Stanley Sickels and his wife, Donna, watched their son, Garrett, grab hold of the edge of the kitchen counter with his tiny hands, and pull himself up, again and again, before he could even walk.
Stanley watched Garrett tackle a kid in flag football in his very first game at the age of 5, from the sidelines as his coach.
“Well, dad, I tripped,” Garrett explained to his father, knowing full well the rules of the game.
Then he did it twice more. Stanley benched him.
He watched Garrett, who was 10 pounds and 24 inches long at birth, grow bigger than almost all of the other kids his own age; drove Garrett and a couple of other kids from their hometown of Red Bank, N.J., to the next town when he was in seventh grade because there weren’t enough football players to field a team; watched him sit out of football in eighth grade because he was too big to play; watched film with Garrett as he grew older and realized he just may have a future on the field. He watched Garrett, a talent on the lacrosse field, hang up his stick after splitting two helmets because, ironically, “he didn’t want to get hurt and affect his possible football career.”
Stanley watched his son as he developed a hatred for getting beat by anyone or anything on a football field, and a love for just about everyone and everything else off it.
On Garrett’s first day of high school, a mentally disabled classmate tried to sit with he and his friends at lunch. Some of them started laughing and mocking the kid. Garrett told them off and ate with the kid at another table. Stanley watched his son, impassioned, talk about the incident. Watched him grow up a little bit, right then and there.
Stanley watched Garrett become friends with the only other kid his age who was as big as he was — a boy named Albert Martin, who tackled Garrett on the first day of flag football in first grade, an immediate act of boyhood bonding.
A decade later, Stanley watched his son speak at Albert’s funeral.
‘We’ve just got to
make him proud’
Garrett grew up tall, broad, tow-headed and a little wild, in a tight-knit family right next to the water; theirs was a 1.8-square mile town packed with 12,000 people who all knew each other.
So when news hit that a high school basketball player had collapsed on the court at Red Bank Regional high school, all of the kids started calling each other.
Garrett was at home. He said he remembers having a headache. His phone rang.
“It was my buddy Brett. He said, ‘Dude are you OK?’ He was checking on me because he had heard that a 17-year-old kid had dropped dead of a cardiac arrest in the gym.”
Garrett called the school.
“Who are they taking to the hospital?” he asked.
Garrett said he immediately started crying, and took off toward the hospital. He doesn’t remember getting there, but when he showed up, he saw every kid he’d grown up with.
“He’s going to be fine,” he remembers them all saying to each other.
Albert was pronounced dead that afternoon.
When Stanley got to the hospital, he saw Garrett was already there, comforting Albert’s family.
“They asked the kids to come say goodbye. So they went in the room, and said their goodbyes, and comforted each other. And it was a real tough moment,” Stanley said, voice cracking with emotion.
“He had the biggest smile. He was the nicest kid anybody ever met. Hard worker. He was just ‘That Dude.’ Everyone who ever met him was affected in a positive way by him,” said Garrett, softly.
“Ironically, he was the nicest kid ever, and he passed away from an enlarged heart.”
The day was an awful, unstoppable blur.
“(Former Penn State coach) Larry Johnson was coming to our house 15 minutes later,” said Stanley. “He was on the road, and coming for an official recruiting visit. And it was a good thing. I told Garrett, ‘Come on, we have to go home. Go up in the shower and let it all out. And when you get out, Larry Johnson will be here.’ ”
Stanley said Johnson, the then-defensive line coach for the Nittany Lions, was incredibly supportive and comforting.
“We will always thank Larry for that night,” said Stanley. It helped solidify Garrett’s decision to come to Penn State.
But before he ever got there, he had to grow up. More than anyone should have to, at 18.
Garrett said, at the hospital the day of Albert’s death, he went over to comfort his friend’s mother.
“Seeing her, how strong she was ... She gave me a hug, and she looked at me, and I knew everything was going to be all right,” he said. Two days later, Red Bank Regional retired Albert’s No. 34 jersey. His mother asked Garrett, then, to speak at the funeral.
