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Foul play ruled out in Danelo's death

Accident, suicide are possibilities as police continue to investigate. Family, teammates and friends doubt USC kicker took own life but are still asking, `Why?'

January 08, 2007|David Wharton and Gary Klein | Times Staff Writers

Early Sunday morning, in the darkness after mourners and television crews had left, Sam Anno walked out to the cliffs at Point Fermin Park in San Pedro. The USC assistant football coach wanted to see the spot where his kicker, Mario Danelo, died over the weekend.

Anno had spent the evening about a mile away at Danelo's family home, commiserating with a father "sad as hell," he said, and a mother who "couldn't cry any more tears."

Now he looked upon a short slope of ice plant leading to an eroded dirt ledge, a sudden drop-off. Danelo had plummeted to the rocky shore below.

"You keep asking yourself the same question," Anno said. "Why?"

As of Sunday, police said they had ruled out foul play, leaving the possibilities of accident or suicide. Teammates said they could not imagine Danelo's death as anything other than unintentional.

His older brother, Joey, echoed that sentiment, telling the Associated Press it was "an unfortunate accident."

The 21-year-old athlete had not seemed troubled of late. A normally steady performer, he uncharacteristically missed two of four extra-point kicks during USC's victory over Michigan in the Rose Bowl last Monday, but had made two field goals.

"He was not the type of guy to let anything get him down," said Will Collins, the special teams snapper and a close friend. "I never met a happier kid."

An initial police investigation indicated that Danelo had gone out with friends Friday night and was last seen around midnight. Perhaps more will be known about his death -- which occurred sometime Saturday -- from an autopsy scheduled today.

It could take weeks to obtain toxicology results that would detect the presence of alcohol or drugs in his system.

The young man known as "Mo" arrived at USC in the fall of 2003. An All-City Section linebacker who once made a 46-yard field goal for San Pedro High, he was nonetheless a walk-on, not offered a scholarship to play. But he did have a pedigree.

His father had spent a decade in the NFL kicking for several teams. Joe Danelo still holds a New York Giants record for making six field goals in a 1981 game against the Seattle Seahawks.

After football, Danelo's father settled with his family in San Pedro and began a second career as a longshoreman. Mario's brother worked on the docks and Mario had recently sought a union card, too.

"The Danelo family is really part of this working-class community," said Dave Arian, a former union official.

In San Pedro, Arian said, "you respect people and youth that have some commitment. The [Danelo] kids, they were just respectful, hard-working."

At USC, Danelo redshirted his first season, then was a reserve behind Ryan Killeen in 2004. During that second season, Killeen hit a rough patch and faced getting benched.

Danelo made a point of encouraging the starter.

"I'm sure he wanted the job but all he did was cheer me up and help me get back on track," Killeen said.

By that time, the players had come to know Danelo as someone who told jokes and did impressions, the kind of teammate who could crack everyone up.

When Collins' sister died of breast cancer, it was Danelo who came to his side.

"I would cry at practice," Collins said. "Mario was always standing next to me making me feel better."

Danelo finally earned a scholarship and a chance to start in 2005, a season that saw the Trojans average 49 points a game with an offense that featured Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Matt Leinart and soon-to-be Heisman winner Reggie Bush at tailback.

That didn't leave much room for kicking field goals, but USC scored so many touchdowns that Danelo set NCAA records by attempting 86 extra points and making 83. He also made 11 of 12 field-goal attempts.

Reserve quarterback Michael McDonald, the team's holder on kicks this season, said Danelo's good-time nature did not necessarily extend to kicking.

On the field, McDonald said, "he wanted to be perfect."

Before each game, Danelo spent 45 minutes carefully shaving his head. Anno called him "our shiny, little ball -- everyone would rub his head."

The special teams coach described Danelo as unusually calm for his ilk.

Some kickers are loners on the team. Danelo not only made friends easily, but was known to hang out with big linemen.

Some kickers are temperamental and want to be left to themselves on the sideline. Danelo casually talked with Anno, discussing wind and other conditions, before each kick.

In an interview during the 2005 season, Danelo talked about wanting to be considered a part of the team.

"I get along with all the guys," he said. "We hang out all the time."

He also discussed kicking in straightforward terms, seemingly unaffected by the pressures of the job.

"You've got to keep yourself calm and cool and ... stay relaxed," he said. "I just warm up and when fourth down comes around, I jog out to the field."

In this season's opener, Arkansas tried to rattle him by calling three consecutive timeouts before a field-goal attempt, forcing him to stand on the field.

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