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His key to the world

Football brought Thomas Vanaskie to Lycoming, then the school opened doors for him he had never imagined

Tom Vanaskie
Tom Vanaskie

Tom Vanaskie’s play as a football defensive back focused national attention on his athletics skills, even as the political science major’s own eyes were opened to a world of  possibilities following graduation.

He received Lycoming’s highest student honor, the Chieftain Award, which recognizes superior dedication and leadership qualities and academic excellence. He then briefly gave pro football a try, signing as a free agent with the Philadelphia Bell of the World Football League.

But a professor had encouraged Vanaskie to think internationally, leading to taking the U.S. foreign service exam during his senior year before ultimately pursuing a law degree at the Dickinson School of Law. The decision to study law set Vanaskie on course for a distinguished career as an attorney and judge, ultimately leading him to a seat in 2010 on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

Vanaskie remembers his time on the football team as formative – even recalling it when he was sworn in to his current post and told the court’s lead justice, “I’m ready to play, chief.”

Likewise, intercollegiate athletics has remembered Vanaskie, with his induction last year into the College Sports Information Directors of America’s Academic All-America Hall of Fame – making him one of only 10 inductees who have graduated from Division III schools during the past 40 years.

“Playing football at the small college level enabled you to do something that you love to do, that you may not have had the opportunity to do anywhere else – play an organized sport, compete every week to try and win the game, and work together as a team,” he told Lycoming’s alumni magazine in a 2010 interview.

Tom Vanaskie, Lycoming College Class of 1975
Tom Vanaskie, Lycoming College Class of 1975.

In fact, it was the opportunity to play football that convinced the son of a Pennsylvania bricklayer and a mother who worked the night shift in a shirt factory to enroll at Lycoming before he even had visited the campus.

Once there, he was coached by Frank Girardi, who first was Vanaskie’s defensive backs coach and then was promoted to lead the program during Vanaskie’s sophomore year, en route to becoming one of Division III’s most victorious coaches.

Under Girardi’s tutelage, Vanaskie set a school record for career interceptions, and was credited during his senior season with participating in 60 tackles and returning two punts for touchdowns. He won Little All-America honorable mention from The Associated Press along with first-team Academic All-America honors.

But Vanaskie also was well-coached by professors, who particularly pushed him to develop skills in writing and research – abilities that are essential in his chosen career requiring written opinions.

“I took a writing seminar with a professor and it was painful because he tore apart what I did, but he made me a much better writer,” he told Lycoming’s alumni magazine.

Still, teamwork may be the most important lesson Vanaskie absorbed at Lycoming, and that skill also is essential in his work as one of 14 judges in the Third Circuit, which covers Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and the Virgin Islands.

“You can’t play outside your role,” he said in the 2010 interview. “Only when you play your position does the team mesh.”

Vanaskie’s role has been multi-dimensional – first as a talented athlete and excellent student, but even more importantly in the bigger world he first glimpsed from the Lycoming campus.

Nominated by Joe Guistina, assistant director of athletics for sports information at Lycoming College.