The only light now came from streetlights, the empty parking lot illuminated in a dim glow. It may be the middle of July, but the sun set hours ago. The hot, humid Pennsylvania air is sticky, and the sounds of wildlife — bugs, mainly — are all around. A football hurtles through the air, getting lost in the inky black sky before careening back toward the blacktop. Henry Litwin’s hands snap out, snatching the ball out of the air before it flies off into the night.
It feels like the days of old, when every day was much simpler. When days revolved around playing football all night, only the headlights of a generous parent’s SUV allowing for the fun to continue.
This felt different. This felt like it was years in the making. But that’s just because it was.
Litwin, a senior wide receiver on the Slippery Rock University football team, has always craved the best. The best team, the best competition and the best version of himself. It takes a strong belief in one’s self to actively pursue being the best, and it takes a great deal more when you’re doubted every step of the way. Litwin has been the David to someone else’s Goliath too many times now.
In youth football, Litwin, who was born in the summer, was one of the older boys on his team every year. It helped him grow up a bit quicker, but maybe not quite as much as having an older brother on the high school football team did. If his brother and his friends were playing, Henry had to be there. If Henry was allowed at practice, there was nowhere else he’d rather be.
When it came time for Litwin to finally play high school ball, it came with a unique situation.
“My freshman year of high school was the first year that Conneaut [Area] was an actual school,” Litwin said. “We combined three towns together, Linesville, Conneautville and Conneaut Lake, to make CASH (Conneaut Area Senior High School) and that was the first class.”
Growing up in different towns and playing on different teams, the boys were all rivals. They didn’t really get along, and it was hectic at first. Locals weren’t quite sure whether the boys would actually be able to play together — let alone play well.
Year 1 went about as well as could be expected, CASH finishing above .500 with a 6-5 record. However, Litwin, sidelined by a torn hamstring, was barely able to stand, let alone find the field. Year 2 saw CASH improve to 7-4, but Litwin was barely treading water now after a second hamstring tear. Year 3 was finally Litwin’s time to shine.
With Litwin finally able to stay on the field, perhaps uncoincidentally, CASH ground out a 10-1 season before setting up a meeting with Erie Cathedral Prep in the first round of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association AAA playoffs. It just so happened to be for the District 10 AAA title, too.
“We were playing Cathedral Prep up in Erie — they’re like the powerhouse pretty much — and we were just this school that came out three years ago,” Litwin said.
Playing at Sto-Rox Stadium in Edinboro in a snow squall, it was once again David vs. Goliath.
In the third year of its existence, Litwin and CASH were a rag-tag group of boys no one expected to win while Cathedral Prep had made the District 10 AAA title game every year since 1997, winning 12 games.
A defensive battle in the swirling snow came down to one last drive, with CASH and Cathedral locked at 7-7. With just 12 seconds in the game, CASH had driven to the 9-yard line and was set up with a 2nd-and-6.
Litwin was lined up outside, staring down the cornerback and slipped around the defender, streaking to the back of the endzone when CASH quarterback Hunter Merritt lofted a ball high into the air toward him. A nine-yard reception gave CASH a 14-7 lead, Litwin the game-winning catch and clinched the first District title in CASH history. It was a win bigger than Litwin, Merritt or even just CASH football.
“We had every surrounding high school going to that game, and when we beat Cathedral Prep, that really brought the communities together,” Litwin said. “That was when we were like, ‘OK, this is what it is now. We’re a family, a brotherhood.’ That was my biggest moment in high school.”
Year 4 was bittersweet. CASH rolled into a rematch with Cathedral Prep unbeaten, and Litwin set the District 10 record for receiving yards (1,356) and touchdowns (20) in a single season. However, Cathedral Prep won round two in Edinboro.
For a small-town guy in the middle of nowhere, too far from Erie and way too far from Pittsburgh, Litwin knew it wouldn’t be an easy recruiting process. He thought leading the state in yards and touchdowns might help. It didn’t. Even Slippery Rock wasn’t totally sold on him.
