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Saturday, September 17, 2011

Memories of my first prep football game ... and Kris

For the better part of the first two weeks of September 1984, my life was filled with two basic responsibilities: Be a college student and a professional journalist.

Kind of hard to balance that when you're 17 years old. You want to do things all 17 year olds want to do ... have a good time at college and party party party. But that wasn't my responsibility. And with a 1973 Chevy Chevelle that I took off the hands of my next-door neighbor who had just moved with his family from Missouri, now I had to pay for the insurance that would allow me to drive my "new" car to the events I would cover.

No more borrowing my folks' cars to go all over New Jersey to cover games. I had my own car and I didn't care if it was 12 years old ... it was pretty freakin' new to me!

Anyway, I had to figure out how to balance this thing called "life." The morning and afternoon was spent five days a week going to nearby Ocean County College trying to attain my journalism degree, while six nights a week, working at the Observer as a correspondent having to do the "dirty work," which contained being an agate clerk, typing in recreational sports scores, John Haas' handwritten outdoors columns and doing previews for the upcoming seasons in ... field hockey and gymnastics, though another correspondent was covering field hockey. I was just helping him with previews.

That left me by process of elimination the gymnastics beat. It's a good thing I actually understood the sport or it would have been a very, very long fall season.

I got my previews finished for the field hockey teams at Pinelands Regional, Lacey, Toms River North and Lakewood, which is funny because looking at the preview I did for it 27 years later, I can't believe how enthusiastic new Lakewood head coach Julie Clark was about her team by saying in the preview, "We're out to be No. 1 this year."

It's been an ongoing fight for over a generation to just get out of the cellar for that program.

I had just wrapped up writing the preview for the upcoming gymnastics season on that Saturday afternoon, September 15, 1984, and had just finished proofreading it when Tom, our assistant sports editor, points at me and hits me with this line.

"You're going to East Brunswick tomorrow."

OK, I assume something big is happening?

The official opening of high school football season wasn't until September 21, but both East Brunswick and Brick Township had officially gotten the go-ahead to start the Sunday before. And, of course, since I was working on Sunday nights, that left me to be the guinea pig to make the trip to East Brunswick.

Technically, I got to cover Ocean County's first football game of the 1984 season. So in that regard, I was excited to have the honor. I had done some high school football correspondence work for Clear Cable Channel 8 for Jerry Ascolese the fall before as a Toms River High School East senior. I can still remember my mom having to schlep me to Lakewood High to do a game there. My poor mother.

But now it wasn't just keeping stats and calling them in for a Saturday night cable TV show. This was an actual high school football game I was about to report on and use actual words to describe.

So at 10:30 a.m., Sunday, September 16, I left to go to East Brunswick High for the 1 p.m. game between a Brick High team that was the three-time defending South Jersey Group IV champions against a very talented East Brunswick team. Yeah, you'd be excited about covering this game, too.

This trip had a dual purpose to it. More on that later.

Finding East Brunswick was hardly a problem. It's a straight ride up Route 9 into Old Bridge, then another trip straight up Route 18 into town.

Finding the high school was the problem. This is a school that isn't very clear off any major road there. I surrounded it nicely until I finally got it pinpointed and found the turn into the parking lot.

Showing my press pass and going into the stadium at East Brunswick High, I can see both sides of the stadium bleachers were packed. Compared to now where you have to literally pull teeth to get the fans to show up to games, it saddens me to think about how wildly popular the sport was back in the day.

This game had a playoff atmosphere to it, yet it was the opening game of the season. Longtime Brick coach Warren Wolf, looking the role of the spry Silver Fox at 57 years old, was going for career win No. 199 in this one.

East Brunswick had a standout quarterback named Steve Hughes and he was picking apart coach Ron Signorino's defensive unit on the opening drive of the game. Hughes hit Chris Celeberti on an out pattern for a 37-yard score, but the extra point was missed, leaving East Brunswick ahead 6-0.

However, like the champion Brick was, the Green Dragons came right back with a nine-play, 78-yard drive that culminated with quarterback Bob Kroning hitting John Green with a 44-yard pass after they had nickel and dimed the Bears' defense on the first eight plays with runs. Tom Iannarone's extra-point kick gave the Green Dragons a 7-6 lead.

Already an exciting start to the game, but I knew deep inside there was a lot of game left. And I was trying to get to the end where I'd interview the legendary Warren Wolf and head somewhere else before heading back to Toms River.

And I was right on my gut feeling. Deric Rowe scored on a 3-yard run -- set up by a Hughes 12-yard sneak -- to give East Brunswick the lead. Then the Bears increased the lead to 20-7 when Hughes hit receiver Anthony Piloto with a 26-yard score and Hughes added the 2-point conversion run.

After the game, Wolf took blame for that last touchdown, which occurred before halftime because he called "non-plays" for the defense. I never quite understood what it was he was talking about. I took him at his word.

One thing I did not do during halftime -- it is now a staple of mine to do at high school games -- is to tally up the stats so at least I had a head start on doing the statistics after the game. That would factor in later when I got back to the Observer building to do the game story.

