Twenty-one of my college teammates went on to play college football. A couple of them are NFL players now.
The other 13-plus, however, might consider themselves White-hot undersized opponents. Heck, they’re all better than even quarterbacks such as the Jets’ Sam Darnold and the Texans’ Deshaun Watson.
Their ranks include a wide receiver, a defensive back, a linebacker, a cornerback, a safety, a kicker, a punter and a long snapper. The only player among that bunch that isn’t an alum of Seton Hall, Yale or Massachusetts is one of the few walk-ons in the bunch: Punter Anthony Lemieux.
You might think these non-grads would be a distraction, putting them a step behind the son of the governor of New Jersey.
Wrong. This group, for the most part, held themselves together like a football family — and with a simple colloquialism, gave themselves the “out.”
They aren’t the privileged sons of New Jersey football royalty or their neighbors, the New York Jets. They don’t have McMansions in the suburbs, the ride in the driver’s seat of a Bentley every time they want one or a hot-shot, can’t-miss star lineman of their generation. And they don’t have an athletic ability that is unique to any player playing at college today.
They were more the forgotten sons of Rutgers football — the undervalued, under-credited Leggins Division, according to ESPN.
The group — Lemieux included — won as a team in eight of their 13 seasons together. And like any NFL team or college program, they learned to excel together because they do in the same capacity at the same place.
It helps that they are children of various New Jersey football legends, from the first of Seton Hall’s Chuck Leggins to Rutgers’ Vinny Testaverde to New Jersey’s own Gibril Wilson (New York Giants), to Navy’s Boomer Esiason and Georgia Tech’s Warren Moon. The collective lineage — and real-life stuff they’ve played through — pushes these younger guys forward.
“Just having such a strong lineage, you don’t have to go out and be super athletic,” said wide receiver Aliekh Kola, a Duke transfer. “You don’t have to do anything special. You just kind of be yourself. You can be yourself.”
We watched each other through all-American and short-lived stints in the Canadian Football League. We followed every embarrassing misstep in our six-year NFL careers.
So it’s no surprise when Kola and former junior at Seton Hall and Browns safety Jonathan Joseph said that nothing really sticks out in the 11 seasons they’ve been teammates.
Not the ineptitude at a chain-smoking Queens restaurant or the especially hilarious Pro Bowl experience where they were guys who, as Thomas pointed out, couldn’t name a couple teammates. And while they knew exactly who Adrian Peterson was at the time, they just treated him as a big-time free agent.
The dynamic, said Kola, has been reciprocal.
“We give them free advice,” Kola said. “We’re like, ‘Be careful.’ Even if they’re in a corner of the bathroom, or whatever, we’re like, ‘You don’t want to do that right now.’ And the guys, they’re, like, ‘Why you telling me that?’ ”
For football games, they watch each other’s films on replay and respond with comments.
On a Saturday morning this past April, the group talked football and life over breakfast at Miami’s Ivy Slipper Cafe. Six breakfast, 10 thoughts from 12 years.
But if there’s one thing the group said with loyalty to one another, it’s that this isn’t about individual stat sheets and contract monies.
This isn’t about sports families. They’re each other’s brothers, and on the field at least, they’re playing for each other.