Amid tragedy, great memories


Sandra Guerrera always enjoyed attending her son Jason’s games, no matter what the sport — football, ice hockey or baseball. He mastered them all.

In 1995, Guerrera saw her son crowned the MVP after the annual St. John Neumann-Southern High football game.

"I was just so proud of him," she said. "He worked so hard after having concussion after concussion. He just had to finish what he was doing. He had to feel fulfilled."

But recently, Jason had stopped feeling fulfilled, family members said. For the most part, he felt pain — headaches, mood swings and other troubling symptoms. At 25, he had just been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Before there was time to get treatment, Jason apparently decided he could no longer take the pain. On Feb. 28, witnesses told police a man abandoned his 2001 Acura on the Walt Whitman Bridge and jumped into the Delaware River during the height of rush hour.

Last Thursday, police found Jason Guerrera’s body in the Delaware River near the Navy Yard. He was laid to rest Monday at Stella Maris Church, Ninth and Bigler.

The young man, who flirted with semipro baseball and college, was remembered most for his promise as a Neumann athlete. By the time he graduated in 1996, Guerrera had notched All-Catholic honors five times and several MVP awards. Those all-star performances, which led him to earn 11 varsity letters, are providing some comforting memories to his family as they deal with their loss.

The Guerreras had spent 40 days and 40 nights praying, crying and wondering what could’ve happened to their son, who was always known to have a smile on his face.

Sandra Guerrera hoped against the odds that her youngest son would eventually return home to the 2800 block of South Alder Street.

"I made myself believe with my faith that he was going to come home and be fine," she said. "The inside of me is totally numb."

The cause behind Guerrera’s headaches, mood swings and exhaustion was diagnosed as bipolar disorder in February. His parents learned the news from Jason’s doctor, and were prepared to help their son win this battle like he had won so many on the field.

On the night of Feb. 28, Sandra and John Guerrera were heading down to Ocean City, N.J., where they have a house. Jason was nowhere to be found.

"I was going to tell him [about the bipolar diagnosis] down the shore that Friday night, but I never got a chance," John Guerrera said. "The past two to three weeks, his condition had gotten worse."

Last week’s news might have offered some closure, but it did nothing to diminish the family’s anguish.

"It’s been tough, believe me," John Guerrera said. "I have a hole in my heart because he is not here."

In the spring sunshine Monday morning, friends, relatives, neighbors and Jason’s former coaches showed their support for the family by forming what seemed to be a mile-long line outside Stella Maris.

Baseball- and football-shaped decorations joined flowers and a picture of Jason smiling in his tuxedo atop the closed casket.

Neumann football coach Ed DiCamillo, a close family friend, said the player could handle any number of positions.

"He was one of the top athletes to play at Neumann in the last 25 years," DiCamillo said on Friday. "He is one of the few kids to win 11 varsity letters. He was a four-year varsity starter in baseball."

DiCamillo, who also has a house in Ocean City, was supposed to have dinner with the Guerreras and fellow Neumann coach Pat DiPilla on Feb. 28. Once the news reached the shore, a feeling of shock took over.

"It has been on my mind since it happened," the coach said. "I can’t get it off my mind that something tragic would happen to a kid like that."

Guerrera’s junior year was his most successful at Neumann.

The football team had one of its best seasons ever, compiling a 7-4 record and advancing to the playoffs. The Pirates ended up suffering a 21-0 loss to Archbishop Carroll, but at the time, First Team All-Catholic Guerrera reflected on the highlights.

"It was a great season, I had so much fun," he said in a July 1996 Review article that was mentioned during Monday’s service. "Once you start winning, you get that taste in your mouth. I didn’t want it to end."

It didn’t. The Pirates baseball team stormed its way to a Catholic League Southern Division title. The First Team All-Catholic outfielder did his part by hitting .480 and scoring the game-winning run in the Southern Division finals.

Current Neumann baseball coach Gaeton Lucibello, a former Pirates player himself, recalled being impressed as a spectator with Guerrera’s abilities.

"He was a fantastic athlete," Lucibello recalled. "He could catch onto anything and be successful no matter what. He made an impact as a freshman, which is a rarity."

Guerrera’s brother John, 27, was a role model.

"I looked up to my brother," Jason said in the 1996 story. "He taught me how to play hard and never give up."

But John says his younger brother was actually the athletic natural. He enjoyed playing against him when he was a Roman Catholic senior and Jason a freshman.

Ice hockey was Jason’s other love. At age 14, he joined the Little Flyers Club, a team that competed in an international league against squads from Canada and the United States. When he entered Neumann, he helped start a hockey program at the school. As in his other sports, Jason caught on quickly by leading the Pirates in scoring.

After graduating from Neumann, the local athlete gave semipro baseball a try and attended Widener University for eight months. He then worked in the City Hall mailroom.

Though grieving, Jason’s family takes comfort in believing he is at peace.

"I am just so happy that they found him," brother John said. "I’ve struggled these last 40 days."

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Jane Kiefer
Jane Kiefer, a seasoned journalist with a rich background in digital media strategies, leads South Philly Review as its Editor-in-Chief. Originally hailing from Seattle, Jane combines her outsider perspective with a profound respect for South Philly's vibrant community, bringing fresh insights and innovative storytelling to the newspaper.