St. Anne’s-Belfield’s Joe Ambrosi was hurting. His mom was hurting, so he was hurting.
He was also playing incredible football.
“I had 24 tackles and I was running around like a madman,” Ambrosi said. “I was so emotionally unstable because that’s when everything first started to happen. I was crying on the field. I eventually got in a fight with the Faith Christian running back. Coach (John) Blake pulled me off the field because he knew I was hurting.”
Blake embraced his All-VISFL, hard-nosed linebacker who sports a neck roll that makes him look a little like a linebacker from the 1970s — and his style matches that old school look — while Ambrosi was sobbing.
“There’s no reason for me to be upset,” Ambrosi said. “I’d played just a fantastic game, and he’s like, it’s alright. It’s alright.”
In the lead up to that opener against Faith Christian at the start of his senior year in September of 2019, Ambrosi was dealing with the latest in a long line of setbacks and challenges in his mother Lucy Koch’s long battle with Crohn’s Disease, an inflammatory bowel disease that causes chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract. At the time, Koch was in what Ambrosi described as “worse shape than I’d ever seen” and had checked herself out of a hospital in order to see her son play and ended up being medevaced on a flight that weekend due to the severity of her condition. Ambrosi has adapted to navigating his mother’s health struggles since as early as third grade, when she had a small bowel transplant as part of her Crohn’s treatment. He’s been able to manage that journey thanks to his mother’s will to fight and be there for her children, Joe and his two sisters, Helen and Victoria. Lucy’s three kids have worked together as a team to do the heavy lifting of helping their mother clear medical hurdle after medical hurdle.
“My two sisters are the two strongest people I’ve ever met in my whole life,” Ambrosi said. “We didn’t have a dad at home to take care of all the stuff, he took off after my mom had her transplant. We were all, shoot, 13, 11 and nine taking care of a mom when we didn’t know what was going to happen next. So we had to grow up really fast.”
Ambrosi has done a lot of that growing up within the STAB community. He is what’s known at STAB as a sandbox kid, a student who’s been at the school since elementary school. Throughout that time, the St. Anne’s community has rallied around his family, giving them a safe place and community to lean on as they navigate frustrating circumstances. Those reached another level this fall when his mother lost her small bowel transplant after 11 years, a miracle in many ways for a procedure that has a three-year survival rate of 70 percent according to Georgetown Hospital. In September, that transplant finally failed, and that has left Lucy battling kidney and liver issues as well as complications from dialysis and a stroke while also in need of another transplant.
“The STAB family, they’ve really taken care of us throughout the years, through thick and thin,” Ambrosi said. “They never really gave up on us when they had plenty of chances to. They’ve really taken care of us in ways that we couldn’t do for ourselves when we were so young, and it was really amazing and really awesome to have that growing up. It created bonds with teachers and faculty that last a lifetime.”
For Ambrosi, one of those critical bonds is that coach who pulled him off the field late in that Faith Christian game, John Blake. Blake was in tune with Ambrosi’s mental state because of an open line of communication he’d developed with Ambrosi, who he’d known for years. Ambrosi is the same age as Blake’s son Hunter, so Blake has gotten to see the player that became his star linebacker grow up.
“Watching Joe grow has been a joy despite all of the hardships he’s had to deal with — they’ve made him stronger,” Blake said. “They’ve made him what he is today.”
They’ve developed a remarkable bond over that time that had a big role in Ambrosi developing a singular goal of becoming a linebacker for STAB well before joining the program. He grew up going to the school during some impressive years for the Saints including the 2007 and 2010 state championship campaigns. But when he first started playing for Blake, he wasn’t sure what he was doing wrong.
“I thought he hated me my freshman year,” Ambrosi said. “He would chew me out all the time and I was like, okay, this guy hates me. Like, what am I doing here?”
But that didn’t last long. As a sophomore, Ambrosi started meeting with Blake each week in an effort to, according to Ambrosi, get Blake to like him and for him to get to know Blake better. That helped create an indelible bond between the two.
“Nobody really knows this, but coach Blake is a big old softie, he’s got a soft spot for guys like me who are just emotional messes sometimes,” Ambrosi said. “He’s probably one of my favorite people in this entire world and has become one of the many father figures in my life that have taken care of me. He’s the first guy I call when I need hard advice or a tough, honest answer and I will appreciate that forever.”
His connection with Blake is far from the only bond Ambrosi has forged through STAB football. According to Blake, Ambrosi sensed the pulse of the Saints’ team extremely well and Ambrosi can list a connection or a thought or a favorite memory about a laundry list of teammates from all four of his years. He also has benefitted from having two of his best friends, Chase Holden and Mason Meulenberg on the team. Those three have become more like brothers than friends over the years.
“We are so different, but we have these very strong similarities that make it fun to hang out with each other,” Ambrosi said. “We’re so close because we’ve seen so much together — basically just seeing my stuff go on and them being there for me. They’re great guys and I’d do anything for them. They’re really actually truly an extension of my family to be honest.”
With the COVID-19 impact on the end of the school year, Ambrosi along with thousands of other Central Virginia seniors didn’t get a chance to graduate with the traditional ceremony. Considering that school always took a lot of effort and work for Ambrosi, that could’ve been a frustrating situation.
“I mean, graduation is a big full circle moment because all my life I’ve been hearing, ‘I don’t know if he’ll graduate’,” Ambrosi said. “My sisters are both extremely smart individuals. I got the athletics, I was a good football player, pretty decent lacrosse player. But school was never my friend. And to graduate St. Anne’s-Belfield as difficult as it was, being a very average to below average student was just incredible. I mean, it kind of sucks the way it ended, but you know, if this is the worst thing that’s going to happen to me in my life, I’m pretty okay with that.”
Getting things done in the classroom also opened another door for him that he hadn’t really considered early on — the chance to play college football. Ambrosi is headed to Hampden Sydney next year, one of a pack of local players set to suit up for the Tigers. Ambrosi was the first commitment in the Tigers’ 2020 class, eager to get his decision out of the way before STAB jumped into a season that ended with Ambrosi as the VISFL’s defensive player of the year and the Saints’ as the 8-man runner-up for the second year in a row.
He’ll take his old-school, hard-hitting approach to Farmville next year, joining a program that Ambrosi already feels a tie to, a reason to be loyal to Hampden Sydney.
“They were the first ones to recruit me,” Ambrosi said. “They’ve been loyal to me this entire time, they’ve been loyal to me since my sophomore year.”
It’s not a surprise to most who know Ambrosi that he’d put a particularly high value on loyalty. While the STAB community has come to the aid of his family and he’s rallied with his sisters and mothers to handle each of her medical issues, Blake says it’s often Ambrosi who’s the one doing the helping.
“He’d do anything in the world for anybody,” Blake said. “With everything he goes through, you’d think he’d be the guy always looking for someone to help him out but he’s always there to help others out. He’s a special breed, I wish we had more like him.”
It takes a special breed, the kind of player who can work to expand his game like Ambrosi did over the years to play a bigger role for his team, to help try and make STAB’s defense a little better. It takes a special breed to focus anger, frustration and despair into 24 tackles in a season opener. It takes a special breed to navigate everything Ambrosi and his family have navigated.
Blake knew in that tumultuous moment on the field back in the fall that while Ambrosi was battling a tornado of emotions, that he was going to be alright, that he was going to be just fine. Blake was right, and Ambrosi keeps proving him right every single day.