- Pat Yasinskas, ESPN Staff Writer
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MONTROSE, Pa. -- The old coach was dying, and it would take six hours on a bus to get to him. Another six to get back. The start of Boston College's spring practice was less than 48 hours away.
Chris Snee did the math and bought a ticket. Montrose was calling.
Ambrose Mullen, the man who started the football program at Montrose High School in 1973 and returned as an assistant in 1986 after seven years out of coaching, had only days to live.
"I went out to say goodbye to Ambrose, and he asked if Chris could come see him," said Tom Lucenti, the coach at Montrose from 1986 through 2005. "I made the call to Chris, not even thinking it was possible."
With almost no one in Montrose knowing he was there, Snee showed up at Mullen's house and spent half an hour visiting. He walked out of the bedroom sobbing. Minutes later, he was on his way back to Boston.
That was in 2003. These days, Snee, 26, is a starting guard for the New York Giants. He has played in London and is about to play in the Super Bowl. But, in a lot of ways, Snee never left this tiny town.
A town searching for something
Once upon a time, Montrose thrived.
Back when Scranton, Pa. -- 47 miles to the south -- was a coal-mine haven and Binghamton, N.Y. -- 25 miles to the north -- was a railroad hub and home to a huge IBM office on its outskirts, Montrose was a nice alternative for those who didn't want to live in the cities. Farms prospered, Montrose High School became a basketball power and Bendix opened a huge factory in South Montrose to build computer control boards.
Then, things began changing, and Montrose did not. The world turned to oil for heat and away from railroads for shipping. IBM scaled back its local office. Bendix closed when computers went to microchips. In the 1980s and '90s, Scranton and Binghamton boarded up buildings downtown, and Montrose tried to just hang on as jobs and people slipped away.
These days, the population is around 1,500. The downtown, home to Montrose's only traffic light and the Susquehanna County courthouse, is still pretty. But it looks much the same as it did 25 years ago. The average household income is about $31,000.
"Montrose just is not a place you want to stay," said Tim Lopez, Snee's best friend from high school and a football and basketball teammate.
Lopez now lives in Binghamton and works in the credit department of a utility company. His wife also is from Montrose, but they come back only for short visits.
"If the kids go to college, they don't come back, because there's nothing here for them anymore," said Lucenti, who still teaches math at the high school.
"There aren't many working farms left. We're losing that type of kid. We're losing some of the identity that made the community really good. I don't know that we're getting worse for it. But we're struggling for some kind of identity now. People move here because they don't want industry, they don't want infrastructure. Yet, we have to find something."
'The best thing to ever happen to this place'
Maybe, without even realizing it, Montrose has found something. In the middle of its winter, Montrose has Snee.
"I worked in a stone quarry there," Snee said. "I worked in a factory. I know how tough times can be there. That's where it all started for me. I don't want to forget the people that were so integral in me getting here. Montrose is important to me."
That's why Snee comes back for a week after each season. He comes back each spring for a chili-cooking contest to raise money for a building fund for Montrose General Hospital and each summer for a punt, pass and kick contest for United Way. Snee also comes back because Montrose is the one place he truly feels at home.
"It's nice to get away from the fast pace and drive 20 miles an hour down a dirt road," Snee said. "It's also nice to go to a place where I know everybody."
And everybody knows Snee.
"Chris Snee is the best thing to ever happen to this place," Montrose resident Gary Shultz said as he sat in the County Seat Tavern across from the courthouse on a recent morning.
"We're all on board with him."
That's obvious as you walk the streets of Montrose. Just about every business has a sign in its window, wishing Snee and the Giants luck in the Super Bowl. Heck, most of the telephone poles in town have signs.
"The kids here need a role model like Chris," Montrose High principal Jim Tallarico said. "Not just because he's going to the Super Bowl, but because of who he is, his work ethic and the family he comes from."
Low key, despite the celebrity
If you met Ed and Diane Snee, you'd never suspect they were the parents of an NFL player.
They live in the same house they moved into before Chris' senior year of high school. It's on a dirt road about 10 miles outside town. Not long ago, Ed was working on his truck one night. The dogs started barking, so Ed crawled out from under the truck. He looked up and saw a bear crossing the road. He went back to work.
