Word of a hometown football phenom named Rashan Gary spread through Scotch Plains and Fanwood a couple of years before Gary was even in high school and not long after he began playing the sport.
Of course there was a reasonable concern he would never set foot in Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School. Maybe the 6-foot-5, 280-pound lineman would take a one-way ticket up the Garden State Parkway to Ramsey or Oradell, landing at Don Bosco Prep or Bergen Catholic. A kid with that much ability and promise couldn’t possibly remain true to his town’s public school, could he?
“All over, from all over, it happens, everybody,” said Gary, when asked how many out-of-area non-publics had interest in him. “I gave it some consideration (to leave town), but staying home was the better option for me.”
Yes, the high school that produced a world record holder in hurdler Renaldo Nehemiah, a longtime major-leaguer in Jeff Hammonds and a durable NFL player in Nathan Jones has a dynamic athlete to add to the list.
The sophomore nose guard/offensive tackle’s promise, ability and size is bringing a stream of coaches — 15 at last count — from all over the nation to visit with Raiders coach Jon Stack, also one of the youngster’s unofficial postmasters.
“Everyday after practice Coach Stack says to me, ‘Come on and get your mail,’ ” Gary said.
The amount of mail at home is so great that his mother Jennifer has hid some of it, Gary joked.
Formal offers have come from Rutgers, Alabama, Florida and Ohio State, Stack said, and many more are expected. His mother has been one very busy driver, taking him from Columbus, Ohio, to State College, Pa., to Storrs, Conn.
His mother Jennifer even got her son to take a public speaking course to help with the countless interviews ahead. He did a radio interview with ESPN that he handled flawlessly, Stack said.
“My mom is the one who has kept me humble,” he said. “Even though you are getting all this attention, if you are not handling your business on the field, you are not handling it. I have to thank my mom for that thought.”
Since he was too heavy, Gary didn’t even play football until the seventh grade when he joined the Scotch Plains Police Athletic League team. As a freshman, he made 26 tackles with three sacks. He credits graduated linemen Anthony Tufaro, James Kaiser and Billy Castore for helping his development, which is apparently progressing very quickly.
“Everyday they made me practice especially hard because I was a freshman and I worked as hard as I could,” he said. “They made me better.”
Gary is a student of the game, saying that if there’s film to watch he’s there and if a coach is willing to run it again and again Gary will watch again and again.
“I’m just a lover of the game,” said Gary, who started for the junior varsity basketball team, also served the varsity players water. “I study it. I’m in the weight room. I just love it.”
In the spring, Gary showed more of his ability by winning the Union County shot put with a distance of more than 52-10¼ feet. That’s a distance freshmen can only fantasize about, but Gary wasn’t your ordinary freshman and he’s now not your ordinary sophomore.
Alabama assistant and offensive line coach Mario Cristabol, the former Rutgers assistant, recently visited Scotch Plains-Fanwood to meet with Stack and watch film of Gary. Cristobal told Stack he should expect to see Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban next year.
“Mario saw some film of Rashan and said he could probably step in and play for them right now,” Stack said. “He couldn’t get enough of watching his film.”
The youngster used the offseason to improve his overall game, improving his pass rush, using his hands and becoming better at stopping the run. When asked what position he likes better, Gary’s words were the kind coaches love.
“I’m just waiting to hit somebody and get the season going,” Gary said. “Let’s go.”