'There’s no way I’m quitting': The rise, fall and return of 'Touchdown' Tommy Lazzaro
Tommy Lazzaro took a snap 1-yard from the goal line with 64 seconds remaining.
His father, Tom, stood in the stands and was confident his son would score.
Tight end Tony Poljan blocked a Ball State defender from the right side, and offensive guard Derek Smith pushed another out of the way on the left, allowing Lazzaro to dash up the middle.
The final block came from senior running back Jonathan Ward, who sacrificed himself so his fellow senior could enter the end zone untouched.
Putting the Chippewas ahead 45-44 with 1:01 left in a pivotal Mid-American Conference West Division showdown against the Cardinals, Lazzaro felt on top of the world.
"To be able to go out there, play with my boys and go to war with them, whatever role that is, I’m blessed to be in it," Lazzaro said. "It means everything."
The backup quarterback handed the ball to the referee and ran around the back of the end zone before jumping into Ward's arms.
Lazzaro flexed his biceps down the sideline as his teammates patted him on the head, hugged him and cheered for him.
As an unlikely hero, Lazzaro delivered a touchdown for the second time that Nov. 16 night at Scheumann Stadium in Muncie, Indiana.
"I've got total trust in Tommy," said first-year coach Jim McElwain. "He's been really good for this program. He will do anything for his teammates, and that's what makes him special."
Lazzaro scored twice more on the ground in Central Michigan's 49-7 victory over Toledo in the regular season finale to help secure the MAC West Division title just one year after going 1-11 overall.
Entering the MAC championship game, Lazzaro has 27 carries for 108 yards and six touchdowns.
Without him, the Chippewas might not have defeated Ball State in a game that ultimately gave them a chance to win the division.
“He’s a piece to the puzzle," said offensive coordinator Charlie Frye. "He’s something else that defenses have to prepare for. His toughness really helps out our unit."
But to understand Lazzaro's story, it important to start where his maturity began.
'He felt very confident'
Lazzaro entered spring practice as one of three quarterbacks in competition for the starting job, along with graduate transfer Quinten Dormady and NJCAA transfer David Moore.
The advantage was Dormady's, as he was brought in by McElwain for the final year of his eligibility. Meanwhile, Moore was a highly recruited quarterback at Memphis before taking a year at Garden City Community College.
Meanwhile, Lazzaro was the starter for a portion of Central Michigan's 1-11 season in 2018, ultimately putting him at a disadvantage. His campaign was cut short by three games due to a leg injury.
Once Dormady's transfer was official, Lazzaro called his mother, Lisa, to explain the situation.
"You know what mom, I'm OK," Lazzaro told her. "I just have to work hard to keep my spot."
Despite being the least likely to win the coveted job, Lazzaro didn't fold.
"He was just hoping that it would be an open competition," Tom said. "It didn’t go his way, and I think that was a little frustrating."
Lazzaro shared first-team reps with Dormady and Moore throughout the early stages of spring camp, but it eventually turned into a competition with Moore for the backup role.
Slowly but surely, Lazzaro's starting spot from the 2018 season, when he threw for 711 yards, five touchdowns and 10 interceptions in seven games, was gone.
Dormady had SEC experience, starting five games at Tennessee in the 2017 season before getting injured and transferring to Houston, where he took a medical redshirt.
The former Volunteer was the clear frontrunner for the job in McElwain's offense, putting Lazzaro back to where he started when he sat behind former quarterback Shane Morris and now tight end Poljan in 2017 and the early stages of the 2018 season, respectively.
Then, Lazzaro was hit with another blow. He lost the backup job to Moore.
'Definitely a change'
By the early stages of fall practice, it became obvious McElwain was heavily leaning toward Dormady and Moore at the quarterback position.
Lazzaro went from being the starting quarterback in 2018 to taking third-team reps at quarterback roughly nine months later.
He was eventually placed on special teams.
"Quite frankly, I got pissed because they put him on special teams," Tom said. "I mean, who puts a quarterback on special teams? I thought it was just ridiculous. I told him that.”
Lazzaro quickly made a phone call to his mother.
"You have to get dad to back off," Lazzaro said to Lisa. "I just want to be on the field."
Upon hearing of Lazzaro's desire to help his teammates in whatever way he could, Tom's emotions changed from frustration to admiration.
But he still wanted to give Lazzaro a way out once he finished fall semester classes on Oct.18 and was locked in to graduate in December.
