When he was 18, Penn State defensive end Garrett Sickels joined the Navesink Hook & Ladder Vol. Fire Co. in his hometown of Red Bank, N.J. His father, Stanley, did the same thing at the same age.
Stanley Sickels has been a volunteer firefighter for 42 years. He also is Red Bank's longtime borough administrator and fire marshal and an acknowledged expert on building construction as it relates to fire safety.
Garrett's work, however, was placed on hold shortly after he signed up. No way, then-Nittany Lions coach Bill O'Brien said, after learning Sickels planned to enroll in the fire academy, which provides training and certification to fight fires.
“Coach O'Brien found out and said, ‘Garrett, I don't want you doing that,' ” Sickels said. “I understood why. But I'm still a member, and whenever I'm home, I try to see what I can do if there are any calls.”
A redshirt sophomore who has started all but one game this season (due to injury), Sickels has done much for the Nittany Lions. Listed at 6-foot-4, 258 pounds, the former lacrosse player is quick and athletic, with a nonstop “motor,” coach James Franklin said.
“That's the thing that's always kind of stood out about him,” Franklin said recently. “How he works at practice, how he competes.”
Sickels' energy has found other outlets. Before joining “The Hook,” as the fire company is known, he worked with his father and others assisting victims of Superstorm Sandy. Sickels removed water-soaked sheet rock, insulation and other debris from the homes of friends, including some Red Bank Regional High School teammates. Damage was so extensive in many cases they were displaced for months or even years.
Currently, Sickels is director of operations for the Penn State chapter of Uplifting Athletes, which raises funds and awareness to fight kidney cancer.
“He's a service-oriented guy,” said his mother, Donna.
“It's a very strong urge that he has to serve in some way,” his father said.
Or any way. Like the time Sickels, as a high school freshman, loudly chastised his friends for picking on a developmentally challenged classmate, then went off to another table to eat lunch with him.
“He doesn't tolerate stuff like that well,” Stanley said. “He can bust people's chops like anybody else, but he's always looking out for the guys that are being picked on.”
“It's just the way my mom and dad raised me,” Garrett said. “I like being able to help out and be there for people who really can't help themselves.”
One of the recruits who honored his Penn State commitment in 2012 despite NCAA sanctions, Sickels at times has wanted to be a New York City firefighter, a Navy SEAL or something else “military,” he said.
His toys of choice were “tanks and fire trucks,” Donna said.
Sickels, who changed his major from finance to criminology, is considering a post-football career in federal law enforcement.
“I always knew where my son's heart was,” Donna said.
Early in the recruiting process, Sickels considered attending the Naval Academy. But his mother “never liked that,” he said. “Whenever she got a piece of mail from West Point or Annapolis, she threw it out.”
Donna Sickels respects the institutions but saw where things could go.
“I know him,” she said. “After 9/11, I wanted to hold on to the only son I had.”
She added, “I know he'll serve in some capacity.”
It's all in the family, part of the community fabric for six generations.
A call to duty: Red Bank is a 2.2-square mile borough with just more than 12,000 residents situated 5 miles from the Atlantic Ocean and 24 miles south of the former site of the World Trade Center's twin towers at the tip of Manhattan.
On Sept. 11, 2001, after the planes hit, Garrett, who would turn 7 less than two weeks later, and older sisters Jessica and Samantha went shopping with their mother, per Stanley's instructions. The list of items included water, canned goods and plastic sheeting.
The latter would be for the windows.
In Red Bank, where you could see the cloud and smell the smoke, Stanley Sickels frantically was meeting with officials and preparing for worst-case scenarios.
“We were thinking dirty bombs and poison gas,” he said. “I was going to security briefings. I told (Donna) to pack a bag for each kid, take cash out of the savings account, and if I call again, take the back roads and get to my brother's in Michigan. Some of the stuff we were hearing was pretty worrisome.”
Among snippets of memories, Garrett said he recalls the shopping trip (Home Depot and Costco), observing the cloud from a balcony and neighborhood homes displaying American flags.
“It's sad to say the last time the country was so united was when we were attacked,” he said.
That day, Stanley Sickels drove a friend, Michael Moore, to the nearby Highlands ferry. A member of the 106th Rescue Wing of the New York Air National Guard, Moore was needed at Ground Zero.
At the dock, arriving evacuees were sprayed with garden hoses to remove the dust and other debris. Stanley recalls the sight of Moore as the lone passenger on the outbound boat.
Six days later, Moore walked into Stanley's office and said he needed his help.
“He starts describing Ground Zero and the enormity of the tragedy,” Stanley said. “He said he was asked by the mayor's office to secure the site. They estimated they had 15,000 people volunteering on the pile. And the problem is, the pile is about seven stories above ground and six stories below ground. They could (fall) six stories down, and nobody would know they were there.”
Stanley helped Moore with the massive and seemingly endless task of turning chaos into order. The magnitude of the job was incalculable — contractors and electricians to hire, trucks and heavy equipment to bring in, fencing, gates, computers, servers tents, lights.
And where does it all go?: That would cover only a fraction of it.
What's needed, how much and when? You can't have the electricians show up until the tents are built, Stanley said. But the construction battalions can't arrive before the tents. And on and on.
“It was nonstop for four days,” said Stanley, who often had visited the World Trade Center.
“Just horrible,” he said of the scene.
But, he added, “There was a quiet reverence to it. People working methodically to recover what they could recover.”
Stanley and Garrett have visited the site several times and paid their respects at the FDNY Memorial Wall to the 343 firefighters lost on 9/11.
Stanley knew some of them.
Garrett said the first visit to the memorial was the first time he saw his father cry. It was jarring.
‘Iconic presence': A robust man with a thick shock of white hair and matching mustache, Stanley Sickels is imposing in appearance and, at times, demeanor. He has a zero-tolerance approach to enforcing the fire codes, which he helped standardize in New Jersey more than 30 years ago.
“He's been the bad guy in a lot of situations because of his job,” said Garrett said. “The older I got, the more I realized how intimidating my dad does look.”
Red Bank Mayor Pasquale Menna called Stanley “essentially an iconic presence in terms of how to make buildings and structures safer for firefighters and residents.”
Beneath the facade lies a dad who is at once a “big softie” and a “very stand-up guy,” said Garrett, who remembers Stanley as his Pop Warner coach offering rides to anyone who needed one and who, with Donna, welcomed all inside their home.
“Their arms were open to everyone,” he said.
Menna, speaking of Garrett, said, “The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.”