St. Joe’s Prep athlete dies in workout

Ryan Gillyard collapsed on the football field near University Village.

As Brother Bob Carson read from the Book of Luke, hundreds of people at the Church of the Gesù at St. Joseph’s Prep sat and listened. Together, they mourned the loss of Ryan Gillyard – a freshman linebacker and running back on the school’s football team – at a Sunday mass dedicated to him. Family, friends, teammates, alumni and coaches, who wanted to honor the boy who had played football since he was 6 years old, attended the mass.

Gillyard, a 15-year-old from Upper Darby, was participating in an early morning workout on Saturday with his teammates at a practice field at Cecil B. Moore Avenue and 11th Street, when he suddenly collapsed. After an ambulance crew spent about half an hour trying to revive him, they rushed him to Temple University Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

The passage Carson read, Luke 24:35-48, told the story of how Jesus appeared to his disciples following his resurrection. While his disciples were startled and terrified, and questioned his appearance, Jesus told them not to worry, and that he was indeed standing in their presence.

In the ensuing homily, Father Stephen Surovick said that while many in attendance may have felt like the disciples, those who came to honor Gillyard on Sunday morning showed the overall strength of the school and surrounding community.

“With the death of Ryan, we too find ourselves startled, terrified and questioning,” Surovick told the congregation. “Our presence today says so much to each other amidst what we are feeling right now.”

Even students who did not know Gillyard personally were in attendance. Steven Bradley, a junior at St. Joseph’s Prep, said that while he had only really seen him walking around in the school’s hallways, the news on Saturday was saddening.

“Even though I may not have known him that well, it’s a surprise to see him go at such a young age,” Bradley said after the mass.

Several players’ parents also attended, including Michael Slawson, who said his son, Michael – a junior on the football team – knew Gillyard personally.

“For the kids, this is going to be a terrible loss,” Slawson said of Gillyard’s passing. “I want to commend The Prep for how quickly they got this [mass] together.”

Slawson added that when he first found out about the news, he immediately thought of the Gillyards’ well-being.

“When I heard the news, my heart went out to the Gillyard family,” he said. “I hope God prays for [Ryan] and his family.”

Gillyard was recognized at several points during Sunday’s mass, and was the main focus of Surovick’s homily. He told the crowd that even though the 15-year-old’s death “wasn’t fair, wasn’t right, and may not make sense,” his character during his short life ensured that he has found peace.

“Ryan is now living an eternal life,” he said. “Today, we commend Ryan to the Lord, to the Lord who welcomes him and embraces him a new life.”

Moments before the closing hymn, St. Joseph’s Prep President, Rev. George Bur, said Gillyard’s selflessness was evident until his death.

“If there is any consolation for Ryan … he never took love and care of him from others for granted,” Bur told the congregation. “It’s a consolation that we knew of him.”

Steve Bohnel can be reached at or on Twitter @Steve_Bohnel.

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