Friday, September 9, 2011

EBHS Football, the First 50 Years: Part III, the Early 1980s


The 1980s were a time when East Brunswick High School football became something very special. But not quite special enough.

1980: 8-2, .800
September 27 H Sayreville Won 14-0
October 4 A J.P. Stevens Won 14-7
October 11 H John F. Kennedy Won 22-7
October 18 A Perth Amboy Won 21-7
October 25 H Cedar Ridge Won 22-7
November 1 A Edison Won 19-7
November 8 H Madison Central Lost 7-32
November 15 A Woodbridge Won 38-21
November 22 H Raritan Lost 17-31
November 27 A Colonia Won 23-0

Madison's win over us, the week that Ronald Reagan was elected President, made the difference in the race for the Middlesex County Athletic Conference Championship. They ended up losing the Central Jersey Group III Championship to Hillsborough, which is now a Group IV school.

But it didn't stop us from making the Playoffs for the first time ever, largely thanks to running back Len Bellezza, who the Home News named its Middlesex County Player of the Year.

But things got really screwy. In our final game before the Playoff cutoff, we beat Woodbridge, to clinch the top seed and home-field advantage. Woodbridge qualified as the 4th seed. But because we had just played them, the NJSIAA said we couldn't play them in the Semifinal. So they rejiggered the pairings, and made us play 3rd-seeded Raritan H.S., of Hazlet, Monmouth County.

And in the first Playoff game in EBHS history, we got beat by a team we weren't even supposed to play! (In a weird twist, EB coach George Tardiff would later coach Raritan to a Playoff berth.) Meanwhile, Woodbridge won their Semifinal, and beat Raritan 7-6 to take the CJ Group IV title. How's that for weird?

1981: 6-3, .667
September 26 A Sayreville Won 35-14
October 3 H J.P. Stevens Lost 13-21
October 10 A John F. Kennedy Won 13-6
October 17 H Perth Amboy Won 46-0
October 23 A Cedar Ridge Lost 6-12
October 31 H Edison Lost 22-28
November 6 A Madison Central Won 19-17
November 14 H Woodbridge Won 22-8
November 26 H Colonia Won 29-21

With a lot of really good players, including Bellezza, returning for their senior year, this was a season of high hopes for EB. But another tough loss to Stevens put our Playoff bid in jeopardy. Still, a win over Cedar Ridge, normally a formality, would take us a long way toward qualification. Instead, it rained all through the game, it was not rescheduled, Madison's field was a mess (Cedar Ridge never did build their own stadium), and we lost.

This may also have been our first night game ever: Although Memorial Stadium in New Brunswick, home to NBHS (the 1967-2009 edition of their school was across Joyce Kilmer Avenue) and St. Peter's (which has since been closed) has had lights for a long time, I don't think we ever played under those lights until 2008.

The Halloween loss to Edison then ended our Playoff hopes, but the next week, we took our frustrations out on Madison, throwing the MCAC title to Stevens. Had the current system, with 8 teams making it from each section, been in place, we would have made it.

The 10/10 game was played the week that President Anwar Sadat of Egypt, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, was assassinated; ironically, the school we played that week was named for the assassinated John F. Kennedy. This was the last time we played JFK, as they joined the Bicentennial Conference the next schoolyear. So did Carteret, and we haven't played them since, either.

1982: 3-6, .333
September 25 A Edison Lost 0-6
October 2 H Madison Central Lost 0-20
October 9 H Sayreville Won 32-0
October 16 A Perth Amboy Won 12-6
October 23 H Cedar Ridge Won 28-0
October 30 A J.P. Stevens Lost 13-29
November 6 A Woodbridge Lost 0-20
November 13 H Union Lost 0-10
November 25 A Colonia Lost 14-34

The 9/25 game remains the fewest points EB has ever allowed and still lost. Stevens had an undefeated season, winning the MCAC and CJ Group IV titles. The Thanksgiving defeat at Colonia remains the last game played by EB under a coach other than the current one, as George Tardiff resigned.

1983: 4-5, .444
September 24 H Edison Lost 0-20
September 30 A Madison Central Lost 7-21
October 8 A Sayreville Won 27-7
October 15 H Perth Amboy Won 27-0
October 21 A Cedar Ridge Won 21-0
October 29 H J.P. Stevens Lost 0-21
November 5 H Woodbridge Lost 13-40
November 12 A Union Lost 14-37
November 24 H Colonia Won 21-7

Came the revolution, although it was not apparent at first. Marcus Borden, a native of Western New York who'd played at Lehigh University, married a Philadelphia Eagles cheerleader (they were called the Liberty Belles in those days) and coached at the Lehigh Valley's Bethlehem Catholic H.S., came into East Brunswick, and saw a bunch of players who needed to bulk up. He built what's now known as the Free Weight Room across from the main gymnasium, and school weightlifting records were repeatedly broken by the increasingly strong players.

It would take a full year for his conditioning program to bear fruit, but it would produce one of the greatest combinations of team strength and team speed in the history of Middlesex County football.

The 10/29 game came after terrorists blew up a U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, and another group of Marines invaded Grenada. Woodbridge won the MCAC title. No one knew it at the time, but the Thanksgiving win over Colonia started what is still the longest winning streak EB football history.

