Andy Cerrato runs the ball during Marinette’s 1989 state championship season.
Andy Cerrato runs the ball during Marinette’s 1989 state championship season.
MARINETTE - Who was Marinette's thousand-yard rusher during the Marines' amazing state championship season of 1989?

No, NOT Jeff Messenger.

While "Mess" piled up 2,357 rushing yards and 44 touchdowns in earning Wisconsin Player of the Year honors, Marine tailback Andy Cerrato blazed his way to 1,346 rushing yards.

Cerrato was one of the many unsung heroes of Marinette's title run, and he was mighty special off the field, too.

Cerrato died on July 30 while running near his De Pere home. Friends are so stunned by his death that they're still talking about him in the present tense.

"He's about as fun-loving a person as you would meet," said former Marine teammate Tony Mayhew. "He'd light up a room when he walked in there."

The weekend before he died, Cerrato fished in the M&M Great Lakes Sport Fishermen Brown Trout Derby. Short, stocky and as tough as a $2-a-pound steak, Cerrato kept himself so fit that nobody could believe he died at age 40.

Certainly not the group of guys he hung around with at Marinette High School.

"If you lined up all of us and said 'which one had a heart problem?' he'd be the last one," Mayhew said. "Extremely huge shock to us."

Longtime Marine assistant coach Tim Stauss said Cerrato still looked like he just got off the football field.

"It was devastating," said Cerrato's Marine football and basketball teammate Randy Nemetz. "There isn't much more a guy could actually say about that."

Cerrato played football at Minnesota-Duluth, where he received a bachelor's degree in education. He taught grade school for the past 17 years in the De Pere School District.

"I think he left a legacy," Stauss said. "I have no doubt in my mind knowing the quality of his character, he's influenced a lot of people in his short period in De Pere. Very intelligent academically. He's a very intuitive guy."

After waiting in line for 2 1/2 hours during visitation Friday at Cotter Funeral Home -the line extended down the street - Nemetz surmised that Cerrato must have been well-liked in De Pere.

He left behind his wife, Tammy, and daughters Carly, 15, Lexi, 14, and Natalie, 12. Cerrato coached them in basketball and softball. He also coached junior varsity football and cross country.

"He was a great dad," according to Mayhew. "Just a great role model to the kids. He really cared about his kids."

Cerrato had a boyish sense of humor that rubbed people the right way.

"He was really witty," Nemetz said. "He had a nickname for just about everybody. I could never say a bad word about him. He was always there to give you a hand with everything."

A lightning-fast tailback in Marinette's unstoppable wishbone offense of '89, Cerrato rushed for 906 yards in just 94 carries in Bay Conference play. He ranked sixth in the league in rushing, fifth in kickoff returns and fourth in scoring with 108 points, then rushed for more than 100 yards in three playoff games, including 127 in the championship win.

His bread-and-butter play was a "comeback trap," a misdirection counter play in which he would burst off tackle and outrun defenders.

"Andy had an inherent ability that once he saw a crease he would get his shoulders square," Stauss said. "He had blinding straight-away speed."

Another Cerrato intangible was a sixth sense to stay the same distance outside of Messenger in Marinette's triple option attack. If Messenger didn't hand off to fullback Terry Brix, he would either keep it or pitch to Cerrato, and he never had to look at his target.

"Andy was one of the few who could keep up with him," Stauss said.

Cerrato's intangibles extended off the field.

"I don't think he knew how to fail at anything because he was fiercely competitive," Stauss said. "He was your classic All-American kid. We lost a good one. It hurts to lose anybody, but when you lose the special ones it's a little tougher pill for everybody to swallow. He was a great, great teammate. He was a guy to make others happy."