By the time Tom had the discussion with his son in late September, Lazzaro wasn't getting much action on offense – just four carries for 11 yards in a blowout loss to Wisconsin.
Tom made it simple.
"If you want to walk away from this, you have my blessing," Tom said.
"No way, dad," Lazzaro responded. "There’s no way I’m quitting. I’m not leaving my teammates."
Lazzaro's never-quit attitude was shining through, and his father was pleased. It all goes back to the United States Army Ranger creed mentality that was instilled in him.
Encompassed in the Ranger Creed is a call to move further, be faster and fight harder than any other soldier, never fail a comrade, remain mentally alert, physically strong and morally straight and to complete the mission even as the lone survivor.
Lazzaro had a mission to complete, and he wasn't going to give up.
After all, as the Ranger Creed says, "Surrender is not a Ranger word."
"Even if I couldn’t play another down, I was going to stick it out just to be around them," Lazzaro said.
In the final three games of the regular season, McElwain began using Lazzaro more often in the quarterback run package.
Lazzaro took a season-high seven carries for 27 yards and one touchdown on Nov. 2 in a 48-10 win over Northern Illinois.
"Personally, I think I’m probably the best quarterback to get us inside the 5, and then he gets all the touchdowns," Dormady said. "That’s kind of the running joke, but it’s been awesome."
As for Dormady's veteran leadership and his skillset to move the ball down the field, Lazzaro is wholeheartedly thankful.
"I couldn't care less how much I play, especially with how Quinten is playing," he said. "He’s leading us down the field, opening up everything for everyone else and making my job easy."
Lazzaro posted the final two touchdowns in Central Michigan's Nov. 16 victory, 45-44, against Ball State to keep the Chippewas in contention for the MAC West Division title.
Following the game-winning score, Lazzaro sat alone on the bench, far away from all his celebrating teammates. Even senior center Steve Eipper, a close friend of Lazzaro's, wasn't nearby.
Tammie Waayenberg, Eipper's mother, smiled as tears rolled down her face before she quickly realized Lazzaro's absence from the team.
‘Tom, is Tommy OK?’ Tammie curiously asked.
"Tammie, he's just saying a prayer," Tom responded.
Lazzaro wasn't done.
He racked up 32 rushing yards and two touchdowns, along with one completion for 13 yards, in the 49-7 win against Toledo on Nov. 29 to officially secure the MAC West title and a trip to the MAC championship game.
Throughout the season, Lazzaro inherited the nickname "Touchdown Tommy" due to his short-yardage scores.
"No one's been able to stop the Lazzaro package except for the one time he fumbled (against Bowling Green)," said Miami (Ohio) coach Chuck Martin, Lazzaro's competition in the MAC title game. "Other than that, no one's stopped that package all year."
It's not the first time the quarterback has taken on that tag.
"A long time ago, before he was a quarterback, he was a tight end," Lisa said. "His nickname when he was in elementary school was 'Touchdown Tommy.' It’s made a full circle. That kid does not like to lose. They just let the boy loose."
With just two games remaining in his collegiate career, Lazzaro said he's beyond blessed to be a Chippewa, representing his family and teammates every time he takes the field.
"This place has given me a home, an education, a place to meet some of my best friends – guys I’ll know for the rest of my life," Lazzaro said.
'He's just a tender boy'
Before Central Michigan's Oct. 5 game against Eastern Michigan, Lazzaro had work to do.
With a contest to play the next day, Lazzaro got posters signed by the football, volleyball and soccer teams, threw together a couple of other things and prepped the hotel staff at the Courtyard by Marriott.
After all, his cousin Jessica Goff was coming to Mount Pleasant from Wasilla, Alaska, and Lazzaro wanted to make the trip as special as possible for his biggest fan.
Jessica, 24, has down syndrome, and there's nothing she loves more than No. 7 for the Chippewas.
Lazzaro met Jessica three years ago when he went to Alaska with his father on a halibut fishing trip. They were immediately inseparable.
"He met her for the first time and would just give her crap," Lisa said. "She’d say something, and he’d say, ‘Really, Jess? I don’t think that’s right.’ She’d say, ‘Tommy, you’re silly.’ He’d say, ‘No, you’re silly.’
"He would just give it back to her like a brother and sister, and she loved that, just loved that."
Jessica's room back home in Alaska is decked out in Central Michigan gear. She follows Lazzaro closely, watching his every move when he's on television and keeping tabs online.
