A legend on and off the field
In the closing scene of the movie Brian’s Song, detailing the life of Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo, the narrator talks about the family and friends that Piccolo left behind when he died of cancer at the age of 26.
The movie closes with the words “...when they think of Brian Piccolo, it’s not how he died that they remember, but rather, how he lived; how he did live.” It’s the same with former Northwestern Lehigh’s multi-sport athlete, Brett Snyder, who passed away Sunday from complications of ALS at the age of 41.
Snyder’s skills on the football field are legendary and some of his records have stood for over 20 years. Snyder amassed over 4,200 yards rushing and 51 rushing touchdowns during his high school career from 1992 through 1995, both of which are still all-time records for the school.
In 1995, he set single-season records with 2,376 rushing and 33 touchdowns.
Snyder’s heroics that year played a major role in leading Northwestern to its first District 11 football championship. After high school, Snyder went on to play fullback at Lehigh University and helped the team to Patriot League championships. Snyder also played basketball and baseball for Northwestern, but football was where he truly excelled athletically.
“I think most guys have been awed by their big brothers, but I was especially in awe of Brett because he was so gifted at everything that he did,” recalls Josh Snyder, Brett’s brother and current coach of the Northwestern Tigers football team. “The funny thing is that when we played together (in high school and college), I think he was more excited when I caught a pass or scored a touchdown than when he was the one making the big play.
“It was always about the team or the other guy for Brett and not about him and that’s how he lived his life. It was something that we learned from our parents and Brett modeled it for all of us.”
The statistics speak for themselves, but Snyder’s legacy is much more than the numbers that he left behind on high school and college football fields.
Friends and family tip their caps to his athletic abilities, but Brett’s humility and concern for others is what has stayed in their hearts. In 2003, Snyder was diagnosed with ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a progressive disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.
At that time, doctors thought that Brett would live for maybe another 18 months. They didn’t know Brett. He battled the disease and would live a life that included frequent trips to watch his brother coach and even critique his play calling after games.
“He and Josh would communicate after the games and Brett would give him input about the team and critique his performance as a coach,” recalled Bob Mitchell, who coached both players at Northwestern Lehigh. “He loved the game of football and he was a true leader on and off the field, but always gave the spotlight to other players or the team as a whole.”
Mitchell recalled a particularly rough game against Salisbury in Brett Snyder’s senior season when the team was playing horribly. Mitchell called a time-out and was ripping into his players about all the mistakes they had made when Snyder spoke up and pointed out to Mitchell that yelling at them about what they did wrong wasn’t going to help.
“Instead, he wanted to focus on getting us back into the game and what we could do to win. He was right. He wound up coaching me that night,” said Mitchell.
Three years after the Tigers won their first District 11 football championship, rival Northern Lehigh won its first district championship behind quarterback Bo Tkach. The two became friends through their connections with people at Lehigh University, where Tkach also attended school for a while and the football players from rival schools wound up playing sports together and struck up a strong friendship.
Depression led Tkach to commit suicide in 2007 and it was Snyder who reached out to Tkach’s father, Jim, to bring the two schools together to benefit others.
“Brett called me and wanted to go to breakfast,” remembered Jim Tkach. “By that time, he had already been diagnosed with ALS and was struggling physically, but he had the idea to set up a charity flag football game between the two schools. It struck me that here was one of my son’s friends who was struggling physically and also struggling because he felt badly that he didn’t notice any of the signs of Bo’s depression, which nobody really did, and he was concerned about my family and raising awareness and doing all of these great things.
“That’s just the kind of guy that he was and I will never forget how badly he felt and how much he wanted to help.”
To this day, the flag football games continue and the annual meeting between Northwestern and Northern Lehigh has been dubbed Bo and Brett’s Mountain Road Rumble, with the winning team getting to hold onto the trophy for the next year.
For Josh Snyder, his sense of awe at watching his brother didn’t end when their playing days were done. Instead, it carried on through the rest of Brett’s life, with Josh watching how his brother maneuvered through his battle with ALS, maintaining his composure and his concern for others.
“Brett really didn’t let the disease stop him as much as it could have,” Josh said. “He was still at as many football games as he could get to and was a great husband and father to his kids and I know it was difficult, but he handled it so well and lived his life as fully as possible.”
The sentiments of Snyder’s many friends, teammates and family were perhaps best summed up by Mitchell, his former coach and by current Northwestern Lehigh AD Jason Zimmerman. Mitchell pointed out that “Brett made me better and made everybody he came in contact with better.”
For Zimmerman, losing Snyder means that the world isn’t quite as good as it was before.
“The world lost a great human being Sunday night. Great, not in the statistics he put up at Northwestern Lehigh and Lehigh University, but great in the man that he was. So many kids in our community looked up to him,” said Zimmerman. “He was a true leader and a man that you want your sons to look up to and model.”
Snyder is survived by his wife Carissa and their four young children.