Maryland freshman kicker Nick Ferrara honors the memory of… (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth…)
COLLEGE PARK — — These are the reasons for Maryland kicker Nick Ferrara's success: a strong leg, a sharp focus and an angel on his shoulder.
The first two are his doing. The third is the spirit of his best friend.
Ferrara, a freshman, surprised coaches with his kicking last season. The Terps' foot of the future, he hit 18 of 25 field-goal attempts, including the game-winner in overtime against James Madison, and a 50-yarder at Wake Forest. Extra points? Perfect. He even filled in at punter for a spell.
"Nick has a very gifted leg," Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said during spring practice last week, adding that Ferrara "has a good chance to play at the next level."
Should he get there, Ferrara, 18, knows he will not have done it alone. He is driven to excel by the memory of a childhood pal, Michael Magro, who died of leukemia at 13.
That Michael's life was cut short six years ago weighs on Ferrara. Inseparable since kindergarten, the two grew up 10doors apart, in close-knit Italian families, in a middle-class neighborhood in Hicksville, N.Y. They walked to school together, kicking stones and swapping jokes. They hung out at each other's houses on hot summer days, until one's mom asked the other boy to stay for supper. And they teased each other, as seventh-graders do, whenever a girl glanced their way.
When Michael fell ill in June 2004, Ferrara stood by him. And when his friend died two months later, Ferrara vowed to live for both.
"I'm not going to waste my life, because Michael never had a chance to live his," he told his mother.
That zeal shows in Ferrara's play, his coaches said. Each day, at practice, he attempts 200 place kicks. Then, without prompting, a number of punts.
"When our punter [Travis Baltz] got hurt last year, Nick stepped up," Friedgen said. "For five games, we had one guy — a true freshman — doing three jobs (field goals, kickoffs and punts). Now Travis is well, but Nick still works on his punting. That's what I'm pleased with.
"I try not to go overboard on [Ferrara] because I don't want him to get complacent. But he'd kick all day if you let him."
In Ferrara's backpack is a wristband embroidered with a 33, Michael's rec league lacrosse jersey number. On Ferrara's left arm is the tattoo of a cross, bathed in white, beneath the words Sempre Con Me, Italian for "always with me."
"Michael watches over me, every game," he said. "Last year, while punting against Clemson, I dropped a snap but managed to juke the rusher and make the kick without getting crushed."
Ferrara looked up and whispered thanks to his friend.
"I still don't know how Nick got that kick off," said Charles Bankins, Maryland's special teams coach. "It had to be divine intervention."
Every chance he gets, Ferrara visits Michael's grave, set amid stately old maples and birch trees at Holy Rood Cemetery on Long Island. He always leaves a reminder beside the gray headstone. Last time, it was a cardboard cutout of a penguin.
"Michael likes penguins," he said. On it he scrawled the number 33.
Ferrara's friendship heartened her son near the end, Terrie Magro said. Every day found him at Michael's bedside in the hospital, giggling and swapping adolescent banter with a bevy of friends as Michael sipped the vanilla shake that Nick had brought him and smiled.
"Nick would tell jokes and reminisce about all the crazy stuff they'd done in the neighborhood, at birthday parties and Halloween," Magro said. "Michael didn't always have the strength to respond, but he listened and laughed and urged Nick to tell more stories."
For a time, Michael left the hospital. But his strength ebbed and, on his last night at home, the two boys spent hours together, sharing their thoughts and saying goodbye.
"Michael was in bad shape — the [drugs] were so strong that he dozed in and out, but we talked and laughed. He acted like he had no cares in the world," Ferrara recalled.
"I'd brought him some toys and stuff that I cherished — a cap gun, some DVDs and some fireworks. His lips were real chapped, but he smiled at that.
"I think he kind of knew what was happening. Michael was very Italian; he wouldn't give you one inch of his emotions. But that night, he opened up. He said, ‘Nick, you're like a brother to me. I'm so thankful that I've had you as a friend.'
"He was so weak that he couldn't even cry, and I tried to hold back the tears so he wouldn't get upset."
The next day, at the hospital, Michael was put on a respirator. He died a week later.
During the funeral service, 13-year-old Nick Ferrara strode to the front of the church and draped his lacrosse jersey over Michael's closed casket. His teammates followed suit. From that day on, Ferrara's life changed, those who know him said.
"Michael's death matured him in a way that doesn't happen to many kids," said his mother, Gina Ferrara. "It made him very mortal. It made him push himself."