Ed and Diane aren't originally from Montrose, but they have been here long enough to be of Montrose. They used to live in Edison, N.J., and had just started a family when Diane's mother moved here.
"We visited and just fell in love with it," Diane said.
"Better air, you can breathe here," Ed said. "Better environment. You can't make a lot of money here, but you've got to do what's best for your kids."
The family moved to Montrose just before Chris started kindergarten, and his three brothers -- Ed, Dan and Shaun -- also played football and graduated from high school here. Ed still drives a cement truck, although he's laid off for much of the winter because it's too cold to pour. Diane works as a secretary and nurse's assistant at Montrose General.
"Nothing has changed at all," Diane said. "We like being normal. We like our quiet time. We don't like all that craziness. Chris is used to that now, but we're not."
But it's not easy to be normal when your son is easily the biggest celebrity from one of Pennsylvania's most rural counties and his in-laws are even more famous. Chris is married to Giants coach Tom Coughlin's daughter, Katie.
If you picture Ed and Coughlin sitting down for Thanksgiving dinner at Chris' house in Oakland, N.J., as a culture clash, you are wrong. Coughlin might talk a little football, and Ed might tell the story about the bear, but mostly, they talk about Chris and Katie's two children. Ed and Diane don't share the world's perception of Coughlin as a hard-edged coach obsessed with football.
"He's there for every event, every holiday or birthday party," Diane said.
"We were down there for the grandson's birthday, and he was watching golf and just relaxing with us," Ed said.
"I'm sure that right after that, he went to the stadium and started working on film or something. But, when we're together, he's as down to earth and family-oriented as they come."
Maybe that's because the Coughlins and the Snees aren't as different as you might think. Coughlin has never been to Montrose, but his roots stem from a similar town two hours up the road.
"People forget Tom Coughlin's from Waterloo, New York," Chris said. "I went to a charity event there last year. Waterloo, New York, and Montrose, Pennsylvania -- they're not much different."
Snee's 'meteoric' rise
Still, if you look at the hometowns on the rosters of the Giants and the New England Patriots, Montrose might qualify as the longest shot to put a player in the Super Bowl.
The immediate Scranton area has sent an occasional player (Mike Munchak, Tim Ruddy and Jimmy Cefalo) to the NFL. But as best as the locals can figure, Snee is the first from Susquehanna County (where only two of the six high schools have football teams) to make it to the NFL, and he also is believed to be the only county player to receive a Division I-A football scholarship.
Coming from a high school where the weight room was in a little shack and the players drank water from a rusty pipe, Snee started drawing attention as a sophomore.
"Chris was faster than most of the running backs in the area," Lucenti said.
Despite a roster of only 23 players, the Meteors won league championships in 1997 and '98. Also playing defensive end, Chris had 47 sacks in a three-year career and a 95 average in the classroom.
"We played against the Scranton schools, and their kids got all the attention because that's where the newspapers and television stations were," Lopez said. "But it just got to a point where Chris was such a man among boys that people couldn't ignore him anymore."
College recruiters flocked to Montrose, and Lucenti sought out advice from coaches at Scranton schools who had been through the process. The Snees just felt their way as best they could.
"They were like, 'Go to Notre Dame or go here for a visit,'" Ed said. "I was like, 'We ain't Rockefeller.' We didn't know they would pay for you to visit.''
Chris chose Boston College over 13 other offers and, in 2004, was drafted by the Giants in the second round. He's likely to get a huge contract after next season, and the Super Bowl likely will add to his fame.
Ed, who has never been on a plane, Diane and youngest son Shaun are flying to Arizona on Friday. Lopez is going out Thursday. They'll return home next week, and they know it won't be long before Chris is back in Montrose for a visit.
"Chris has such a deep attachment to Montrose," Lopez said. "I'll tell you exactly what will happen the next time he's in. I'll ask him to come up to Binghamton because there are some good places to go out. He'll say, 'No, let's just go to the County Seat.' The County Seat Tavern, where for 10 dollars on a Friday night, you can buy a drink for well, for the entire town. That's where we'll end up."
Montrose will be waiting.
Pat Yasinskas covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
Chris Snee, 26, is a starting guard for the Giants and son-in-law of coach Tom Coughlin. He'll be on center stage in the Super Bowl. But, in a lot of ways, Snee never left tiny Montrose, Pa.