ELLENSBURG, Wash. — Former Central Washington University quarterback Reilly Hennessey and the Panthers Parma were crowned Campioni D’Italia after taking down Milano, 40-34, in the Italian Bowl.
Hennessey joined the Panthers in 2019, helping guide the team to the postseason. A late-season injury sidelined the quarterback and he was forced to watch as the Panthers were eliminated in the first round. Coming into 2020, Hennessey was ready to step back onto the field for the Panthers.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the 2020 season as Italy fought the pandemic. On February 27, 2021, the Italian Federation of American Football announced the schedule for the 2021 campaign would begin in April, just a month later than normal.
“I hadn’t been able to give Parma a complete season and what I was capable of,” Hennessey said. “That’s what 2020 was supposed to be, but 2021 turned into that season.”
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Parma opened the year against the Milano Seamen, the defending champions aiming for a fourth-consecutive title in 2021.
“We ended up beating them by taking the lead with 28 seconds left in the fourth quarter,” Hennessey noted. “We were missing a few guys but we felt the pieces were there and we could only get stronger as the season went on. The more we played, the more comfortable we became, and the stronger we got.”
The Panthers surged ahead, handing Rhinos Milano a 42-32 defeat in week two. Hennessey tossed three touchdown passes and ran one in from 27 yards out. In week three, Parma nabbed an OT win over Guelfi Firenze, as Hennessey found Simone Alinovi for a 6-yard TD pass.
Hennessey and the Panthers found themselves matched up with the Seamen again on June 12.
“We had to play Milano again in a crossover,” Hennessey said. “We beat them again on a game-winning drive, down by four and drove the field to score. We knew we couldn’t make mistakes against them, they have good coaches and good players. We had to do our job and play our scheme. But that first time we beat them, we became the team to beat.”
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With 1:27 left in regulation, the Panthers took possession on their own 40-yard line. A pair of complete passes from Hennessey put Parma within striking distance. On third down, Hennessey found Alinovi for a touchdown, putting the Panthers ahead 30-27 and keeping their perfect season alive at 7-0.
After a win over the Rhinos and a semi-final victory over Guelfi Firenze, the Panthers had written their name into the finals with a 9-0 record.
It wasn’t the first undefeated regular season Hennessey has helped orchestrate. In 2017 with the Wildcats, Hennessey quarterbacked an 11-0 team before the Crimson and Black fell in the postseason to Texas A&M-Commerce, 34-31, in a nail-biter.
The Panthers opened the Italian Bowl with a 21-0 lead before Milano connected on a 38-yard touchdown pass to end the Panthers’ scoring run. After three quarters, Parma found themselves with a 28-12 lead.
A kick-off return for a touchdown to open the fourth from Milano drew the scoreline to 28-18, before a 44-yard TD pass to Tommaso Finadri from Hennessey made it 34-18 with 7:51 left in regulation.
Milano, however, wasn’t giving up. They drove down the field in three minutes, punching in a touchdown and two-point conversion. After forcing Parma to go three and out, they plunged over the line again to level the score at 34-34.
“We are up 16 with eight minutes left in the game, they score twice and punch in two conversions,” Hennessey recalls. “We get the ball back with a minute left. We drive down to the 10-yard line and lined up a field goal for our kicker [Matteo Felli] who is on the National Team. Milano blocks the kick. Everything just came rushing back. All the almosts, the Commerce game, it all came back.”
The blocked field goal sent the Italian Bowl into overtime. Parma elected to defend, giving Milano first possession. The Seamen set up a 46-yard field goal attempt, which would have given Milano the lead, except Elia Viviani blocked the kick and kept the game at 34-34. Michele Canali scooped up the loose ball and was brought down on the Panthers’ 33-yard line.
It took Hennessey and the Panthers just three plays to find the end zone. The former Wildcat QB1 hit Alinovi for a 14-yard touchdown pass, securing the victory and crowning the Panthers as Campioni D’Italia.
“It was unbelievable,” Hennessey said. “I ran to the stands where my parents and cousins were. It was the best feeling, the feeling of accomplishment and closing a battle I had been fighting constantly since I’ve been playing football, a battle my parents and family had been in with me all these years. I’ve been part of 13-0 seasons, 11-0 seasons where you lose the one that counts.”
Hennessey finished the 2021 campaign with 1,672 yards passing and 17 touchdowns in Parma’s championship season.
“Having that feeling at the end of the season is hard to beat, I’m kinda addicted to it, at least chasing it,” Hennessey said. We’ll take another shot at it next year and reevaluate.”
Shortly after the Panthers’ win, Hennessey attended camp for the Italian National American Football Team. Italy most recently qualified for the top tier of play in the European Championships, Group A in 2020.
“American football in Italy isn’t huge, the fact there’s a national team is unexpected,” Hennessey said. “It’s pretty cool to be able to represent something larger than you could ever imagine. For me, it’s awesome to play with guys who I play against all year and build camaraderie.”
Hennessey now holds a dual-passport, through his parents’ Italian lineage.
“The league only allows two american players and one player with dual passport per team,” Hennessey noted. “Parma worked tirelessly to go through the paperwork to make dual citizenship happen. It’s not only a great thing for football, but the possibility of working and living in the EU.”
Hennessey will take some much deserved R&R at home in the states, before returning to Italy to attend the University of Parma in pursuit of a masters in International Business.