Sadness at Mainland Regional

by Jim Hague

The 29th year of doing high school football previews as a sportswriter began the other day, with trips to several different New Jersey high schools for practices, picture taking, heights and weights, years and positions.

For nearly three decades, it’s always the same thing. Each team has high hopes and aspirations. Every player has a ton of potential. If teams limit the amount of mistakes, they all have a chance to be fairly competitive. It’s an annual August ritual.

However, yesterday, the ritual of high school practices and preparations suddenly changed in New Jersey, with the news that four members of the Mainland Regional football team were killed in a tragic accident on the Garden State Parkway and another four were seriously injured.

It’s the biggest tragedy I can remember in my nearly 30 years of covering high school sports. Apparently, some of the older players were going to take the younger ones out for lunch after a morning practice, as part of a tradition where the players get to know each other.

They innocently got in a van together and somehow the van rolled on the parkway and four teenaged football players are now gone.

It makes you stop and think. Is life that fleeting? It can happen that quickly for four teenagers who were simply going for a bite to eat? If this was a drunken driving accident, then there would be a cause and effect in place. But eight kids leaving football practice to go for lunch together as teammates and friends and this happens?

I can’t imagine if it happened to one of the many teams that I cover. How do you write about such a tragedy? How does that team go on? The opening game is less than three weeks away. Can they actually play?

Mainland Regional has a strong program, a rich football tradition. But this tragedy has to shake the entire program, the school, the communities involved to the core.

I didn’t know any of the kids involved. But I feel like there’s such a tremendous loss for everyone involved with high school football in New Jersey, perhaps everywhere. Can you just imagine if it was your school, your team, even your kids? It’s unfathomable.

My heartfelt thoughts and prayers go out to Mainland Regional, its coaches and especially its players. Can they continue? They have to, just to keep the memories of their fallen friends and teammates alive.

One thing is for sure: Everyone in New Jersey high school football will be rooting for that team this season. Maybe even their opponents.

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By now, everyone is aware of the host of horrific allegations about the University of Miami’s athletic program, the claims of a convicted felon who was once a huge monetary booster to the ”U”.

If not, then here’s a brief synopsis. A man named Nevin Shapiro, an investment entrepreneur who was convicted for his involvement in a $190 million Ponzi scheme, told Charles Robinson of Yahoo!Sports that he donated cash, lodging, cars, even prostitutes to members of the University of Miami athletic program from 2002 through 2010 and that the school’s coaches and administration knew all about it all the time.

Shapiro, who ironically was held in the Hudson County Jail in Kearny for several months while awaiting his permanent place of residence for at least the next 20 years, sang like a caged songbird for Robinson, because Shapiro felt betrayed that none of the 72 people he named, many of whom are currently playing in the NFL, called or came to visit him in prison in his time of need. Nothing like a scorned lover, right?

The allegations are frightening. Buying Patriots DT Vince Wilfork two Escalades. Paying for the abortions of some players’ girlfriends. Cash and jewelry provided. Even sex with prostitutes. And this scandal is different because Shapiro named names. It’s amazing.

If the allegations prove to be true and six U of Miami coaches actually turned a blind eye to it all and allowed this mess to happen _ even inviting Shapiro on team flights and into team meetings _ then the NCAA has no choice but to level the entire Hurricane program.

These charges are far more serious than those levied against SMU in the early 1980s when that school received the ”death penalty” and became the object of a very detailed ESPN “30-for-30” documentary.

I feel bad for North Bergen’s Mark D’Onofrio, someone I’ve known personally since his high school days. D’Onofrio just started as the defensive coordinator at Miami with his long-time friend and colleague Al Golden. They inherited this mess and now may not have a program to coach, sacrificing their lives and careers in the process.

No matter what, there won’t be an easy solution to this mess.

It’s safe to say that the people at Ohio State have to be overjoyed with this latest scandal, because it takes the heat off them for a little while. Ironically, Miami plays Ohio State in the second game of the season in a few weeks. Which program is worse when it comes to cheating and NCAA violations? Tough call.
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I watched the Yankee game last night and if anyone thinks that A.J. Burnett didn’t say something directed at manager Joe Girardi in the second inning, one that was filled with expletives, then I have a bridge in Arizona that I can sell you for cheap.

Girardi did the noble thing, falling on the sword for his beleaguered pitcher and said that Burnett was cursing at the last call from the umpire. Well, if Burnett was pissed at the umpire, he would have cursed at the umpire, not at his manager after the manager took the ball from him in the second inning of yet another horsespit performance.

And why did Girardi attack YES Network reporter Jack Curry?

Curry was doing his job, asking what every single person wanted to know. And Girardi bit his head off for asking. Shame on Girardi for attacking perhaps the nicest guy in the business. Sorry, if I had the chance to ask the manager a question there, I would have asked the same exact things. What was said between the two of you? Did you go into the clubhouse to get Burnett out to watch the rest of the inning?

Curry, the Jersey City native, was doing what he’s supposed to do. He asked the questions we all wanted to hear. I only watched the rest of the game to see the post-game press conferences. Girardi acted like a boorish fool, snapping at Curry that way. And Burnett, once again, acts like nothing ever happened. He always thinks he pitches well. It’s amazing he thinks that way.

Everyone knows that’s what happened. Girardi went to get him out of the clubhouse.

“You made this mess, now you have to watch it.”

Hell, that’s what every single manager in the game would have done, especially if my $80 million pitcher cursed me out in front of everyone. If I was that manager, I’d make him sit there and fester in his sweat. Why should Burnett go take a shower and relax in the air-conditioned clubhouse when the other 24 players were out there watching the debacle Burnett created? Sit there and watch that mess. You made it. You watch it.

Girardi obviously has a better relationship with Burnett than everyone else, because he protects him more than Oswald’s wife was certain he didn’t shoot JFK.

Here’s one no-brainer. With the way Phil Hughes has pitched recently and the way Ivan Nova has proven himself, A.J. Burnett is going to become a distant memory in a hurry, the Yankees’ version of Oliver Perez.
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You can read more of my stuff at http://www.hudsonreporter.com, http://www.theobserver.com and http://www.dailyrecord.com. In this week’s Hudson Reporter, there’s a fitting tribute to the late Danny Waddleton.
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Posted on August 24, 2011, in Jim Hague and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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