As signing day arrives, Newark football players recognized for college aspirations

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on February 04, 2015

Al Petit, left, a defensive back for Barringer High School, with his coach, Ronly London, at a program where Newark high school football players were honored for getting accepted to college

 

Al Petit says he didn't think he was going to college. His mother died when he was 8 and his dad wasn't around as he was growing up.

It's a story that Newark high school coaches and the city's administration don't want to hear from their young athletes. Not now, not ever.

The history being shaped is that "you can and you will." So what, you're from public housing? So what, you're from a tough part of town? So what, you're from a single-parent home?

This mantra was drilled into about 15 student-athletes yesterday as the city's Recreation Department held its own version of national signing day, when high school football players declare which college they will attend. The purpose of the Newark event? To let these local high school seniors know the city's adults care about them and that others behind them understand a college education is attainable.

For young football players around the country, the actual day to declare is today, but Newark wanted to recognize its athletes ahead of time because they would be busy with the signing process. "I thought it was important for us to have a day like this," says Obalaji Baraka, brother of Mayor Ras Baraka and manager of the city's recreation department programs. "We're going to college."

And that's where Petit, 18, is headed along with some 14 other athletes from Barringer and Malcolm X Shabazz high schools, who attended the program in celebration of their accomplishments.

West Side High School athletes were in the house, too, at the John F. Kennedy Recreation Center, but none were seniors. Gary Taylor, the school's athletic director, wanted his young players to attend the event, so they could get a taste of what it's like to be celebrated for their accomplishments and to see that Newark supports them.

"It gives them something to aspire to," he says.

Petit most likely is on his way to Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, but he's pondering two other choices as well. They're not big football schools, but that's not the point.

He's on this path because of his coach, Ronly London, of Barringer High School, who Petit says cared enough about him to make him see that college is possible when he didn't think it was.

"It's a blessing to be in this position,'' Petit says. "God blessed me with an opportunity and now I'm standing here before you.''

And more importantly, when he gets there, London says Petit should understand that if football doesn't pan out, he still has an education.

"Get the education," London says. "Football is a privilege, but you still have to be a man in life. Don't let football determine everything in your life."

It didn't hurt, either, to have the only NFL player from Newark backing up what the coaches have been preaching.

Tahir Ali Whitehead, a linebacker for the Detroit Lions, graduated from West Side. He took the time yesterday to be frank with the young players, telling them that football made him a man, but his college degree is what sustains him.

Whitehead, a graduate of Temple University, said there are only 2,400 players in the NFL, which means not many athletes get the opportunity to advance to the professional level, so they also have to be prepared for another career.

"You have to depend on whatever degree you get in college and do what you want to do in life," he says. "I'm more proud of my degree than I am being in the NFL."

The student-athletes got the picture, but appreciated seeing one of their own right in front of them rather than on an ESPN highlight.

"It's an inspiration," says 17-year-old Victor Igbinosun, a Barringer High School senior who will play on the offensive line at Savannah State University in Georgia. "You see this person from the same community where you were raised come back to Newark, and he tries to make us better and push harder."

Roy Pugh, a tight-end headed to Temple, says he was pleased to get the opportunity to see a large group of African-American males being celebrated for something positive.

"They (city) is trying to start a new tradition in showing African-American males that you can go to college, that you can be great," says Pugh, a 17-year-old senior from Shabazz. "It's starting a new movement and, one of these days, I can come back like Tahir did and give back to my community."

The young athletes are off to a variety of schools, understanding that their future is about education - and football is the way they can make it happen.

Here are some of the schools at which they'll be getting their start in the fall: Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison; Kean University in Union; Temple University in Philadelphia; Virginia Union University in Richmond, Va,; Monroe College in New York; Vermillion Community College in Ely, Minn.; Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Conn.; Hampton University in Hampton, Va.; Albright College in Reading, Pa.; Savannah State University in Savannah, Ga.; and Dean College in Franklin, Mass.

And remember, it's not where you start. It's how you finish

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