Sunday, May 23, 2010

Alex Yoncak, RIP Hero Who Dat

New Orleans Saints fan Alex Yoncak touched a lot of people
By Jeff Duncan, The Times-Picayune
May 22, 2010, 10:25PM

The Who Dat Nation lost a great one last month.

Alex Yoncak was a huge New Orleans Saints fan and a devoted family man.
Alex Yoncak died in a car crash near his home in Dingmans Ferry, Penn., on April 21.

The news report in The Pocono News consisted of three sentences. Under the headline "One dead in Pike crash," it read, in part, "Police say Alexander Yoncak, 37, of Dingmans Ferry, failed to negotiate a curve on Doolan Road, crossed into the oncoming lane, then swerved back and off the right side of the road, striking a tree." The accident occurred less than five minutes from Alex's home. He died instantly, the only positive news in this sad story.

He is survived by his wife, Abby, and their four children: sons, Xander, 11; and Sawyer, 6; and daughters, Bronwen, 10; and Anya, 8.

"My brother was a devoted New Orleans Saints fan who loved life and dedicated his life to helping others," his sister Kerry Yoncak wrote in an e-mail last week.

If there were a Hall of Fame for Saints fans, Alex would be a first-ballot entrant. There's a football term for guys like him. He was a difference-maker. He accomplished more random acts of kindness in his 37 years than most of us will in twice that time.

He saved the life of Jeremy Perrin when the boy fell through some ice and almost drowned. He served his country in the Marines. He coached youth sports teams and DJ'd at church and school functions (Favorite spin: "The Gummy Bear Song").

When he saw homelessness and despair in Mexico, he didn't just empathize, he bought a plane ticket, packed a hammer and flew south to rebuild homes - three times.

He touched lives

His classmates at Timothy Christian High School in Piscataway, N.J., remembered him as the prankster who kept everyone in stitches and eventually married his high school sweetheart.

His coworkers in the Local 157 carpenters union in New York City praised his work ethic and dedication to his craft.

His neighbors in the Pocono Mountain Lake Forest community extolled his charitable nature, selflessness and mentorship to the youth in the area.

And his fellow Saints fans at, revered him as sort of Drew Brees-Jeremy Shockey leader in their online community.

Everyone who ever posted a thread or read a message on the fan forum knew Alex, aka HammernNails. His ubiquitous avatar - a picture of him standing in front of the Superdome, dressed in his favorite gold Deuce McAllister jersey, gold-and-black Mardi Gras beads around his neck, head thrown back, arms thrust high above his head, expression of pure unbridled joy splashed across his bearded face - was one of the most recognizable sights on the site.

The photo was taken Sept. 25, 2006, the day of the historic Dome-coming game against the Atlanta Falcons. It was Alex's first trip to see his beloved Saints in person. There might be people in this world as happy as Yoncak was in that picture, but no one could be happier.

"That was exactly how I remembered him -- larger than life and enjoying every moment of it," said Steve Carp, a fellow Saints fan from Lynbrook, N.Y., who met Alex at the Saints' 30-7 victory against the New York Giants on Christmas Eve, 2006.

A true Who Dat, Alex would later get kicked out of the game by Meadowlands security for heckling Giants fans too intensely. He returned to his tailgate site, busted out his electric guitar and amp and immediately began singing disparaging songs about the Giants.

Yoncak's passion for the Saints started at the age of 7, when his grandmother played "When the Saints Go Marching In" on her accordion. A few days later he saw a Saints game on TV, loved the look of their jerseys and helmets and was hooked.

It took Katrina, though, to get him to New Orleans. Like many Americans, he was moved as he watched the disaster unfold on TV. He felt compelled to help. He'd worked to rebuild homes on church missions to Mexico and knew his skills would be useful in New Orleans. He posted his idea on Pledges of support poured in. Alex raised donations, rallied volunteers and requested nominations for help. The Hammer and Nails Project was born.

In July, Alex and Kerry made their first trip south to help rebuild the home of Blaine Miller, a fellow member whose Gretna home had two feet of floodwater and suffered close to $50,000 in damages.

Flush with $36,000 in donated supplies and services, an army of volunteers descended on the Miller home and worked through the entire weekend. They culminated that by eating crawfish and drinking beer.

Yoncak returned three months later to do the same at Mark and Emily Forbes' four-bedroom home in Arabi. Through website donations and a fund-raiser at the Mid-City Lanes Rock-N-Bowl the night before the Saints' home opener against Atlanta, the group raised more than $3,000, which was used to buy Sheetrock, paint and flooring.

"This may sound stupid, but it made me sad to think that because of a hurricane the Saints would no longer be the New Orleans Saints, that my team would be gone," Yoncak told me between sessions of sheetrock hanging that day in Arabi. "I wanted to do something that would make a difference. This is something I can do. Things happen for a reason."