Schiano promotes University spirit


I was casually barefooting it down the boardwalk in Belmar, N.J., reading a book on a summer day in 2007 — which was now possible without the risk of a splinter making its way into my foot since they replaced the old, weather-worn, wooden boardwalk with a newer composite that was not designed to hurt people five years after installation. Belmar, as opposed to, say, Spring Lake (the beach next to Belmar), is made up of a younger and more energetic crowd, some of whom would be a significant part of New Jersey’s future. So I’m reading, peripherally sensing when to avoid plowing into people. The ocean was doing its usual thing in the background, as was the traffic on Ocean Avenue and the thousands of people preoccupied on the beach.

I’m midway through my book as I catch a glimpse out of my peripheral vision of three 10-year-olds throwing a football close to the boardwalk, as that’s the only place the lifeguards don’t harass people with whistles that also double as shark alarms for throwing things around. This is the Jersey shore — full of New Jerseyans and a few New Yorkers, but not exactly the representation of the TV show.

There is something quirky enough about the 10-year-olds that steals my attention away from reading. Of the three kids, two are the scrawny type of 10-year-old and the other is a little bit bigger than his friends — he’s as big as both of them combined, but such is the nature of friendship. They are taking turns running random routes, and the guy with the ball has to dig his feet into the sand to try to launch it with his undersized arms to the receiver, who can barely get any traction himself on the sandy field.

Ten seconds or so have now elapsed since I stopped reading and was watching them throw the ball and randomly blurt things out to each other. It brought back a few memories of time spent on the beach with my buddy, Jeffrey, who, like me, would later go to the University. We didn’t wear shirts on the beach when we were younger since we were not told to. We also didn’t wear seatbelts in the car or wear bicycle helmets, since nobody of influence had yet considered these to be worthwhile social accoutrements. That came later. The bigger kid, who ran well even on the sand, was wearing an oversized T-shirt and had his back to me the whole time.

Then one of the skinny kids throws the ball to the other skinny kid who was running a go route, which was just out of his reach and it landed in the sand. Typical beach ball toss, no big deal. Or so you’d think. It turned out that this was a problem for the chunky kid. “Couldn’t you dive for it? It was close enough — why wouldn’t you dive for that? It was right there.”

It was hard to argue with the kid telling his friend he should’ve dived for the ball, since it would have been a sweet catch if he had made it. The bigger kid was calling it as he saw it, and he said what I was thinking, too. I actually wanted to see the kid make that catch, wanted to see the aggressiveness to the ball, wanted to see him lay out to at least try to make a great catch. A nice catch is a nice catch, whether in an NFL game or on the beach. As this exchange between friends played out, as I’m sure it did a thousand times before and after this 20-second clip I saw, the kid who dropped the ball stooped down and picked it up, buried his feet in the sand and threw it to his bigger friend. As he catches the ball, I see the front of his shirt: “RUTGERS.”

I couldn’t help but smile as I returned to walking down the boardwalk.

Back in the day, we didn’t wear T-shirts on the beach, didn’t wear seatbelts or bike helmets and didn’t have a good football team to root for so never wore University apparel. Nobody cared. Dermatologists addressed the first problem, legislators took care of the second and third, and former head football coach Greg Schiano took care of the fourth.

This is to acknowledge our coach of 11 seasons, who took us from the lowest echelon of college football to respectability, to people caring more about our University, and who is largely responsible for kids in University shirts on the beach encouraging their friends to try harder, to do better and to dive for the ball if there’s a chance to make a play on it. This is now one of the benefits of growing up in New Jersey, with so many more of us aware of our state university and more people around us encouraging better ways of doing things. Dive if you must.

When that kid turned and had our scarlet letters on his shirt, I knew right then and there it was University football. Rightly or wrongly, depending on who you ask, that had changed the perception of the University and increased the interest in it. It generated greater awareness of millions of people across the country, many of whom have or will come to the University because they’ve looked and discovered top-shelf programs, some of which are among the top-ranked in the nation. Applications for admission are up. Academics and athletics are not mutually exclusive, and when both are done well enhance the college experience and generate enthusiasm for our alma mater long after graduation.

Thank you to Schiano for your contribution in getting us to this point. I, along with tens of thousands of University football fans, hope new head football coach Kyle Flood and his new staff take us to the next level and that we don’t leave the ball in the sand since it is here to be caught. But, Schiano, without your original vision and passion, without you diving in headfirst to take the University’s football program to a higher level, we wouldn’t have this hope. The mantle has been passed to Flood, and without you showing up on the Banks 11 years ago, there wouldn’t be a mantle to pass.

And there definitely wouldn’t be 10-year-olds on the beach in wearing University shirts who want to see better catches made. It’s a great time to be a University football fan, and for that, thank you Greg Schiano.

Don Snedeker is a Rutgers College Class of 1991 alumnus.

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