By Tris Wykes
Copyright Octopus Athletics 2021
HANOVER – Dartmouth College football’s No. 92 has the given name of Luca Antonio Liquori Carr Di Leo.
Luca, as he’s known day-to-day, is a man with many monikers. However, the senior is primarily focused on making a name for himself within a Big Green program on the verge of consecutive Ivy League titles and a third championship in six seasons.
The 2015 title team featured one of Luca’s older brothers, Rocco, a future All-American defensive end. The siblings played together at Dartmouth during Rocco’s fifth and final season in 2018, when he led the Ivies in tackles for loss and was second in sacks.
The elder di Leo was a wiry, 6-foot-3 pass rusher whom defensive line coach Duane Brooks describes as his most outstanding pupil during a 30-year career. The younger brother is 6-1, stouter and toils at nose guard, a thankless position where one’s primary job is to engage inside blockers and wind up at the bottom of the pile.
“He’s having a great season,” Brooks said. “Luca’s that family’s baby and he’s struggled before when he wanted to be like Rocco. I told him he should just be Luca.
“He’s a little butterball with a low center of gravity, but he’s faster than you think.”
Luca Di Leo’s performance has helped Dartmouth enter Saturday’s clash at Brown in position to claim at least a share of the Ancient Eight title if it beats the cellar-dwelling Bears. The Big Green (8-1 overall, 5-1 in league play) will share the crown if it triumphs and Princeton (8-1, 5-1) beats Pennsylvania (3-6, 1-5).
“He’s a tough kid who keeps coming back from misfortune,” said Dartmouth head coach Buddy Teevens, referring to Luca Di Leo’s history of battered health. “He’s explosively powerful and he’s always at a leverage advantage.
“It’s hard for a big (offensive lineman) to get under a guy that size. He’s got great leg drive and he just loves to play.”
Luca Di Leo is the youngest of four children of Frank and Teri Di Leo, who for the past 33 years have owned and operated an Italian restaurant, Di Leo’s, in Elmhurst, Ill., a suburb about a 25-minute drive west of Chicago. Luca recalls living in childhood “bubble” that involved walking two blocks to elementary school and an additional block to the restaurant.
Frank and Teri’s three boys, Rocco, Frank Jr. and Luca, followed first child Annamarie and each attended St. Ignatius Prep, where the main building is one of only a handful of structures in the city’s core to predate the 1871 Great Fire.
Soccer was the family’s first venture into kids’ sports, primarily because it began at an early age and the Di Leo offspring could often be dropped off and picked up from the same location. One day, however, Rocco made the unilateral decision to join his grade-school football team and his brothers followed.
“We would smash heads in the back yard in full pads, trying to train each other,” Luca said.
Rocco was a quarterback and defensive end in high school, helping St. Ignatius to its first championship since 1945. Frank Jr., known as Frankie, walked on at Penn State. The 5-9, 225-pound linebacker appeared in only five games but became beloved for his role on the scout team and helped the Nittany Lions win a Big Ten championship.
Would the youngest Di Leo live up to his siblings’ reputations? There was certainly pressure, but Luca said he also received motivation and advice from his brothers. As a St. Ignatius freshman, struggling with increased expectations and time management, he suddenly discovered his brothers were running his schedule and enforcing his performance.
“We micromanaged him to the point where he almost had to do well,” Frankie said.
One gorgeous day last spring, Luca was basking in the sun when a 1 p.m. FaceTime call came from Chicago’s Wrigley Field. It was his brothers, hoisting beers at a Cubs baseball game and demanding to know if he was staying in shape.
“By 2:15, I’m out hitting the two-man (blocking) sled,” Luca said with a rueful chuckle. “You get the toughest love in our family, but it’s all worth it.”
That bond was partially created and certainly enhanced at Di Leo’s, which can fit about 10 customers up front but is primarily a take-out joint. For years, Frank has opened and Teri has closed, their workdays overlapping by about six hours. Luca recalls napping on unfolded pizza boxes as a preschooler, his father periodically jostling him by sliding a piece of cardboard out of the stack.