“I got some visits and got to talk to some bigger schools, but Slippery Rock really didn’t… want me, I guess you could say,” Litwin said. “Like they wanted me, but they weren’t going to offer me anything.”
When it came time to visit Slippery Rock, a story that Litwin isn’t totally sure SRU football coach Shawn Lutz will like to re-hear, Litwin had a workout with a few other wide receivers. Typically, Litwin said, recruits would talk to Lutz after the workout and if it went well, they’d get an offer.
“So, I went in there, and he’s like, ‘Man, we like you a lot. Unreal, you led the state, but we don’t have any money to give you to come to Slippery Rock. I’m sorry, man, maybe there’s a walk-on spot.’ So, I’m like, ‘okay.’ I wasn’t fully invested in Slippery Rock yet either, I had a lot of aspirations. But as I’m walking out, another receiver went in after me, and I was standing there talking to my parents and the other players. The other receiver comes out and he’s hugging his parents, and he’s like, ‘Hey man, they just put me on scholarship!’ I understand the processes coaches have to go through and everything but I was like, ‘wow, all right.'”
At home later that day, Litwin was struggling with the toughest decision of his life. He had offers, full rides, to other Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference programs, but he couldn’t get SRU out of his head. Those other schools gave Litwin a few days to mull things over before he was forced to make a decision: walk-on at SRU or accept a full-ride scholarship somewhere else. He felt sick to his stomach.
“Having to tell my parents that I wanted to go to Slippery Rock and not get any money or any scholarship or anything… that was hard,” Litwin said. “I was like, ‘This is where I want to go. I love the major, I love the team, I love the school itself.’ And they said we’ll do whatever you want to do, and we’ll back you up.
“I called coach Lutz, and I met him the next morning, and said, ‘If you give me a roster spot, and a chance to earn a scholarship, I’ll come play for you,'” Litwin said. “And he said, ‘deal.’ Now it’s all history.”
Safety Management was a huge factor, the school itself was another, but it was the talent that truly enticed Litwin to come to SRU. Not just on the other schools that he’d play against but the guys who he’d play with. The guys he’d learn from.
“Everybody has aspirations to go Division I out of high school, and I had small Division I schools talk to me and show interest, but something about Slippery Rock — and if you don’t know the PSAC, it’s full of Division I players — it’s either players who transferred down or players who should’ve gotten a shot but never did,” Litwin said.
Litwin wanted to go up against the best and beat the best. SRU gave him that opportunity, even if he had to turn down thousands of dollars to get there. A walk-on wide receiver from rural Pennsylvania going up against Division I talent every day. He loved it.
From Day 1 Litwin was matched up with guys like Titus Howard, a former Pitt cornerback with Division I experience, and Kyle Hall in practice. It was a real challenge right off the bat, but he never felt like he didn’t belong. No one was that much better than him.
He was learning every day, growing every day. If he got beat, he’d ask himself so many questions. OK… what can I do? How can I get better? What did they do??
Litwin spent his freshman season acting as a sponge, soaking up everything that could possibly make him not just a better wide receiver but a better football player. And Lutz and the coaching staff took notice. In the summer after his freshman season, he was finally rewarded with a scholarship.
“When coach Lutz told me he was going to put me on scholarship… that was tough,” Litwin said. “It brought a tear to my eye. I remember my dad started crying, my mom started crying, and I was like, ‘Oh, gosh.’ How long that process was and being doubted, not being sure of anything really, and then finally everything paying off. That was a big moment for me and my family.”
Don’t look now, but David was slowly turning into Goliath. But a Goliath who would never forget how those days of being doubted, being underestimated, felt.
“It’s pretty special. I hope other walk-ons and somebody who’s coming out of high school or people who plan on trying out for the team, I hope I can be that hope,” Litwin said. “Show that they can have success because it’s definitely hard. Especially when you’re around other players who are on scholarship. You kind of get down on yourself… people don’t even think about the stress it has on the family.”
