UPPER DARBY >> Nate Rimel was in the Upper Darby locker room, the place that would soon become his sanctuary, when he got the call from his aunt.
The sophomore was prepping for a baseball game May 4, 2015, when Amanda Jansen called, needing to meet with him urgently. The news was devastating: There had been a fire.
Four people, including Rimel’s younger sister Abby, had escaped the multiple-alarm blaze at a relative’s house in Coatesville. But Nate’s grandmother, Rolanda, aunt Sally and cousin Angel hadn’t.
Three people that had a constant presence in Nate’s life, impassioned cheerleaders for Nate (and his three younger siblings) as he played baseball and football, were gone.
So Rimel did what felt most comfortable in that heartbreaking moment: He put his head down and tried to tough it out towards first pitch.
“I was just in denial for a long time,” Rimel recalled last week. “I got back in this locker room, and I wanted to play because they wanted me to play, and I just broke down.”
Rimel didn’t play baseball that day. But in the 18 months since the tragedy, sports have become a refuge, an escape where he can express the sadness. And the passion Rimel has channeled into his athletic endeavors has paid dividends, particularly on the football field, where he can make history Thursday.
Rimel enters the Thanksgiving Day rivalry against Haverford High well within striking distance of Bob McLaughlin’s school record for passing yards in a season. It’s one of many objectives Rimel will be chasing in his high school finale.
Separating Rimel’s success on the football field from what he and his family refer to often as, “the event,” is impossible. Rimel came to understand that quickly in dealing with his grief.
“There’s two things you can do: You can keep thinking about it, go on, keep feeling sorry for yourself, get addicted to crazy stuff like drugs,” Rimel said. “(Or) I just figured as long as I have these sports and I stick with them, they’ll help me get through it and stay out of trouble.
“They’d love to be watching me, and they are still watching me upstairs.”
All of it — the Rimel family’s athletic connections and Nate’s particular toughness in pursuing his goals — are tied together. It was the same for Nate’s father, Don, who played football and baseball at Penn Wood. Rolanda would always be there for him, and the same applied to her grandson.
“They were always around; they were his biggest fans,” Don said. “My mom was always there for me and my sporting events, too. She was a single mom, never had a license, but if we played at Chester or somewhere, I’d turn around and she’d be there. She’d take the bus there or get a ride, but she’d always figure out how to get there.”
Rolanda, Sally and Angel were similarly omnipresent in Nate’s life. Residents of Colwyn, Sally and Angel were involved with numerous volunteer efforts, including UDHL and Llanerch Hills baseball leagues and the Drexel Hill Raiders Wrestling Association. Among the first sports memories that Nate associates with his grandmother is her purchase of baseball gloves for Nate and younger brother Justin for Christmas.
The glove is a physical token of the spirit Nate takes out on the field with him, whether the diamond or the gridiron.
“They meant a lot to him, and I think he thinks about them a lot,” Don said. “I can see it in his face sometimes during games and definitely before games, in Instagram posts, tweets, he thinks about them. He plays for them, but he’s always played for them, to make them proud.”
Nate’s emotional strength speaks to the physical pain he’s weathered. It’s been a forgettable year in many respects for Upper Darby (5-6), especially on the injury front. Injuries decimated an offensive line projected as a strength. With four starters out for stretches and receivers deputizing in the trenches, a youthful running game never found its feet.
That left Rimel as the go-to, and sometimes lone, weapon. Yet even with defenses keyed to stop a one-note offense, he’s prospered.
Rimel has thrown for 2,163 yards, 139 shy of McLaughlin’s school mark set in 1991. He eclipsed McLaughlin’s single-game mark with 334 yards in Week 2 against Garnet Valley, a 66-22 loss. And he’s maintained his record pace despite a quad strained against Archbishop Wood and an ankle sprained against Ridley.
It’s with the utmost praise that coach Rich Gentile invokes the name of former NFL quarterback Byron Leftwich, renowned for his durability and resilience, in categorizing Rimel’s tenacity.
“I think that Nate, with anything, is 100 percent in,” Gentile said. “He’s all in, no matter what he does. I think he’s able to channel everything that he had into football.”
For proof, look no further than the conversation Nate and Don shared during the Week 10 loss to Ridley, a punishing affair that would’ve sent a lesser quarterback sprinting giddily for the chance at an early trip to the showers.
“I went to him at halftime and I said, ‘How do you feel?’” Don said. “And he said, ‘I’ve got two and a half games left in my career. You’re not getting me off this field.’ … He’s always been like that, very driven, very tough.”
That’s part of the reason why Nate isn’t preoccupied by chasing McLaughlin’s record. His primary joy in getting there, he admitted, would be in the record’s reflection upon the team that shares equally in it.
“I think if he doesn’t get it and they win,” Don said, “it will mean just as much to him as getting it and not winning.”
With a determination that has attained new levels in his senior season, the game is about more than accolades to Nate, a mentality that crystallized starting with that May afternoon.
“You just try to keep your mind off of it and keep doing what they loved watching you do,” Nate said. “They loved coming to watch our football and baseball games.”