As far as the game went, Brick got back into it on the first drive of the second half when Kroning hit Bret Colf with a 10-yard score to finish out a nine-play, 68-yard drive.

But these Bears were hungry. And they were unfazed by the opening Brick drive of the half. They simply took the ball down the field with Rowe going 42 yards on one run and Hughes going 19 yards on a keeper. Hughes capped the drive with a plunge for the score to make it 26-14.

This turned into back-and-forth football, an offensive display that excited fans but wasn't exactly making a defensive maven like Signorino all that happy.

Brick made it 26-21 when Green scored on a 4-yard run to end a 12-play, 83-yard drive.

All Brick needed was one stop and things could change in its direction. But once again, Hughes and the Bears offense was too much. They got to the Brick 25 and I can still see Rowe getting the pitch and sprinting to the outside against a much-slower Green Dragon defense. Once he beat defenders to the outside, he was gone down the sidelines for the score that should have put the game away with 2:34 left. The two-point conversion pass from receiver Celeberti to Barry Flannigan made it 34-21.

Game over, right?

Not necessarily.

Pete Morris, Brick's other quarterback (they went with this ridiculous two-man quarterbacking system that never quite worked that year), took the Green Dragons back against the tiring Bears defense and he found Scott Walker for a touchdown with 62 seconds left. Though Iannarone missed the point-after kick, they were within one score at 34-27.

They get the onsides kick, anything goes. And as Iannarone squib-kicked the ball, bodies clad in green and white uniforms flew toward the pigskin. Under the pile, though, was East Brunswick's Marc D'Arienzo with the ball.

The Green Dragons had fought the good fight, but came up a touchdown short.

And outside of a last-second score, I could not have asked for a better football game to make my professional debut. I interviewed both the legendary Wolf and Signorino after the game. Both kept positive outlooks for the rest of the season, which would have the Green Dragons go back to the playoffs, but lose in the first round of the SJ IV tournament, ending their three-year run as champions.

It was close to 4 p.m. when I got out of there. I still had one thing left to do while I was in town.

It was to head toward Dutch Road and a visit with a young lady I had met just 15 months earlier on a cruise to Bermuda. Her name was Kris. For 15, she was very, very pretty with great blue eyes. She looked like Kim Wilde. She was fantastic to have conversation with like we did on the boat. The time on the ship was brief since my uncle passed away and his wife -- my grandmother -- was accompanying my sister and I on the ship. We had to fly back from Hamilton to Newark.

I had kept the address in case I would eventually find myself up there. Since this game came to me at the last moment, this was going to be a surprise to her when I showed up at her front door.

And it was to her mom as I knocked on her door.

"Hello?" she answered.

"Is Kris here?" I asked.

"Who are you?"

"Tell Kris it's Mark from the ship. I had a game to cover at her high school."

Moments later, this smiling, pretty young strawberry-blonde lady of 16 came to the door, we hugged and spent the next three-plus hours together. She showed me the horses she tended to in the back of the house on the farm. Technically, Kris was the first "farm girl" I ever met. Picking up our conversation from 15 months ago was natural. We enjoyed the time. Her mom and stepfather were asking me questions about who I was since they didn't accompany her on the ship that time in June of '83.

I certainly didn't mind. I was in a place I wanted to be at that moment: In this beautiful young lady's presence, continuing what we sorta kinda started. The worst part about the time we spent was when I had to head back to Toms River.

Kris and I would meet for dinner at the Denny's off of Route 18 in East Brunswick three years later while I was in the area to cover a July Little League tournament game on a Friday night. She, now 19, broke the news to me that she had been seeing someone and I was happy for her. I was seeing someone, too, at the time, but that relationship was close to coming to an end, whether I knew it or not.

Seven years later in 1994, I was back up that way at the East Brunswick Vo-Tech School to cover Monsignor Donovan High's Parochial A state title game against Don Bosco Prep. After covering the game, I went back to the country farm and house and saw her mom who I had not seen in 10 years. She told me Kris had gotten married -- probably to the guy she was seeing -- and she had two kids now. I smiled, but it was an awkward smile.

It was just a part of the pattern of losing women I had some sort of interest in, women that would simply come in and out of my life.

But back to September 16, 1984. If this was an era in which computers were prevalent and I could just simply type my story on my laptop and send it to the Observer, I'd have jumped on it and spent more time with Kris. Instead, I had to make the trip back to Toms River, where by 8:45 p.m., I had Tom, the assistant, asking me where the hell I was.

Oops. So right to work I went to write the story. To do the story, though, I needed the statistics, and because I had not tallied up the numbers at halftime, it meant I had to go through every single play on my scoresheet. It's a good thing I'm fantastic when it comes to math.

Needless to say, the stats took over an hour to do and the story was done sometime before 11 p.m.

I think I also used the side trip to see Kris as a way of not sitting in the office to do any extra work for Tom. It worked -- I got out of there after 11 p.m.

I think back to the circumstances of covering my first high school football game. I saw two very, very good teams go back and forth in front of a packed crowd. And I got to see a pretty girl who now is a distant memory and maybe even a grandmother at this point as her 44th birthday approaches in February. Who knows?

Yes, that first high school football assignment still makes me smile.

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