MOSCOW, Idaho – For two years, Idaho Vandals senior receiver David Ungerer was like a character in a Charles Dickens novel, a Pip or Oliver Twist cast by circumstances into a hard world and forced to make his way while hanging onto innocence and cheerfulness as best he can.
Ungerer graduated from Pullman High School in 2013, less than 10 miles from the Idaho campus. But after his freshman year with the Vandals, his family was scattered widely. His younger brother Dante headed to college in California. His parents split up. His father Dave had already left a football coaching job at Washington State for a similar job at Utah State, and his mother, Sylvia, an acknowledged “empty nester” returned to her native Toronto to be with her twin sister Sandra, whose husband was terminally ill.
As with many college students away from home, Ungerer relied on phone calls and occasional visits to keep a sense of family intact while he coped with the challenges of school, Division I football and growing up.
Until last December.
“He called me every Sunday, and one Sunday he called and said, ‘I’ve got a thought, Mom. Why don’t you come spend my senior year with me, be my roomie?’ ” Sylvia said.
She was worried about him.
“Why would any college student call his mom up and say, ‘Do you want to be my roommate,’ his senior year?’ ” she asked.
Ungerer said his father put the idea in his head. After discussions among his parents, brothers Dominic and Dante, and aunt Sandra, who was coming to terms with the loss of her spouse, Ungerer got his wish.
“It’s the right thing to do. You deserve this. He needs you,” was the family conclusion, Sylvia said.
In late July, she returned to the Palouse. She and her son are sharing an apartment in Moscow.
Dickens always plucked his characters from desperate situations, and Ungerer’s life seems to be heading that way, too.
“I’m like the uber mom right now,” Sylvia said. “He hates it when I say that.”
He also gets his laundry done, gets fed regularly and has a supportive parent to come home to at the end of every day.
“I’ve enjoyed that boy from the day he came into my life,” Sylvia said. “This is a precious moment in time.”
It’s also working for Ungerer.
“I’m grateful we can spend time together,” he said. “She helps me through the ups and downs. This is definitely my best roommate experience so far.
“We’re simple people.”
Being back together has been natural, easy, with only one modification in their prior relationship. Sylvia has to seek the balance between mother and roommate.
“I don’t feel I am the same role model to him I was when he was growing up,” she said. “He’s an adult now. Whatever decisions he makes, he’s responsible for.”
The benefits of Ungerer’s new roommate situation are radiating to his Vandals teammates. There is apparently no off switch on being a mother, and Sylvia has an imposing degree of maternal horsepower, backed up by empathy for Idaho’s other players who are far from home.
“I see so many other players that don’t have what I have,” she said. “They come over here. They eat here. I wish I could take care of all of them, I really do. I feel for every player that doesn’t have what we have.”
She sees the phone calls from coaches to her son early and late, reminding him of his responsibilities as a senior on a team that has yet to live up to its goals. She hopes other players find the unqualified support she can offer her son in dealing with all that.
Having a college football team underfoot is no burden.
“My whole household was that way ever since my boys were little,” Sylvia said. “I missed it over the last few years.”
As a coach’s wife and players’ mother, she might have absorbed a fair amount of football, but that’s not the case, David said.
“She doesn’t know it very well at all,” he said. “Football was not in her life until she met my dad.
“Her biggest concern is me not getting hurt. She is one of those types of moms.”
Sylvia has a love-hate relationship with football. Ungerer has caught 19 passes for 225 yards and two touchdowns this year, and he returned a punt for a touchdown against Western New Mexico.
“As wonderful as that looks, it is a very uneasy feeling for me as a mom,” she said. “(Football) is a sport I never wanted David to play. It never made me comfortable. I cringe every time the ball gets in his hands.”
Postgame critiquing is a job for his father, she said.
“He doesn’t need to hear it from me,” she said. “In my eyes, he can do no wrong. It’s not because he’s perfect. It’s just because I know he gives everything he’s got.”
Ungerer will enjoy a double dose of family Saturday when Idaho is at home against Portland State. Missouri, where Dave Ungerer coaches now, has a bye, so he is coming to Moscow to watch his son play.
“He’ll be at the game with me, as well,” Sylvia said.
Beginning Thursday, Sylvia started preparing a postgame meal.
“I will have a spread of food, all their favorites,” she said. “They will just eat and eat and eat. There will be other games on, and they will watch those. David grew up that that way his whole life.”
For at least one weekend, they will be a family like old times.
Sylvia might be a reluctant football mom, but she is an enthusiastic and unabashed mother, and in this special year she is storing up new memories. David might care to know his roomie is hanging on to his baby blanket.
“One day I’m going to share that with David the Fourth,” she said. “I’m not going to read him any nursery rhymes. I’ve got enough of a story to tell him about his pop.”
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.