“I don’t know how I did that, that was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” Garrett said. “I’m not the best public speaker, but I think I did all right.”
He talked about the first day they met — the biggest kid he’d ever seen tackling him on the football field — and all the funny moments they had after that. The time they got kicked out of a Chinese buffet; Albert’s smile.
“We’ve just got to make him proud,” Garrett remembers telling the packed church. “Any time we’re tired, like we’re not going to accomplish something, we just have to remember Albert was grinding, just think of him and make him proud.”
Stanley watched his son console the grieving crowd. He watched Garrett make them laugh; make them remember a kid with a huge heart and bigger grin.
“I couldn’t believe it, here’s a kid who lost his best friend ... He certainly made me proud. He made his mother proud.
“And I know Albert was proud.”
It wasn’t the first time Stanley had been overflowing with pride as he watched his son grow up. Less than a year prior, the NCAA had announced the historic set of sanctions imposed upon Penn State after the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
“When the sanctions hit, I was home with him and we watched it together,” Stanley said. “And it was like someone punched him in the stomach. I told him, ‘Don’t panic, I’ll call the office, I think the coaches are getting this at the same time as you are, as we are.’ ”
Stanley called other parents, including those of Brendan Mahon and Christian Hackenberg, who they’d met through the recruiting process, but by the time he finished talking with them and composing a list of questions, Garrett had already made his decision.
“I Googled ‘Penn State football’ to see what was going on,” Stanley said. “And there it was — Garrett and Brendan had, at like 10 o’clock in the morning, had called up the coaches and said ‘Hey, you believed in us, and we’re going to believe in you.’
“It was yet another moment to be proud of a (the-) 17-year-old kid, making such a monumental decision, all because he’d given a guy his word.”
Still, Garrett’s road was bumpy. He almost didn’t make it through his first brutal fall camp, his dad said. He was down mentally, and in the process of his coaches stripping away his baby fat and replacing it with lean muscle; of stripping away the “high school” and turning him into a Division I athlete.
“Think about this,” Stanley remembers telling him. “This is basic training. Marine Corps basic training. Your coach is your drill instructor. And he’s trying to get something out of you that you don’t even know you have to give. Something you can pull out of the depths of your body in Nebraska, in double overtime, in a snowstorm. You aren’t going to break, you aren’t going to fall apart.”
Garrett turned the corner. So much so, in fact, that he thought he’d play his first year. He was on the roster to start on special teams, Stanley said, up until just before the season, when it was decided that he’d redshirt.
Frustrated, Garrett threw himself into work on the scout team. He put on a dozen or so pounds of muscle. He worked on fundamentals ad nauseam with defensive ends coach Sean Spencer. Every time he went home to visit his family, Stanley said, his son had gotten bigger. Garrett’s first shot on the field came last year on special teams, and there, his hustle and sideline-to-sideline style showed through.
“I just kind of went into it every day, every workout, every morning run, just kind of put my head down, settled down and made sure I did everything right,” Garrett said.
Finally, prior to the start of Penn State’s 2015 season, he was named a starter at defensive end, playing alongside experienced junior Austin Johnson and senior captain Anthony Zettel on the inside, and breakout athlete Carl Nassib on the opposite end.
He didn’t settle. He began to produce.
It quickly became clear that Penn State’s defensive line was the most consistently explosive unit on the team. Sickels did not get left behind when the “Wild Dogs” got rolling; nor did he find himself overwhelmed.
He’s racked up 25 tackles in eight games, 3.5 tackles-for-loss, two sacks, a pass breakup, a pass deflection and two fumble recoveries, the latest of which he scooped up and returned for 36 yards in a narrow win against Maryland.
“He’s a really, really good pass rusher, some of the best lean and bend that I’ve coached,” Spencer said earlier this season. “He can come off the end and clear the tackle and really bend. He can twist well. He can explode at the point of impact. We are really excited about him moving forward.”
The latter two words are those that seem to fit well into Garrett’s personality. They always have, to hear Stanley tell it.
“Moving forward” — to the next play, the next moment, on the field or in life; solidly, and brimming with character.
Never still; but growing, ever still.