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Former lacrosse teammates participate in 21 Run

From left, several of George Boiardi's former teammates Cam Marchant '06 (red shirt, bib No. 329), Chris Morea '03 (bib No. 29), Ethan Vedder '07 (behind Morea) and Henry Bartlett '07 (bib No. 14) participate in a recent 21 Run. Photo: Patrick Shanahan.

10 years later, George Boiardi's legacy carries on

Mario St. George Boiardi

Mario St. George Boiardi '04. Photo: Athletics Communications.

On March 17, 2004, the Cornell men's lacrosse team lost its captain when Mario St. George Boiardi '04 was struck in the chest by a lacrosse ball late in the fourth quarter of a game against Binghamton. He collapsed and, despite the efforts of Cornell associate head athletics trainer Jim Case, two physicians and emergency medical personnel, was unable to be resuscitated.

While a young and promising life with unlimited potential ended far too soon, Boiardi's death in the 10 years since has had a profound effect on the Big Red lacrosse program, the Cornell campus, the Ithaca community and beyond.

For members of Big Red lacrosse, there is no last name necessary when speaking of "George." His name has become synonymous with hard work, dedication, humility and selflessness. The team prides itself in winning the midfield battle each game and having an edge in what they refer to as "Boiardi stats" -- the ground balls, the hustle plays, the dirty work on which a game can usually turn. More than anything, the team wants to protect "George's House," something it has done with great regularity, going 64-13 (.831) on Schoellkopf Field since March 17, 2004.

While the Class of 2007 was the last to have played with Boiardi, his legacy lives on in the locker room, with each freshman class learning about the athlete who wore No. 21 -- through a 21-minute-long video created by his former teammates to inspire future Big Red players.

21 patch on lacrosse jersey

This season, members of the Big Red men's lacrosse team are wearing a "21" patch in Boiardi's memory on their jerseys.

One of the players profoundly inspired by Boiardi and the way he lived his life was Tewaaraton Trophy winner Rob Pannell '13.

"When working out, instead of doing 15 or 20 reps, I do 21. Instead of running 15- or 20-second sprints I run 21-second sprints," Pannell says. "Every time I see the number '21,' I think of George Boiardi. 21 is not a number, it is a way of life … Without 21, Cornell lacrosse is not Cornell lacrosse and I am not who I am. George Boiardi, with the help of the past Cornell lacrosse coaches, players and friends who knew him, shapes the young men that are Cornell lacrosse.

"According to the record books, I hold the Cornell lacrosse assist record. The real truth is that George Boiardi does. George Boiardi has gotten an assist on every single practice, weight session, film session, goal, assist and win since his freshman year at Cornell."

In the Cornell community, Boiardi's legacy lives on in several ways, with the most visible being the increase of automatic external defibrillator machines on campus. While there was an AED on the field the day Boiardi died, the university made a commitment to increase the number of machines available. Currently, there are 173 on campus, many which are hardwired to Cornell dispatch and emergency services group.

"When something like this happens, you always look for areas that can be improved, and the university came in and provided funding to increase the amount of AEDs that we had," Case says. "We used to have three or four that our staff would share. Now every trainer has their own, plus there is at least one AED in each athletic facility, and if you pull one of those things off the wall, you'll get red lights and sirens coming from every angle."

George Boiardi in memoriam case

George Boiardi's locker remains unused to this day and serves as a memorial inside the Cornell men's lacrosse locker room. Photo: Provided

A legacy in the community

In the Ithaca community, Boiardi's presence is felt most significantly through the Big Red Readers program and the annual 21 Run.

The Big Red Readers, which was started by Boiardi just prior to his death, is a program that encourages Cornell athletes to read to the students at Ithaca's Immaculate Conception School, where Case's wife, Ladeen, is a kindergarten teacher.

"He was about to start the Big Red Readers when he passed," Case says. "Literally. My wife had a voice message on her phone after he died talking about organizing it. Afterward, the Boiardi family donated $2,100 to the library at the school. There's a huge mural of St. George on the wall, and it's a program that still goes on to this day."

The 21 Run is a 5K run at the Cornell Plantations organized by the men's lacrosse team that benefits several charities, including the Family Reading Partnership of Ithaca. The event also raises awareness and money to promote children's literacy in the community through its Storybook Walk. It is open to everyone -- competitive runners, children, families, students and friends who want to remember and further Boiardi's vision. Over the years it has raised $21,797 for the Family Reading Partnership to put books into the hands of children in the community. This year's run is set for April 6.

"It has been an honor to be part of George Boiardi's legacy as we work with the Cornell men's lacrosse team each year to further the cause George believed in most," says Brigid Hubberman, executive director of the Family Reading Partnership. "George knew that his path to Cornell began not with a lacrosse stick in his hand, but a book. He valued early education and making sure children had opportunities, and he was passionate about making sure that children have books and are read to."

The Boiardi Foundation

After college, Boiardi had planned to work with the Teach For America program in South Dakota with the aim of helping to alleviate some of the educational disparities in the United States. He also dreamed of coaching lacrosse to the Native American population there, as lacrosse is a sport that has diminished in popularity among those who originated the game.

It was with that in mind that Ian Rosenberger '04, Dave Coors '04 and Billy Fort '02 helped found the Mario St. George Boiardi Foundation in 2007 to empower the next generation through academics and athletics. The foundation raises funds through a series of events that include the 21 Dinner, the 21 Run West, Team 21, the Boiardi Open Golf Tournament and the Capital Lacrosse Invitational. The proceeds from these events, together with other contributions, are distributed to charitable organizations whose missions align with that of the foundation.

Past grant recipients include Teach For America, the Family Reading Partnership of Ithaca and Lacrosse for Life. The money raised also supports the foundation's summer camp program, providing financial assistance each year to 21 deserving middle school students who wish to attend academic, athletic or other educational summer camps.

"I grew up with George, and I had the privilege of knowing him," Rosenberger says, "but to see how his ideals have carried on to guys who never even met him is just amazing to me. To hear guys like Max Seibald '09 and Rob Pannell '13, who never met him but are able to talk about George and really nail him to a tee, is really powerful. It's simply amazing to me to see how George has had a meaningful impact on so many lives."

"… There's something about George and who he was as a person that he continues to impact our lives today," Rosenberger continues. "George set the standard that we all try to achieve in our lives … He had the ability to transcend all of us."

And while his legacy lives on, Boiardi is still missed.

"There has been so much good done in his name," says Case. "But I assure you that there isn't anyone who knew George that wouldn't gladly give it all back to see him walk into the locker room during alumni weekend."

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