JOHN NADEL Associated Press LOS ANGELES -
Mario Danelo was remembered Friday as an upbeat person who enjoyed life to the fullest and left an indelible impression on those around him. An estimated 2,000 mourners gathered at Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church in suburban San Pedro to remember the Southern California kicker, whose body was found last weekend about 120 feet down a rocky cliff not far from his family's home.
"Mario loved life, he embraced it," Joey Danelo said of his younger brother. "If you asked Mario how he was, he would say he's living the dream. We'll never know God's plan, but we do know we had a gift.
"Regardless of what you got, it came from the heart. He left an impression on our lives. He made us proud to know him. I love you, Buddy."
Danelo's brother struggled to maintain his emotions as he spoke at the funeral Mass of nearly two hours. Among other speakers were USC coach Pete Carroll and Mike Walsh, who coached Danelo at San Pedro High.
"He was big-time about living life and having fun," Carroll said. "He lived it hard and fun and fast - he enjoyed it. He leaves us with a tremendous gift, about this life that he led.
"Mario was a fantastic kid. We loved him so much - we're going to miss him."
Many in attendance listened via a loudspeaker because there were far too many to fit into the church. The entire USC team and coaching staff attended along with several former players and hundreds who live in San Pedro, a close-knit harbor community of 70,000 about 25 miles south of Los Angeles.
"He was a hometown hero," said Bob Franco, an assistant chief of the Los Angeles Fire Department who grew up in San Pedro and has known Danelo's father, Joe, for about 20 years. "The community was shut down on Saturdays to watch Mario play. It's pretty much closed down now.
"I watched him play at San Pedro High. He wore No. 32. My son, Robert, took Mario's number. He's going to keep it in Mario's honor. He's a linebacker, just like Mario was."
Danelo was an all-city linebacker in high school, but at 5-foot-10 and less than 200 pounds, there was no way he was playing that position at a major college. So his father, an NFL kicker from 1975-84, spent countless hours working with him.
Danelo walked on at USC in 2003, and was awarded a scholarship two years later. In two years as the Trojans' kicker, he made 26 of 28 field goal attempts and 127 of 134 conversions. He set NCAA single-season records with 83 extra points and 86 attempts in the 2005 season.
In what turned out to be the final game of his life, the 21-year-old junior kicked two field goals in USC's 32-18 Rose Bowl victory over Michigan on New Year's Day.
Walsh told the mourners that Danelo was the first San Pedro High graduate to play at USC in 30 years.
"Mario's success in life and athletics brought a smile to everyone's face," Walsh said. "Everyone rooted for Mario. He was the ultimate team player, and his teammates loved him. I never heard anyone say a negative word about him.
"Mario loved his family. I can't count the number of times I saw him kicking field goals with his father in the afternoon at San Pedro High. We must follow Mario's example and live our lives with the same bounce he had in his step, the smile he had on his face. Mario has been a blessing in all our lives."
An autopsy was performed on Danelo last Monday, and the coroner's office said it could be six to eight weeks before the cause of death is determined. Foul play has been ruled out. The medical examiner is awaiting toxicology results that would detect the presence of any alcohol or drugs in Danelo's system.
Those who knew him best seem convinced it was a tragic accident, not suicide.
Danelo would tell just about anyone who asked how he was doing that he was "living the dream."
We always say a lot of things. I thought he was messing with me, (saying), `living the dream,'" USC special teams graduate assistant Sam Anno recalled Friday. "I finally believed that. He owned that in his bones. I really didn't know it at first. I finally understood he felt like he really was living the dream. He knew what he had in the present moment."