By Philip Cmor
Claudia Gironda's son, Tyler, just couldn't put the letter down.
"He must have looked at that letter for 20 minutes," she said.
Over the next 2 1/2 hours, the younger Gironda said he read the letter 25 to 30 times.
"I still was in utter disbelief," Tyler Gironda said.
It seemed to be a dream. Actually, it was a dream come true.
Tyler Gironda figured he'd better get used to wearing crimson in college as a defensive lineman on the IUP football team. The recent Central Cambria High School product won't have to change the color scheme in his wardrobe much, but he'll be in a whole different situation after a whim application turned into a spot as a non-scholarship player on the University of Alabama Crimson Tide football team this fall for the 6-foot-1, 215-pound fullback.
"He said, 'I don't know how good I am. Maybe I'm going to get killed,' he said, 'but maybe I'm going to contribute in a couple of years,'" Gironda's father, Steve said. "He said, 'I'm willing to endure that and have a chance to play and never have to lose anymore.'"
The grandson of longtime college and high school coach Chuck Gironda, Tyler will head to Tuscaloosa to enroll on July 1. This week he's practicing for the Ken Lantzy Finest 40 All-Star Classic, which will be played on Friday night at Johnstown High School's Trojan Stadium.
Gironda found out he'd be part of the Tide's 130-man roster after a visit with his mother and uncle, Ray Gironda, the first week of April, when he met with strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran and the program's new director of player personnel, Kevin Steele. He'll compete in fall drills to try to make it onto the 105-man roster Alabama will take into the actually season.
"At the end [of the meeting with Steele], I figured it would just be 'Thanks for coming down. We'll talk to you later,'" Gironda said. "He told me 'You need to apply, be accepted, take care of your housing and have your NCAA clearinghouse number.' I told him I did and his whole mood changed. He got a little bit excited. He wrote it down and said I'd be getting a letter in two weeks to tell me if I made it."
It took about a week longer than that, but Gironda got his letter.
"I talked to my grandfather," Gironda said. "He said, 'Well, it looks like you made it.'"
It was the culmination of an improbable chain of events that could have been out of a Hollywood script. Gironda has a solid career on a Central Cambria team that won four games total his junior and senior years, but nothing that indicated he could play for a perennial national championship contender Division I college team: He rushed for a team-high 232 yards, hauled in nine receptions and made 55 tackles in 2012 for the Red Devils.
It probably was his 10 tackles for losses that enticed IUP to recruit him as a five-technique defensive tackle.
However, one lazy day things were about to take a sharp turn south, literally, when Central Cambria librarian and former English teacher Jeanene Criste thought Gironda had a little bit too much time on his hands in study hall.
"She said 'Why don't you do something productive with your time. What's your dream school?'" Tyler recalled. "I told her and she said 'Why don't you apply?' So I filled out the application and sent it in, not thinking I was going to get anything back."
Two months later, Gironda, who grew up a Penn State fan but became interested in Alabama at the prompting of friend Cody Kupchella a few years ago, received an acceptance letter.
"Then I thought, 'Well, if I'm going to go there, I might as well play football. So I sent them my tape," Tyler said.
Because of his grandfather's emphasis on strength and weight training, Gironda contacted Cochran to get his foot in the door. Cochran, in turn, put Gironda and the Tide's recruiting staff in touch with each other, and a visit was arranged.
Even that, though, had an unusual twist.
"I went upstairs [to the recruiting coordinator's office] and it was a completely different guy than who I'd been emailing the last couple of months," Gironda said of meeting Steele. "He said, 'I have no idea who you are. Don't take offense to that; I have no idea who anybody is.'"
Steele, it turns out, had just come aboard after his predecessor left abruptly to take a job at Texas.
Gironda's meeting with Steele, though, went exceptionally well, just like the rest of the trip. Gironda got his workout program and got to tour the weight room and see the Tide's trophy room, including Mark Ingram's Heisman from a couple of years ago.
"The facilities were so impressive," said Claudia Gironda, who played lacrosse and field hockey at Shippensburg University. "Their practice field is amazing. You walk into the athletic building where the football office is and in the back there's a spiral staircase and then there's a Heisman and their national championships. It's very clear how important football is there. Then, when you enter the football office, you can't just walk back. You have to be escorted."
"It was pretty much in his head, I could tell by the look on his face, that he was going to choose it."
Claudia Gironda said she was surprised how eager the Alabama coaches were to host her, her brother-in-law, who lives about 45 minutes away, and her son. Alabama wanted Tyler to enroll in May to get a head start in the program.
However, Gironda wouldn't have graduated from high school by then. Also, he told Steele that he really had his heart set on playing in the Lantzy game.
"My family's been in it. My grandfather coached it. Both my uncles were in it. My dad was in it. My cousins were in it. So, it was just a thing that, if I made it, I was going to do it, because it was a family tradition, and I'm going to be the last one in it for a long time," Tyler said.
Gironda has been told he'll have an opportunity to come back to IUP if things don't work out in Tuscaloosa. However, the odds don't seem to be entirely against him sticking with the Crimson Tide. Alabama only uses a fullback or H-back 15 percent of the time, but it also only has two currently on the roster, with Gironda and possibly one other incoming player competing for spots on the 105-man roster.
"One hundred percent dedication, working hard at everything and not giving up, that was a really big point that [Steele made]," Gironda said of what was expected of him to have a chance to make the playing team. "No matter how hard it is, you can't quit."
That doesn't seem to be a problem. Gironda likes to fish and ride all-terrain vehicles in addition to hunting when he's not in the weight room or football field, and he has his heart set on hunting down a Tide jersey and spot on the field somewhere.
"When I saw that look on his face, I knew that was where he wanted to be," Claudia Gironda said. "I think you've got to follow your dream.
"He wants to be part of something great."