1984: 10-1, .909
September 16 H Brick Township Won 34-27
September 22 H Madison Central Won 28-13
September 29 A Edison Won 21-14
October 6 A Perth Amboy Won 42-14
October 13 H Woodbridge Won 31-0
October 20 H Sayreville Won 42-13
October 27 A J.P. Stevens Won 26-6
November 3 H Cedar Ridge Won 50-14
November 17 H Hunterdon Central Won 34-12 Semifinal
November 22 H Colonia Won 21-7 Thanksgiving
December 1 H J.P. Stevens Lost 26-27 Final

I entered EBHS as a sophomore this fall, and what a time to do it. Brick went into that season opener ranked Number 1 in the entire State by The Star-Ledger. It was,at the time, the most points EB had ever allowed and still won.

The Bears -- wearing new helmet decals with "Bears" in script, with the paw-prints moved to the shoulders on the jerseys -- just kept rolling, and rolling. At halftime of the Sayreville game, we were winning 40-6. The Sayreville band came out, and unfurled a banner reading "BURY THE BEAR." That's when I first heard the legendary chant: "Scoooooooore-booooooooard!" There are a few smart people from Sayreville, but they had nothing to do with their 1984 band.

We went up to Stevens and ruined their Homecoming in front of 5,000 stunned fans. But the key thing to remember is that their top running back, George Boothe, was injured and didn't play. A week later, we hung a half-dollar on Cedar Ridge. The following week, President Reagan was re-elected. We made the Playoffs, and beat a highly-regarded Hunterdon Central team, putting us in the Final, with a rematch against Stevens, which upset defending CJ Group IV Champion Middletown North.

Then came the Thanksgiving clash at Colonia, to decide the MCAC title. It looked like a disaster at first, with 2 key players getting hurt and a 3rd thrown out of the game due to his participation in a fight at the end of the 1st half. But quarterback Steve Hughes, who was named Home News Player of the Year, rallied us back, and scored on a quarterback sneak in the last 30 seconds to win the game, win the Conference Championship, clinch our first (and still only) undefeated regular season, and keep our hopes for an undefeated entire season alive. It may be the greatest game in EBHS football history; certainly, it was the greatest, if not the biggest, comeback.

(The fight was hardly our fault: At the time, Colonia was the Oakland Raiders or Philadelphia Flyers of the MCAC. A year later, they made the CJ Group III Final against Franklin, and started a fight. Not smart: At the time, Colonia was considered the ritzy part of Woodbridge, while most of the Franklin players were black and lived in garden apartments that were barely a step up from the New Brunswick ghetto that a lot of their parents grew up in. Because this happened in a State Final, Colonia football became, as far as I know, one of only 2 Middlesex County high school sports programs to ever get put on probation by the NJSIAA. The other was St. Peter's of New Brunswick, which got caught trying to recruit football players. In Monroe. Today, it would be understandable; at the time, Monroe, then the newest high school in Middlesex County, absolutely stunk in football, so it was a poor choice. St. Peter's never recovered, their enrollment dropped, and the Diocese closed the school. Funny, but the NJSIAA never punished St. Joseph's of Metuchen for recruiting so many athletes from East Brunswick that they were then nicknamed "E.B. Catholic." I don't know too of many Catholics named Shapiro, do you? The one I do know of was a great soccer player at Hammarskjold, but he went to the wrong Green & White.)

The Central Jersey Group IV Final, in front of an overflow crowd at Jay Doyle Field. December 1, 1984. A date which lives in E.B. infamy. George Boothe was healthy again for Stevens, which was loaded with junior talent (including Boothe) and was looking to next year until this golden opportunity. EB, by now ranked Number 2 in the State behind Union, led 20-19 at the half, but early in the 4th quarter, Boothe took the ball and ran to his left and surged down the sideline -- a play that EB has never been able to stop since. It is our Gridiron Kiss of Death: I don't know how many times I've seen us lose games because of it. Stevens got the 2-point conversion, and led 27-20.

With a minute and a half to go, Hughes got us a touchdown to make it 27-26. At the beginning of the year, University of Nebaraska coach Tom Osborne, rather than kick an extra point for a tie against the University of Miami in the Orange Bowl, thus assuring an undefeated season, went for a place in history, and the 2-pointer failed. Unlike Osborne, Borden had the rule that allowed him to kick the tying extra point and try to win it in overtime. Instead, he went for the 2-pointer. The time was 3:37 PM. You think I'm ever going to forget that? Deric Rowe was wide open in the corner of the end zone. Hughes threw the easiest pass you'll ever see. I could have caught it. Instead, because (he said) he was looking into the sun, Rowe muffed it. Although we got the ball back once more, and Hughes was able to throw one last desperation pass, 11-0 and a place in history was denied us.

A few weeks later, we hosted St. Joseph's in basketball. They beat us. That pissed me off. What really pissed me off is that their fans, seeing Rowe as a basketball player, taunted him with songs about his miscue. I yelled, "How many games did YOUR football team win?" The answer, of course, was zero, because St. Joe's was too chicken to play football. (In fact, only tonight will this 50-year-old school play their first-ever varsity football game. No longer cowards? Not really, they're playing Sussex Tech, who went 0-10 last season.)

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