Pottsgrove brings No. 64 out of retirement as Gantert honors late uncle

His uncle looking down from above, Mike Gantert honored his uncle the best way he knew how.

Walking out arm-in-arm with his Pottsgrove teammates, Mike Gantert entered through the black gates surrounding Marcus Foster Field Saturday evening before crossing the multi-weather track and onto the turf.

Emotions ran high between he and his family in the stands, Gantert brought a sight to a football field that hadn’t been seen since the end of the 2003 season.

No. 64 in burgundy and white.

* * *

Mark Gantert was going in the wrong direction.

Entering his freshman year at Pottsgrove, he was a troublemaker. He lacked a positive role model and regularly ran his way into disciplinary issues.

One thing was clear, however. He wanted to play football.

“Mark Gantert, in ninth grade, came into our school and he was a troublemaker,” Pottsgrove head coach Rick Pennypacker said. “He wanted to play football for me and I said, ‘you’ll never play football for me.’

“Tenth grade he came out, came back into school and was still in trouble. Junior year he said, ‘I want to play football for you’ and I told him, ‘You have to prove it to me.’”

He did just that.

Committed to a workout regimen and committed to football, Gantert began to turn his life around. His troubled days pushed into the past, his dedication to playing for Pottsgrove to his present and future.

He was part of the 2000 and 2001 PAC-10 championship teams, starting at right tackle his senior season while becoming the wedge buster on the kickoff team. 

His nephew, Mike, watched in the stands.

“Mikey and Mark were best buddies when Mikey was growing up,” said George Gantert, Mark’s brother and Mike’s father. “Mikey always considered Mark more as a big brother than a uncle. When we would go to Mark’s high school football games at Pottsgrove, Mikey (age 3 at the time) thought he was watching NFL players because they were so big. But Mark would make sure to stop by and say ‘what’s up’ to Mikey whenever he could. Mikey would always be looking for No. 64 at all the games.”

* * * 

Pennypacker called it ‘one of the hardest things he’s ever had to do.’

Waking up the day after his daughter’s wedding, Pennypacker was met by his wife at 7 a.m. to deliver him the news — Mark Gantert had passed away at the age of 20 in a single-car accident on Swamp Pike on the rainy night of May 23, 2003.

“I went to my daughter’s wedding and all my coaches were upset and I didn’t know what the problem was,” Pennypacker said.” The next morning my wife got me out of bed at seven o’clock and told me about it.

“I did the eulogy and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.”

Pennypacker did one more thing: He made sure that nobody would wear No. 64 again.

* * *

They try to keep his memory alive as best as they can.

Many of Mark’s family and friends sport Mark tattoos, all different but in remembrance of the impact he held on their lives. 

His mother, Anita Watkins, started a memorial golf outing for her son with all proceeds going to the Pottsgrove football program, a thanks to how much Pennypacker and his staff were an integral part of Mark’s turnaround.

The eighth annual Mark Gantert Golf Outing held at Blackwood Golf Course brought in 144 golfers, a packed card for a tournament that has grown each year.

“I just wanted to give back to show how much I appreciated what they did. I feel like Pottsgrove football did so much to make Mark the person he became.” Watkins said. “I do the golf outing every year to help them with whatever Rick (Pennypacker) might need. One year we gave varsity jackets to the team to wear when it’s cold. I just started giving them a check and the last two years we were able to give $8,000.”

As a repayment for all she and the Gantert family has done, Pennypacker had something special in store.

With new jerseys coming in, Pennypacker had the opportunity to bestow a special opportunity to senior Mike Gantert.

“I was talking to coach Pennypacker about the new jerseys coming and he ordered No. 64 for me and I couldn’t be happier,” Gantert said. “Every day seeing I’m wearing 64, it’s extra motivation for me. It’s a huge honor. That’s my uncle. I look up to him more than anyone I know. Right now I’m just trying to do the best I can for him.”

* * *

The Gantert family had watched Mike, a senior guard and defensive lineman, play football many times before. But Saturday night in Philadelphia was special.

The outcome of the game didn’t go Pottsgrove’s way with Ben Franklin topping the Falcons 27-21, but another number – the No. 64 emblazoned on Gantert’s chest – meant most to more than a few of the Pottsgrove faithful.

“Pottsgrove took in my uncle and really celebrated his life,” Mike Gantert said. “I knew my parents were out in the stands, they were really emotional, I was emotional. It was just a real moving day.”

“It was an emotional night for all of us, even for Mark’s friends, my family and everyone,” Watkins said. “George said to me about his kids always wanting to be No. 64. They always had that on their jersey. As little as they were, they still remembered Mark. Now, it’s actually happening, with 64 being seen again at Pottsgrove. We’re all very proud and happy that it could be possible again.”

And for George Gantert, he has no doubt that Mike will make his uncle proud.

“Mikey will make his uncle Mark proud, I promise you that,” George Gantert said. “I know that Mark is smiling down from heaven watching his buddy Mike wearing his jersey with pride.”

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