Chris Ross could never get too excited.
Ross, the PA announcer at most St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy football games, watched from afar as his son, Charlie, lined up at wide receiver.
Charlie was a focal point of the Wolves’ offense, catching screens and deep patterns alike, using his wheels to leave cornerbacks begging for air.
On a touchdown or big play, though, his father would be resolute in the press box.
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“I couldn’t show favoritism,” Chris said, sounding somewhat disappointed.
But Charlie’s mom? Now that’s a different story.
“She’s a rah-rah cheerleader,” Chris said with a laugh. “She’ll turn around at the game, and go, ‘Did you see that? Did you see that?’ And I’ll just just nod.”
If that’s the case, Chris nodded often the past few years, which is surreal for Chris, Charlie, coaches and administrators to think about.
When Charlie, now an outgoing senior, came to St. Joseph’s in 2013, there were no promises made, and no guarantee there would even be an actual football program.
Despite that, Charlie had aspirations: he wanted to represent SJCA, and he wanted to play college football.
He’d be the first-ever Wolves football player to do so.
“He just dreamt,” Chris said.
Now, after three years of ebbs and flows, Charlie, a future Allegheny College Gator, isn’t dreaming anymore.
Charlie, 18, has two older brothers. The oldest is five years older than Charlie, and the other three years his elder.
When Charlie was just four, he’d hang out at his older brothers’ Pop Warner practices. Sometimes he’d just watch, other times he’d run sprints with the players.
And whenever the Pop Warner team practiced at Bellefonte’s field, Charlie would stand next to then-varsity head coach Tom Gravish and follow him around everywhere he went.
When Chris saw that, he knew.
“Football was his very first love,” the father said.
Twelve years later, that love was in jeopardy.
After attending Bellefonte his freshman year, Charlie’s parents wanted him to attend the newly-opened high school in Boalsburg, St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy.
So Charlie and his parents went on a tour, and afterward, they talked to Dave Carson.
Carson, previously Charlie’s coach at Bellefonte Middle School, was going to be SJCA’s first head coach.
The family liked that, and SJCA’s academics, so Charlie transferred. He was one of 16 transfers that would play football in the inaugural season.
That’s when Chad Walsh saw a program taking shape. It gave him a sense of optimism about where this could go.
In the school’s first year, Walsh was strictly a teacher who only taught two classes at SJCA. In the spring, he was hired as SJCA’s athletic director.
Just months after that, though, in mid-summer with the second school year on the horizon, Walsh was faced with a simple, but scary question.
Will there be a football team?
Students graduated. Several transferred. And the Wolves didn’t have many bodies to begin with.
There were only 18 total players on the team, and with many leaving after the first season, a frightening reality set in.
“The boys were nervous, the coaches were nervous,” Walsh recalls, “Everyone was kind of like, ‘What’s going to happen here?’”
Assistant coach Christian Klepeiss remembers the feeling.
“We had to fight to keep the program together,” Klepeiss said. “We were begging kids to come out and play.”
But what about Charlie, and other players like Mikey Kresovich and Mike Jabco?
“They had a chance to go, too,” Klepeiss said. “They could have gone somewhere else.”
But those players wouldn’t allow the program to sink. They wouldn’t let that happen.
Charlie, in particular, loved the Wolves.
Was it difficult not getting a breather during games?
Was it weird scrimmaging one half of the offense versus one half of the defense, because of lack of numbers?
“I’m not gonna lie, it was probably the strangest football team I’ve ever been on,” Charlie said.
But to his admission, it made him tougher. It humbled him.
It set him up for what was to come.
The Wolves survived, scrounging together 17 players to take the field in 2014.
After a 4-5 inaugural season, SJCA went only 2-7 in its second year.
In fact, the Wolves went 2-7 last season, too, with 19 players on the roster.
One of the losses was by forfeit, with three injuries and facing a team that beat them 47-6 the year prior.
Chris Ross sat in the stands or press box, and saw some ugly football.
“They were getting trounced, which happened in a lot of games,” Charlie’s father said. “But they never gave up.”
They certainly didn’t give up on Oct. 30, 2015.
Down by two scores early, the Wolves clawed back against Marion Center.
And 20-18 with 10:45 left in the fourth quarter, Charlie found the end zone for a 2-yard, game-winning touchdown run.
It was his third touchdown of the day, and the cap to his career.
From the day he transferred out of Bellefonte to that touchdown, he grew.
When Charlie first met Klepeiss, he made his intentions clear.
“I knew right off the bat that (playing in college) was one of his goals,” the assistant coach said. “But a lot of kids say that, and they don’t know what it takes or necessarily means to play in college.”
And his dad knew, too.
He watched his son’s progress unfold in front of him on the field.
“You see the opposing coach try to double-team him and you think, ‘He has potential. He can actually do something,’” Chris said. “It’s a dad moment where you can puff out your chest and go yep, that’s my boy.”
Charlie started looking at schools, with an education in mind. After volunteering with the Special Olympics, he decided on double majoring in community and justice studies, and black studies.
“I realized that I enjoy helping people,” Charlie said. “I figured out that I want to help people in the future.”
With an extended opportunity to play Division III football and a plethora of chances for undergraduate research, he jumped at Allegheny College.
When Klepeiss looked at the inaugural SJCA football team, he saw more than a dozen transfer students, enough to field a team.
“But it wasn’t a program yet,” he noted.
Heading into year four, the Wolves still aren’t a powerhouse by any stretch of the imagination.
They’re still in an infancy stage.
But considering the precarious spot they were in 2014, Walsh is proud of what has sprouted at SJCA.
And he thanked Charlie and others for making it possible.
“We don’t have tradition. We haven’t been around for 100 or 150 years,” the athletic director said. “But these kids who have been here, who are seniors or have already gone on, they’re pioneers of the school and of the program.
“And for one of those pioneers to be recognized as a legitimate college prospect, it’s huge. They’re laying the groundwork for the future.”
Klepeiss sees it the same way.
The coach said the Wolves have “a fresh chance” to build on the past three years.
And for Klepeiss, one of the biggest parts of moving toward establishing a program, not just a team, is having previous players to look back on as an example.
Klepeiss sees Charlie as the finest example.
“For our program, what he’s meant, to stick through the tough years and still be out there never missing practice and running the routes and doing the stuff he’s told to do,” Klepeiss said, “he’s one of those kids that as we build a program, we can say (to other players), ‘Just like Charlie used to do.’”
Klepeiss and Walsh take pride in Charlie’s accomplishments at SJCA, just as Charlie is honored to be a lifelong member of the Wolves.
Sure, on Sept. 3 in Meadville, Charlie will take the field as an Allegheny College Gator.
But whenever a teammate, coach or opponent ask where he’s from, he’ll answer, happily.
“Being the first football player to go on and play in college, it’s pretty amazing to me,” Charlie said. “I give all my thanks to St. Joe’s for preparing me for this next chapter of my life.”