There are quite a few things on this planet to motivate me to cover an event before noon.
One of those is not high school football. I'm sorry. I know it sucks to hear, but I just don't have it in me to go to a high school game for a 10 a.m. start, but yet, while I was at the Ocean County Observer, I had to go cover 10 a.m. games on occasion.
And where, praytell, would be a school as wacky as a Pop Warner organization to host a morning football game?
Freehold Boro High School in western Monmouth County. Yep, Freehold Boro -- or Bruce Springsteen High as I call it.
I know I've driven by the house Springsteen grew up as a kid. If you've ever been to Freehold Boro, it is a completely different world from Freehold Township High School, which is in a far, more widespread area. Freehold Boro is the hub of the area, where the main downtown businesses are located.
If you go past Freehold Boro's downtown area and drive a little bit north on Route 79, you get to the high school.
Which makes it tricky to get to the high school because after you burn rubber on Route 9 heading north, you have to veer off onto Route 79 and make it through one residential area before going through the vaunted downtown area, then go north again on Route 79. If you get stuck in any kind of traffic jam, you're there for a while.
But as of Saturday, October 11, 1986, I had not been to this particular high school to cover anything before. So imagine having to figure out this high school's location thanks to an atlas that specifically places the locations of high school. Trust me, back in the day, it was a lot of trial and error.
On this particular morning, though, I was the chosen one to see Freehold Boro host one of our county football teams, Manchester, a team that had finished strong under then first-year coach Bob Hunt the year before with a memorable Thanksgiving Eve night win against Monsignor Donovan and had a lot of top talent returning, like quarterback Tony Lubischer and running back Dan Hourigan.
The problem was Manchester did not get off to a good start, losing to smaller schools Keyport and Holmdel to start the season at 0-2. And Freehold Boro, which had been a state tournament team the year before with the now-graduated Joe "The Jet" Henderson, was 2-0 and being led by Temple University recruit Anthony Richardson, a dynamite two-way quarterback who can run the ball as effectively as he could throw it.
The Colonials of coach Earl Ownes picked up where they left off the year before, off to a 2-0 start. On paper, this game was a mismatch.
But they don't play games on paper, though at 19 years old, I had no concept of this. I automatically assumed by the early afternoon I would be looking at the winning team being 3-0 and the losing team being 0-3.
So up Route 9 I went at about 8:45 in the morning, groggy and irritated I had to cover this game. I really didn't feel like going, especially after covering a game the night before. But an assignment is an assignment and money is money, no matter how you cut, dice and slice it.
I knew getting to Freehold Township was not a problem ... done that a few dozen times by now. Getting into Freehod Boro was the tricky part. Somehow, I weaved my way up Route 79 into the downtown section, then had to be patient as I waited through traffic lights and early Saturday morning traffic. By the time I had found the northern pass onto Route 79, I was elated to get out of the downtown area.
So I kept driving ... and driving ... and driving.
Nothing. I knew there was a school here somewhere among the pretty houses in the suburbs of the borough. Turns out I had gone just a bit far. Freehold Boro High is tucked away on the left side of the highway heading north on 79, looking like an average big building that could be in any neighborhood.
OK, found that. Now to the parking lot, which was not an easy task to find because you have to drive to it like it was a maze, turn here, go there, but make the wrong turn, it was a dead end. Knowing I was playing with the time and it was running out on me to get there for the game, I parked on some side road where other cars were, so I knew I was pretty good.
Once I found the entrance to the field, I got to my normal spot in the press box. It was fairly crowded, but there was something there that stood out more than anything else in there -- a hole.
Yes, a hole that if you stepped wrong, you were on your way to the ground below. I've been in press boxes in which you've had to climb a ladder to get up or had no room for you to do your job comfortably or had to stand the entire time and it was awfully painful. I don't wish any of that on any reporter wanting to cover a high school football game from above ground level.
But a hole? I spent the entire time consciously remembering not to make a false turn. You know if maybe the school had remembered to cover the darn thing up before the start of football season and maybe work on it in the off-time, things might be a tad different.
