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COVID-19 deaths in Italy heartbreaking for former CU Buffs

Several former Colorado players, long-time local coach Sam Pagano have ties to Bergamo, Italy

Courtesy of Steve Beck
Former Colorado Buffaloes football teammates Steve Beck, left, and Eric McCarty, played together for the Bergamo Lions in Italy.
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Fausto Marinoni is unknown to football fans in the United States, but former University of Colorado safety Steve Beck always had confidence in him to get the job done.

“If you ever wanted a clutch kicker in the fourth quarter, that’s who you wanted out there,” Beck said. “He looked like a nose guard, but he could kick the crap out of the ball.”

For 10 years, from 1987-97, Beck was a star running back and played with Marinoni as members of the Bergamo Lions, an American football team in Bergamo, Italy. The main sponsor – or owner – of the team was Italo Pilenga.

Courtesy of Steve Beck
Former Bergamo Lions owner Italo Pilenga, left, and his wife, Ornella.

“Good man, great owner, good person,” said long-time Boulder resident and coaching legend Sam Pagano.

Last month, Marinoni, 66, an Pilenga, 83, became two of the nearly 15,000 Italians to die from the coronavirus. Their deaths and the overall devastation in Bergamo, one of most infected cities in the world, has been heartbreaking for Beck and Pagano.

COVID-19 is impacting the entire world, but no country has been hit harder than Italy, which has had more deaths than anywhere in the world. Bergamo is located in the middle of Italy’s Lombardy region, which has been, by far, the deadliest area of the country. In fact, the Lombardy region has had more COVID-19 deaths than the entire United States.

For Beck, Pagano and CU Sports Medicine physician Dr. Eric McCarty, the news out of Bergamo has hit close to home.

Led by Beck, a CU safety from 1985-86, there are strong local ties to Bergamo. McCarty, a CU linebacker from 1984-87, played for the Lions in 1989. Pagano coached the Lions in 1992 and again in 2002.

From a 1989 edition of the Daily Camera, this photo shows, from left, coach Eric Lambright, Eric McCarty, Steve Beck and his brother Brad Beck, an assistant coach with the Bergamo Lions.

Former Buffs players Blake Anderson, Ryan Black, Mark Hatcher, John Hessler and Mike Marquez also played for the Lions, as did former Colorado State standout Scott Whitehouse and Fairview High School graduate Scott Lockwood. Former CU graduate assistant Eric Lambright coached Beck and McCarty with the Lions in 1989.

“All of us who lived over there, we have such a heartfelt connection because the people there are so kind and so gracious and we all had such a great experience,” McCarty said. “It’s really hard to see how impacted they are right now with what’s going on.”

About six weeks before he was supposed to graduate from CU in 1987, Beck got an offer to play for the Lions, who compete in the Italian Football League.

“It’s a pretty small community, American football in Europe,” Beck said. “It’s grown, but still, soccer is No. 1 and Formula One and cycling is number two and three.”

Courtesy of Sam Pagano
Head coach Sam Pagano, left, with one of his players after a Bergamo Lions game.

Pagano likened it to “a group of guys playing city league basketball, but it’s a little harder with playing city league football with full pads.”

Rosters featured players from 17 years old to 40-something, many of them Italians new to the sport. Only a couple of Americans were allowed on each team and those players, such as Beck and McCarty, did much of the coaching.

It certainly wasn’t the highest level of football, but it was an impactful period of time for those who participated.

“It’s one of the greatest experiences of coaching football, and especially that team,” said Pagano, who coached Fairview High School from 1969-89.

Competitively, the Lions were the best team in the Italian league and among the best in Europe. From 1993-2008, the Lions won 12 Italian championships and three Eurobowl titles.

It wasn’t the championships that made the lasting impression, however.

“You’d do anything for these guys and they’d do anything for you,” said Beck, who lives in Lyons. “They’re just such great people. We were always doing something together. In the offseason, we were always together.”

After living part-time in Italy during his first two years with the Lions, Beck accepted an offer from Pilenga to work in his factory and live there year-round, which he did for several years.

Following retirement, Beck moved back to the U.S., but has returned to Italy many times to see Pilenga and his former teammates. While working at Crocs, Beck also handled the company’s business in Italy and around Europe.

“I stay in touch with a lot of the guys,” Beck said.

Courtesy of Sam Pagano
The Bergamo Lions celebrate after a game.

Pagano had never been to Italy before coaching the Lions and used the opportunity to learn more about his family’s Italian roots and even meet some extended Pagano family members in Lucca, located in central Italy. Pagano’s son, John, who is now the outside linebackers coach of the Denver Broncos, also coached in Bergamo in 1992.

“We did some traveling on weekends or when you have a bye,” Pagano said. “Easter is just magnificent over there with the churches. The Pilenga family and the people that owned the teams, they’d have dinners for us. It was a great experience.”

Pagano remembers cold, rainy days and late night practices with the Lions. Beck recalls playing for championships. McCarty talked of the players he remembers from that time, as well as a “journal” he wrote for the Daily Camera during his year in Italy.

More than anything, however, they spoke of the love they still have for the Italian people, especially in Bergamo.

McCarty, in fact, closed his final journal entry for the Camera in 1989 by writing: “It is this town, the people from here and the Lions football team that will remain in my heart forever.”

More than 30 years later, that still rings true for him, Beck and McCarty.

“They say that the whole country of Italy is run at the dinner table,” Beck said, “because at the dinner table, no one’s allowed to talk business, no one’s allowed to talk anything other than family.”

Knowing the culture in Italy has made the devastating news that much harder to take.

“(COVID-19) is changing the world, no matter what we do socially after this, but that country is so traditional in certain respects,” Beck said. “No wonder it spreads so quickly (in Italy). The first thing they do is kiss each other on the cheek and say, ‘Buongiorno! Buongiorno!’ They’re very touchy, they’re very warm; inviting you into their homes. This might change a lot of that, unfortunately, because that was part of the romance of the whole culture.”

Beck, McCarty and Pagano have been in touch with friends in Bergamo, getting updates – and warnings – on the situation in that part of the world.

“Seeing the whole town shut down is just maddening to watch,” Beck said. “They’re a very tight community. One of the sad things about it is that they can’t get together. They love their get-togethers. They didn’t even have a funeral for my friends, because they won’t let gatherings at the cemeteries or the churches. That’s tough for the family.”

McCarty has a surgeon friend in Bergamo who has recovered from COVID-19, but told McCarty about the hospitals being “like a warzone” and doctors having to decide who to save.

“Communication with some of my friends, including one of my old teammates back there, they said they’re safe right now, but it’s ‘a nightmare,’” McCarty said. “They said, when is the nightmare going to end?”

It’s a nightmare that few could have predicted just a couple months ago and one that the world is hoping ends soon. For Beck, McCarty and Pagano, there is concern for loved ones close to home, but also those they grew close to through a unique football experience years ago.

“You just feel helpless (hearing reports from Bergamo),” Beck said. “Being ex-jocks, we always felt invincible. When something like this comes around, everybody’s just so helpless.”