“It’s the centerpiece of our family and the cornerstone of our values and aspirations,” said Frankie, who’s attending law school at the University of Illinois-Chicago but still works at the restaurant on weekends. “If things aren’t going your way, you can fall back to what our parents taught us over at Di Leo’s.”
Luca, who winces at memories of slicing tomatoes seemingly for hours as a teenager, has found a home in the pizza room with his father, although he’ll also make bread and soup early in a shift, along with marinating some of the restaurant’s signature broasted chicken. Frankie tends to work up front, interacting with customers and watching out for his mom.
Rocco, now working in Chicago’s commercial real estate field, is the utility man, ready to lend a hand anywhere, answer phones or dash out to make a delivery. Annamarie, a star rugby player in college and once a U.S. national team alternate, has acted as the restaurant’s manager when Frank and Teri have taken well-earned vacations, but there weren’t many of those in the early days.
“It took us all a long time to understand that our parents needed to be at the restaurant and couldn’t be at our events,” Luca said, noting that Di Leo’s excels at catering.
The Di Leos needed each other for strength after Luca was involved in a terrible accident at age 2. Teri brought groceries home, left the paper bags on the kitchen counter and went elsewhere in the house. Luca, searching for goodies, climbed atop a chair to look inside and spotted a bottle with purple liquid he thought was grape juice.
It was actually nail-polish remover and there was no child-proof cap. When Luca tried to get a straw out of a nearby drawer, the liquid sloshed on to the adjacent stove top, contacting a pilot light and catching on fire. Luca dropped the bottle, but the remaining contents also ignited on and around him as he fell to the floor.
Teri re-entered the kitchen to find a fire ball around Luca and the lower half of his footie pajamas. Frankie rushed to spray his brother with water from the sink’s hose.
“I watched my son burn,” Teri said. “I tried to scream and no words would come out.”
Luca, who said he used to experience flashbacks from his initial arrival at the hospital, at one point pulled various tubes out of his body, causing his heart to stop beating.
“My mom was in the room and they had to drag her out,” he said.
It’s easy to write that Luca was placed in an induced coma for about two months, that skin grafts were harvested from his back and that his father helped him relearn to walk. It’s difficult, however, to imagine the preschooler’s literal pain and his family’s emotional agony, especially when outsiders later teased him about the scarring.
To date, Luca has endured more than 20 operations, many he offhandedly describes as “minor, plastic-surgery kind of stuff”. Twice, he need procedures preformed so that he could fully straighten his legs, because doctors estimated he would stop growing at 5-10, not three inches taller. His parents’ health insurance has also absorbed a spinal fusion for Annamarie, a broken wrist and collarbone for Rocco and two broken feet for Luca.
“He’s tougher than tough,” Brooks said of his current pupil, who switched his uniform number to Rocco’s 92 once his older brother exhausted his eligibility.
The broken feet, both suffered during Luca’s senior season at St. Ignatius, limited his development somewhat, so he took a postgraduate year at the Connecticut prep school Choate Rosemary Hall.
At one point during Luca’s college recruitment, he appeared headed to either Yale or Colgate. However, after taking an official visit to Dartmouth and reacquainting himself with the football program and campus, he committed to the Big Green. That helped convince Rocco to to return for a fifth and final season granted him by the Ivy League after missing the 2016 campaign because of injury.
“It’s a great thing to play with your brother in college, but everyone’s also comparing you to him and you always have that chip on your shoulder,” Frankie said. “It’s not Luca’s fault that he’s not a (rush end) and piling up sacks. He’s just got to be the guy who gets a nice push and creates a car crash situation the in backfield.”
Teevens tends not to look too far down the road and certainly this week he’s focused purely on Brown. He does, however, have a wistful if unlikely wish involving the Di Leos.
“I did home visits with both Rocco and Luca and had a wonderful, home-cooked Italian meal,” the coach said, grinning broadly at the recollection. “I’d like for their parents to have another child so I can go back.”
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