For that Oct. 5 matchup against the Eagles, Jessica was in town, and Lazzaro promised a touchdown.
Being the backup quarterback, Lazzaro wasn't sure how much he'd play.
"We’ve got a game plan in," he recalled telling Jessica, "but it changes every week depending on how we are playing and what’s going on."
Sure enough, Lazzaro entered the game for the final full offensive drive.
The play called for a zone read, and Lazzaro ran the ball 6 yards into the end zone for a 42-16 lead with 2:50 remaining in the game.
His first instinct was to go see Jessica, who was cheering for Lazzaro louder than anyone at Kelly/Shorts Stadium.
"I did this for you," Lazzaro told her.
The moment shared between Lazzaro and Jessica is something the quarterback will never forget.
“Going over and giving her a hug after that, there’s a picture frame that’s going up for the rest of my life," Lazzaro said.
Jessica feels the same.
"I love (Tommy)," she said.
Lazzaro's tender heart goes beyond his relationship with Jessica. The emotions he possesses are also exemplified by what he writes on his wrist tape before every game.
'He takes care of people'
Taylor White, a 21-year-old Grand Canyon University student, was killed in an April 8, 2018, hit-and-run.
Jogging with a friend, White crossed a street in Phoenix when a driver in a Ford Expedition maneuvered around several other cars and ran a red light.
White was hit at high speed and killed. He pronounced dead at the scene. To this day, nobody knows who killed him.
"This guy was just a great kid," Tom said. "He was Tommy’s blindside, so his left tackle in high school."
Since Lazzaro and White played football together at Pike Creek High School in Colorado Springs, Colorado, White's mother, Angela, was able to get an inside look at the relationship between the two through her son's perspective.
It was a relationship built on the gifts of love, trust and football.
"Taylor would always come home and tell us how awesome Tommy is and about the trust factor between them," Angela said. "I knew he was a great guy that my son really loved and trusted.
"Sometimes I see Taylor in Tommy, the way he loves life, sees it full and throws his heart over the line."
To honor Taylor's life and take him on the field with him, Lazzaro puts the initials "T.W." on his wrist tape for each game he plays.
And every game day, he sends a picture of his wrist tape to Angela, thus reminding her Taylor is still in his heart.
"He's continued to remember," Angela said. "Right when the accident happened, there was so much support, but that fades with time.
"Taylor loved playing football with Tommy, and here he is with Tommy again."
Through the tragedy, Lazzaro has grown closer than ever to the White family. Instead of hearing about Lazzaro from her son, Angela now gets to experience him for herself.
"We are coming to know Tommy through our own eyes and experiences," Angela said. "We love that kid."
But Taylor isn't the only one that's included on Lazzaro's wrist tape. His late grandmother, Joan Lazzaro, is the other set of initials.
Now penning "J.L." on his arm in honor of his grandmother, Lazzaro was devastated when she died at 86 years old in her home on Aug. 5, 2018.
“I know she’s in his heart all the time," Tom said. "On the times they could watch a game, she absolutely loved it."
Lazzaro also keeps another part of his grandmother with him by wearing her miraculous medal.
The necklace with the medallion attached is a popular devotional item and is associated with miracles.
"At one point, he didn’t have it, and the girl he was dating at the time ran back to his house and brought it over to the hotel because he had to have it," Tom said. "Some people would look at it as silly, but it sustains him, it’s what we believe, and it’s powerful.”
'Everything was football'
Lazzaro has let the 2019 season play out as fate decides, and he's certain about putting away the cleats, helmet, shoulder pads and jersey once the season concludes – thus ending an activity he has participated in since he was 5 years old.
Life without football seems unimaginable, but Central Michigan's bowl game will be Lazzaro's finale. He graduates with a degree in entrepreneurship and minor in marketing this December.
"I’m excited to give everything I’ve got for these last couple of games and put my heart on the line for my teammates," Lazzaro said. "The game has given me enough."
The game has truly offered him an understanding of overcoming adversity, perseverance, tenacity, teamwork, putting others first, the power of prayer and so much more.
Lazzaro will carry those experiences with him for the rest of his life, and the development of those characteristics stems from his maturity throughout the 2019 season.
"Life is full of ups and downs, but what I know is that this kid will never quit," Tom said. "If he sets his mind to something, he’s going to be highly successful.
"I couldn't be more proud of him."