TJ football is a family affair for the Natters
In many respects, Thomas Jefferson junior linebacker Bruno Natter saw the freshman defensive lineman wearing the No. 79 this season as just another member of his football family.
Then again, that ninth-grader who recorded 22 tackles and five sacks in his first varsity campaign this fall also happened to be his younger brother Angelo.
“It’s been fun,” Bruno said of playing with his 6-foot-1, 210-pound sibling. “He’s just like part of the team. It doesn’t really matter that he’s my brother. We’re all like a family in a way.”
Over the past 16 seasons under coach Bill Cherpak, it has been such an emphasis on the Jaguars “family” environment, which has led to the four WPIAL and three PIAA Class AAA championships earned by what has become one of Pennsylvania’s most successful football programs.
And it’s no coincidence that groups of brothers, like the Natters, have been at the forefront of TJ’s success.
“We’ve had a lot of legacy players come through here,” Cherpak said. “Some fathers to sons and brothers. We’ve had a lot of them. It’s been probably the most important part of our success.”
The most prominent of the groups of siblings began with 2003 graduate Jon Drager and younger brother Chris. Jon went on to play running back at Kent State, while Chris is currently a starting defensive end at Virginia Tech.
The legacy continued with Nate and Lucas Nix, both now at Pitt, along with Dom, Zach and Brock DeCicco.
Dom and Brock are still teammates with the Nix brothers at Pitt, while Zach plays at Washington & Jefferson.
While several other sets of siblings have also found success in the Jaguars program over recent history, the prominence achieved at the collegiate level by the Drager, Nix and DeCicco brothers has been an important source of inspiration for future TJ players.
“I know the (DeCicco) family a little bit, Zach and Brock,” Bruno Natter said. “They all come back. They all watch the games. TJ football is always big. It’s definitely expected. We’re supposed to win. We’re supposed to do what we need to do.”
This past season, it was the Natter brothers who became the next Jaguars siblings to take the step toward living up to those player’s legacies.
Bruno first started as a sophomore in 2009 and recorded 44 tackles. As a junior, the middle linebacker recorded a team-high 53 tackles, while grabbing seven passes for 98 yards and two touchdowns from the tight end position.
“It was fun,” said Bruno, who also is a standout baseball player. “We had a great group of kids. The coaches were great. (Linebackers coach Jack) Giran was good for me.”
His strong play also proved beneficial to his brother.
“Coming into this I had nothing really experience-wise,” Angelo said. “It’s a whole new world here football-wise. (Bruno) kind of guided the way for me. It meant a lot to me.”
Success in the Jaguars football program also extends elsewhere in the Natter family.
Their father, Gary Natter, was a tight end and defensive end on the 1980 WPIAL Class AAA championship team led by legendary TJ coach Bap Manzini.
“It’s very satisfying to watch them play and have them both start on the same side of the defense,” the elder Natter said. “I think there’s a lot of pressure over here and that’s all part of competing. Both boys seem to respond very well to the pressure.”
And that can only be a good thing for the future of the Jaguars program, which after earning a fifth straight conference title, bowed out of the WPIAL playoffs in the semifinals for the second straight season with a loss to Central Valley last Friday.
“We had fun,” Bruno said. “It ended not how we wanted it, but it was still a good year. We’re never satisfied until we win it all. Our expectations are almost the same every year. Win conference, win the WPIAL, win states.”