It was December of 2009 and young Donald Panciello was only a freshman at Roxbury High School. But he was allowed to dress with the varsity football team as the Gaels played East Orange at Giants Stadium for the NJSIAA North 1 Group IV championship.
“I was on the sidelines and right after that game was over, I said to my friends, ‘That has to be us when we’re seniors,’ ” Panciello said. “It was something we all wanted to do. I remember thinking that 2009 team was so big and so fast. They were my heroes. I looked up to every single one of them. I never thought we could be as good as they were.”
Flash forward to August, 2012.
“We all had been playing with each other for four seasons,” Panciello said. “We all had to go out and get it done. We were not going to settle for anything less than a state championship.”
Panciello certainly did everything in his power to insure that his senior class would leave with a state title.
Panciello broke Roxbury’s single-season rushing yardage record, collecting 1,697 yards on the ground with 20 touchdowns. He caught an additional eight passes for 103 yards and two touchdowns.
Defensively, Panciello had a team-high 106 tackles, including six sacks and 14 tackles for losses. He had four fumble recoveries and two touchdowns and added two touchdowns on the defensive side.
We’re not done. Panciello was also a sensational punter, booming each kick to a 40.4 average, doing most of those kicks as a directional-style punter. He also had the green light to take off on fake punts and did so several times during the course of the Gaels’ 11-1 championship season.
“He’s the most complete player I’ve ever coached,” said Roxbury veteran head coach Cosmo Lorusso. “I never put more on one kid’s shoulders as I did with Donald. If you needed a great running back, he was that. If you needed a great linebacker, he was that. He was also a great punter. He’s the ultimate team player. With all he does for us, we’re not able to get where we got without Donald.”
For his efforts, Panciello has been selected as the 2012 All Daily Record Football Player of the Year.
Panciello liked being able to handle all three duties as he did so effortlessly for the Gaels, who won the North 1 Group IV title by defeating Pascack Valley in the title game.
“I would hate to be on the sidelines and not being able to help my team out,” Panciello said. “I would hate to be the one saying that I wish I was out there. I didn’t have to say that, because I was out there on every side of the ball.”
Panciello was asked if he can look back in amazement at what he was able to accomplish.
“I don’t look back and see statistics,” Panciello said. “I’m just so thankful that I got the chance to help the team and so happy that we won. Stats really don’t mean much. But if you asked me back in July and read me those stats, I probably would have thought they belonged to someone else, not me. I couldn’t ask for a better senior year.”
Panciello said that he started to believe in the Gaels’ chances after they defeated Morristown soundly in the second week of the season.
“That game really opened up eyes,” Panciello said. “But a lot of other people didn’t think we could do it. I heard from a lot of people that Pascack Valley was undefeated and a good team. I think in Week 7 or so, people were talking about Wayne Hills and their tradition. We just proved everyone wrong.”
With all that Panciello did for the Gaels, Lorusso said that there are many intangibles that got lost in the shuffle.
“His importance to the team was felt in other ways,” Lorusso said. “Donald was such a good blocker. He got the key kick-out block that freed (Joe) Garofalo in the state title game. He might not have carried the ball, but he made the block. On defense, there was no bigger play than the one he made at the goal line. He caused the fumble by getting his hat on the play, gets underneath the ball carrier and then as he turned, he landed on the ball. It was an amazing play, but that’s Donald. He also punted one 65 yards in the air and turned the field in our favor. It was an amazing kick. He averaged 40, but most of his kicks were the directional stuff.”
Panciello is now getting some recognition from the colleges. Monmouth has already offered a full scholarship package. The University of Pennsylvania and Princeton have paid visits since the state title win.
Panciello takes as much pride in his grades as he does on the gridiron. He owns a 3.75 grade point average and received a score of 1,920 on the Scholastic Aptitude Tests.
“Academics have always been a big emphasis in our home,” Panciello said. “I always had to make sure to get my schoolwork done. I was taught to do everything right in every aspect of my life.”
Panciello credits his father, Donald, Sr., for teaching him about football and life.
“My father always said that touchdowns are nice, but the best feeling is setting the perfect block,” Panciello said. “Big runs are nice, but blocks are more satisfying. Ever since I can remember, my father taught me how to play the game the right way, the basics of the game. He was throwing a football with me since I was a little boy.”
“He has good grades and is a good person,” Lorusso said. “What else more could you want? What’s funny is that you should see him throw a football. He can do that, too. He was just an absolute pleasure to coach. He’s a humble guy. He may get all the headlines, but he’s just as humble. He’s the most complete player I ever coached and he’s going to make some college coach really happy.”
Lorusso summed up Panciello’s dream season.
“Someone asked me if I could have ever imagined the season that Donald had,” Lorusso said. “It really didn’t surprise me, because he’s Donald. If he wants to be a coach, he can be a coach because he’s such a student of the game and understands the game so well.”
Panciello said that he started to realize his importance in the moments before they left Roxbury for Kean and the state title game.
“During our walkthrough in the gym, I looked up at the banner of the 2009 team on the wall,” Panciello said. “Coach Lorusso said that we could leave our own legacy, that we would be in the gym forever. I guess we have that as a legacy.”
And Donald Panciello has a legacy of being the top all-around football player in Morris County.
“I couldn’t imagine receiving all these accolades,” Panciello said. “The idea that I have received them is totally amazing.”
So was his performance this season.
James Hague: firstname.lastname@example.org