Lutz and the staff didn’t have to give Litwin a scholarship, they didn’t even have to take a chance on him out of high school, Litwin said, but it says a lot about the kind of guys they are. Litwin couldn’t be more grateful for them.
As a special teams player in his sophomore season, Litwin played in every game but didn’t see the field on offense. He kept learning, kept perfecting his craft and trusting in himself. That trust paid off on the field to the tune of 51 catches for 841 yards and eight touchdowns. In the classroom, Litwin earned PSAC Football Champion Scholar and PSAC Scholar-Athlete distinctions along with being named to the CoSIDA Academic All-District team. Excellence on the gridiron and perfection in the classroom.
However, almost mirroring his senior season at CASH, a bitter loss to Notre Dame College (Oh.) left the season feeling like a failure. But there was a buzz in the air, the SRU offseason felt different. Henry Litwin had finally arrived.
The 2019 season for SRU football was many things. It was historic, it was record-breaking, it was fun. It was much needed — for Litwin and for the SRU community.
An undefeated season with a frenetic win over archrival Indiana University (Pa.) on Homecoming capped off with the first PSAC title since 2015 in a come-from-behind win over Kutztown. Round two was against Notre Dame in the national quarterfinals. And this time, Litwin wasn’t going to lose.
Against Cathedral Prep in 2015, Litwin caught nine passes for 134 yards and a touchdown. Against Notre Dame in 2019, Litwin caught 12 passes for 203 yards and three touchdowns. And SRU walked away with a 65-59 win. It felt like a movie, one with half an hour still to go.
In another snowstorm, SRU hosted Minnesota State-Mankato for the chance to move on to the NCAA Division II C. It was Cathedral Prep in 2014 all over again, except… only for Litwin. With 11 receptions for 149 yards and two touchdowns, he clinched the best season for a wide receiver in SRU history.
Slippery Rock suffered its first loss of the season, a 58-15 loss in the swirling snow. And the magical season came to an end with Litwin and fellow star wide receiver Jermaine Wynn, Jr. walking off the field together, Wynn’s arm draped around Litwin’s shoulder. “Just keep going,” he said, “we got this.”
The coronavirus pandemic has put those plans on hold, but it’s only delayed the inevitable.
Litwin has used this time away from football to get better, doubling down on schoolwork while using the extra time to get to see his friends and family more than ever over the past 15 years of his life. In the football season, Litwin is either at his apartment or at Mihalik-Thompson Stadium; he’s either doing homework or watching game film.
It’s weird for Litwin to be a “regular” student right now. He’s heard how “easy” non-athletes have it but that’s not the case. The free time can be a blessing and a curse, and it’s been important for the SRU coaches and teammates to stay together, to stay focused, to use this time to their benefit.
“I haven’t had free time — I started playing football in 3rd grade,” Litwin said. “And this whole time, I’ve had like a set schedule; you have to do this, and train and all that. Now it’s like, ‘OK, you’re not allowed on the field.’ Which is something you’d never thought you’d hear.”
Using the time off to his advantage has been a key for Litwin. Obviously, he’d rather be playing football right now, but he’s not letting this opportunity get by.
“I’ve been able to workout with our track coach,” Litwin said. “Coach Lutz set that up for us, and I can’t thank coach [Papa] enough. He’s helped me a ton. Right now, we’re working on our starts and 40s and stuff, just to get our running motion down. Just to get any edge that we can, to get better some way.”
When SRU is finally back on the field, the time, effort and dedication put into this disjointed offseason will be apparent. Litwin promises that. Despite the loss of Harlon Hill winner Roland Rivers III, Litwin and Wynn headline a full receiving corps returning all its members. Football season cannot come soon enough.
“I have a chip on my shoulder,” Litwin said. “I know what it’s like going into an atmosphere where you’re against the odds; I felt that way even in high school… Prove ’em wrong. I’m going to do just about anything I can, anything possible, to make it.”
You can doubt Litwin all you want. But if you do, make sure you’re ready to be proven wrong.