This photo of Jacob "Jake" Gurreri was taken in November 2005 on the night before he choked.
This photo of Jacob "Jake" Gurreri was taken in November 2005 on the night before he choked. (Submitted)

There's a spirit of tradition among York Catholic High School athletes.

Little brothers and sisters of the football players always play outside the field's fence during games. It's a custom that bonds Fighting Irish of all ages.

A mark of that tradition sits right behind the bleachers: a playground built in memory of Jacob Gurreri, the 5-year-old who died after a choking incident at St. Patrick School in York City in 2005.

Before his death, Jacob would play with other little siblings, such as York Catholic seniors Ben Smith and Michael Connor, who were a couple grades ahead of him, said Ben's mom, Mary.

"They were older than Jacob, so they would look out for him," she said.

And they're continuing that brotherhood: In Jacob's memory, the seniors of the football team collected dozens of toys at this year's football banquet, an end-of-year celebration of the season.

Family: At the Susan P. Byrnes Center on Dec. 8, team members gathered to stockpile toys for the Ronald McDonald House Charities of South Central Pennsylvania, which serves out-of-town families whose critically ill children are being treated at the children's hospital in Hershey.

The Gurreri family stayed at the Hershey Ronald McDonald House during the three weeks Jacob was treated at the hospital. For the past eight years, the family has held a toy drive both in his memory and in appreciation of the charity's services.

The family delivered the toys on Wednesday, the anniversary of Jacob's passing, and they will be given free to the families of the young patients. The toys are given to the children staying at the house and in the hospital and placed outside the doors of their rooms for them to find on Christmas morning.

The football team members chose to participate in the drive in memory of their friend, who will forever be a part of a second family: the York Catholic family, Mary Smith said.

"It was done in honor of Jacob, because his brothers had formerly played football for York Catholic, his sister, Emily, had cheered, and there's a connection on the team in that," she said.

Christmas spirit: It was also a gesture of thanks, she said, as York Catholic made it all the way to the District 3-A football championship this season.

The team often discusses how important it is to give back to the community, said head football coach Eric DePew.

"Kids should remember that and benefit from that their whole lives," he said.

The football players and their families donated about three dozen toys for the drive, DePew said. He said that on the field, they're warriors; off the field, they have Christ in their hearts.

"The kids were excited," DePew said. "It was just nice to see all the toys there. It kind of puts you in the Christmas spirit."

-- Reach Mollie Durkin at mdurkin@yorkdispatch.com.