The Middlesex and Dunellen high school football teams aren’t asking spectators to give the coats off their backs, but they are encouraging those who attend the annual Thanksgiving Day game between the border rivals to donate new or gently used winter apparel for the needy.
Several Middlesex senior football players developed the community service project, which partners the Middlesex gridiron program with the United Way.
The Blue Jays and Destroyers ask that spectators consider donating new or gently used coats for children and teens, or new gloves, mittens, hats, scarves, socks and thermal underwear for people of all ages. Collection boxes will be strategically positioned inside Middlesex’s football stadium.
“It’s good that the kids are looking out for others in the community,” said Middlesex Athletics Director Rich Gianchiglia, noting fans of the Destroyers and Blue Jays can root for their respective teams on the gridiron but team up for a greater cause off the field.
“We have a great relationship in the school-community (with Dunellen) and anything that we can do to help each other – being two small (Group I) schools – can make the community better.”
Dave DeNapoli, Dunellen’s head football coach and athletics director, praised Middlesex for devising the winter apparel drive and is encouraging his school’s supporters to consider making a donation during Thursday’s Home News Tribune and Courier News Game of the Week at 10:30 a.m.
“Anything they could give is a big help,” DeNapoli said. “Give credit to Middlesex for doing something like this. I think it’s tremendous that people step up and think of others.”
Perhaps the Blue Jays (2-7), who have lost five games by eight points or less, will be rewarded on the scoreboard Thursday for their off-field thoughtfulness.
“It doesn’t matter what the record is, they want to give back to the community,” Middlesex coach Brett Stibitz said of his players. “These guys (who developed the community service project) are my seniors. We’ve been high. We’ve been low. It would be fitting to go out (victorious).”
Dunellen (5-4) has won the last four meetings between the schools by a combined 116-18 margin, but this year’s game, based on comparative scores and personnel, promises to be evenly matched.
DeNapoli has always had a trick or two up his sleeve for the Blue Jays on Thanksgiving Day – unveiling the current double wing offense his team now runs one year, and coming out of the same offense to throw three touchdown passes another.
“I’m waiting for them to get me back,” said DeNapoli, whose team failed to win the Greater Middlesex Conference Blue Division title for the first time since 2009, the last year it also did not qualify for the NJSIAA playoffs.
Middlesex installed the triple-option before the start of this season and the Blue Jays are not expected to diverge on Thursday from their offensive philosophy.
“The option has always given us a hard time,” DeNapoli said. “I would think they are going to continue to do what they do best, but we’ve got to be ready in case they come out with some surprises.”
The game is played in honor of former Dunellen star Cliff Vail, who was killed in a March 2000 house fire while attending Bloomsburg University, and Brian Parenti, a former Middlesex star who died one year earlier in a car accident.
A diminutive running back, defensive back and return specialist, Vail was always among the smallest players on the field, but few played with a bigger heart or more determination. A three-sport star who also wrestled and played baseball (he helped the Blue Jays win a state Group I title in 1990), Parenti was simply one of Middlesex’s best all-around athletes.
“We play the game in their memory and for the seniors of both teams,” DeNapoli said. “It’s their last time putting on their home school uniform.
“I always say you could lose every game but if you have a big Thanksgiving rival and you win that game, the season feels a little better when you go out a winner.”
There is one guaranteed winner Thursday: those who benefit from the Middlesex football team’s winter apparel drive.