The hole was more in the back of the press box, so I spent my time as close to the action in the front as possible.
And all I wanted was for Manchester to be competitive on this sunny, cool morning. No one likes to go cover blowouts. The only positive is that you get out of there quickly after getting a word or two from the coach.
But the Hawks stopped Richardson and the Colonials on the first possession of the game and forced them to punt. Richardson sent a punt off to Hourigan at the other end of the field. The Hawks senior grabbed the ball and headed down the sideline. Maybe the Colonials defender in front of Hourigan thought he was not strong enough to withstand a forearm, but he decided to find out.
Hourigan cut away from the attempted arm tackle, found a wall of blockers and continued his 60-yard jaunt up the sidelines to the end zone for a touchdown.
John Kern's extra-point kick made it 7-0, just like that.
The Hawks' defense was stifling Richardson and his team and they stopped them on a couple more possessions. And near the end of the first quarter, they had their first offensive touchdown. Lubischer went for a 4-yard run on the first play, then stunned the Freehold defense with a 32-yard bomb to wide receiver Tony Merrill.
The Colonials must have really been stunned. For on the next play, Lubischer handed to burly running back James Brown, a junior who did a lot of things for the Hawks. The Hawks' offensive line opened a hole on the right side wide enough to send an SUV through. Brown dashed through that hole and no Colonial defender was in sight when he went 34 yards for the score to make it 14-0.
OK, maybe this is just a fluke and like myself, Freehold Boro was having a hard time trying to get awake.
But they were still having trouble offensively and had to punt again. Richardson received the snap and was ready to get the ball off when Lubischer -- the team's jack-of-all-trades, master of none, came running through the middle, kamikaze style, and threw his body on Richardson's kick.
The double hit of the ball -- the first being Richardson kicking the ball, the second Lubischer blocking the booted punt -- resonnated throughout the field. Not far behind Lubischer was Brown, who scooped the ball up and returned it 34 yards for a touchdown to make it 21-0.
Manchester 21, Freehold Boro 0. The same Freehold Boro which a year earlier had a 25-7 lead in the Central Jersey Group II championship game on this same field against Somervile, only to lose it 27-25. Big, bad Freehold Boro. THAT Freehold Boro.
And Manchester was winning without generating a whole lot of offense. Two special teams touchdowns and one three-play drive. Just like that -- 21 points.
Still, I had a hard time believing there was an upset in the making. One year ago, Freehold Boro destroyed an up-and-coming Manchester team, 49-6, as Henderson ran roughshod all over the Hawks defense.
For the first time since he graduated, the Colonials realized they didn't have this -- or any -- special, game-changing running back.
That job was squarely on the shoulders of Richardson. And somewhere after the Hawks had rolled up to 21 points, that alarm clock must have gone off on the Colonials' sideline.
They weren't going to allow this fellow Shore Conference Class C team that was winless to just show up and embarrass them on their own fied. No freakin' way!
And so before halftime, Richardson took the Colonials on a drive that he culminated by handing off to Chris Blacknall and the running back did the rest for a 10-yard score. Blacknall finished with 101 yards on 17 carries, but still, he was not the game-changing running back Henderson was.
Richardson scored on a 2-point conversion run and the Colonials cut the deficit to 21-8. Still within reach. They didn't play all that well, yet they were within striking range with a strong second half.
The fear was that no matter how hard the Hawks played, they were going to wind up on the short end of the effort. The 50-something-old Hunt, a large man in size, but a bigger man in kindness, had spent the better part of a year trying to mold these young men and convince them they were better than most people gave them credit for. I had covered this Hawks team in 1984 for a few games and they simply had no direction.
Hunt was at least sending this team in the right direction, even though he would coach the Hawks for just three seasons.
Whatever motivation, though, the Colonials got from scoring late in the first half, they carried into the second half. The only problem was Manchester's defense stiffened and was not allowing Richardson to break out and get anything going.
