55-yarder in one contest and tied an NFL record with six field goals in another.
Danelo dialed up his final two NFL campaigns with the Bills. He tried out with the Chargers in 1985, but retired instead.
He wanted to return to Spokane, but Emily suggested L.A. Emily was a native, growing up in the L.A. suburb of Carson. Danelo followed his heart, knowing the woman who stole his as an undergrad at WSU, knew best.
The couple settled in San Pedro, a port city and working class community of about 80,000, about 25 minutes south of downtown Los Angeles.
Joe worked as a longshoreman. Initially, he worked the docks part-time to make ends meet during the off-season -- NFL kickers didn't make a lot in those days. He started in full-time after his NFL career. Now 57 and with 27 years under his belt, he remains a fixture on the waterfront, as a supervisor.
San Pedro also is where the couple raised their three boys — Joey, Tony and Mario. All three played high school football. But it was Mario, the baby, who gravitated to kicking. Joe didn’t push him to kick. It wasn’t his nature to do so. But as he explained recently, if the kid thought enough to ask, he’d teach him all he knew and what Sweeney had taught him.
It paid dividends for Mario. After a standout career at San Pedro High, he attracted interest from several schools. Though the Trojans didn’t offer him a scholarship, Mario got plenty of encouragement to attend USC from assistant coaches Kennedy Pola and Ed Orgeron. So he walked on.
“We used to hate SC,” Joe said. “But when Pete Carroll spoke to the players and Mario had to go to his freshman (orientation)…we got out of that meeting room and I looked at Mario and said ‘I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to strap it on.’ ”
If life had turned out the way you plan, Joe and Mario would be strapping it on right now in a friendly father-son battle of competing alma maters. Instead, a family pushes on amid the pain, warmed by loving memories but dogged by the mystery surrounding their loss.
Forrest Lee is a freelance writer in Long Beach, Calif. He also is publisher and editor of Blak4rest.com, a lively blog featuring commentary on sports, media and Vegas.