And the Hawks stayed on top 21-8 going into the final quarter. Finally, it dawned on me that with 12 minutes to go, maybe these Hawks were serious about winning this game. Maybe this could happen.
But the Colonials weren't going down without the proverbial fight. Richardson finally got the Colonials going and ended a drive by hitting wide receiver Ryan Conover with a 13-yard strike with 7:18 left to play to cut the lead again.
In a sign, though, that maybe this was Manchester's day, Hourigan came around the end to block Richardson's extra-point kick, keeping it 21-14.
Once again, Manchester's offense, which mustered just 115 yards and four first downs the entire morning/early afternoon, could not generate anything and the Colonials had the ball back quickly with under six minutes to go.
A penalty pushed the Colonials back to their 23, but no problem for Richardson. He dropped back and hit wide receiver Joe Diorio with a lateral pass. Obviously, Manchester's defense did not see this coming as Diorio threw a strike down the field to Conover, who took the ball to the Manchester 10 to cap a 67-yard pass.
One play later, Rodney Keyes scored on a run to make it 21-20 with five minutes left to play. The inevitable was happening and when Richardson hit tight end Scott Yucht with the 2-point conversion to give the Boro a 22-21 lead, that should have been the death knell for the Hawks, who struggled to move the ball against the Colonial defense.
But just as you thought momentum had shifted the Colonials' way, a yellow piece of cloth was laying on the ground.
Illegal procedure. Offense.
Wipe the 2-pointer away. Now Freehold had to run another play. Richardson rolled out on the play and had Diorio within his sights. He threw the ball at him.
For a moment, the ball looked like it was in the receiver's hands. But the pigskin came out, dropping harmlessly to the turf.
The wilting Hawks had dodged a bullet. They still had a 21-20 lead.
Manchester had the ball, but while the Hawks could run the ball and make the Colonials burn whatever timeouts they had left, they never really got anywhere after making a first down and so they were forced to punt.
With 2:43 left, the Colonials had the ball on their own 23 and Richardson went to work. He picked up a pair of first downs and Freehold was suddenly in Manchester territory at the 42. Then a run went for a 4-yard loss. That meant Richardson had to go back to the air.
Richardson dropped back, pursued doggedly on the play -- and all day -- by the Manchester defense, which had to be beyond tired at this point. He had Diorio within his sights and fired for him.
That's when Scott Halford, another of the veteran Hawks players, stepped in front to pick off the pass with 42 seconds left.
On the Freehold Boro side of the field, there was nothing but silence. All the cheering and yelling was coming from the other side of the field as fans gave each other high fives and players jumped on each other as soon as Halford went down with the ball.
A pair of Lubischer kneel-downs and it was over.
Manchester had just picked up its biggest win in a while ... maybe in its 11-year existence as a school at the time.
The only people who thought the Hawks could beat the talented Colonials were the Hawks players themselves. And they reveled in the victory like they had won a state championship. In 1985, they had started back on the road to respectability.
They had gained Freehold Boro's respect by the end of the afternoon.
When it was all over, I still had to write a story on the game, but it was still a bit early to head back to the Observer building, so I got to hang out that afternoon with my grandmother in Freehold Township at her place. When I became a working person, I saw less and less of her. I think she understood, so if I told her I was in the area and she was home, I could stop by.
I called her, she was home so I stopped by. In between whatever conversation we had and me writing a story, she had food that I could nibble on. And she allowed me to watch the third game of the National League Championship Series between the Mets and Astros at Shea Stadium on TV.
Didn't look good for the Mets down in the bottom of the ninth and with Astros closer Dave Smith on to finish it out, the Mets were looking at a 2-1 deficit in the series. That is, until Lenny Dykstra came up and nailed that game-winning home run.
Exactly three weeks later, I saw Dykstra in Asbury Park signing autographs at a card show -- and acting like an ass, almost like he didn't want to be there. Go figure.
Saw a high school football upset involving the team I covered, then saw my Mets win a dramatic playoff game in the bottom of the ninth.
Not a bad day, especially before 3 o'clock and once I got my bearings.