MADISON – Ever since they were little, they knew they had a closer bond than most football teammates.
Ever since sixth grade, they have been inseparable, both in school and on the gridiron.
They are Justin and Mike Dalena, in real life, second cousins and teammates on the Madison High School football team.
But deep down, they are so much more.
“He’s more than my cousin off the field,” said Justin Dalena, a senior tight end/linebacker/defensive back for the Dodgers. “He’s more like my brother.”
“It’s been pretty cool growing up with my cousin,” said Mike Dalena, a senior wide receiver/cornerback. “We’ve played sports together and that’s something to look back on.”
The Dalena cousins (their fathers are first cousins) are just two of the reasons why the Dodgers will face Rutherford for the NJSIAA North 2 Group II championship Thursday at MetLife Stadium at 5 p.m.
“It means everything to us and our family,” Justin Dalena said. “It means so much to be able to play together, but nothing more I want to do than to win a state championship on the field with Mike. We’ve been so close together over the years.”
“It’s been a goal of ours since we played junior football together in sixth grade,” Mike Dalena said. “We’d always go to the Madison games together and those were great games, great teams. It’s actually a surreal feeling that we’re going to be on the field together at MetLife (Stadium), playing for a state championship in our last game together. It’s just awesome.”
Justin Dalena knows that this will be his last football game ever. If he competes in athletics in college, it will be in lacrosse. Mike Dalena will more than likely play football at Gettysburg College next fall.
“It’s going to be tough being apart,” Mike Dalena said. “Because we’ve been together forever.”
“I just hope he does well after this,” Justin Dalena said.
Justin Dalena said that it has never been a family rivalry between him and his cousin, even though they do somewhat play the same position—although now, both are on the field at the same time, especially defensively.
“Mike was always the better football player than me,” Justin Dalena said. “So it never really mattered.”
“I’d say Justin is the better athlete,” said Mike Dalena, mentioning that his cousin also plays basketball and lacrosse.
Although the two were in the same class and playing the same positions, there really was never any heated competition.
“It’s just nice to have someone close who you can be competitive with,” Justin Dalena said. “But we always supported each other.”
The two grew up playing sports together, playing Wiffleball in family get-togethers or touch football in the yard.
“I’d say that there was always competition between us,” Mike Dalena said. “But we were always in it together. It was always a positive.”
When it came to playing time this season as seniors, there was no doubt that both would enjoy prominent roles with the Dodgers.
“Mike was a split end and a defensive back, our No. 1 cover corner,” said Madison head coach Chris Kubik. “Justin plays both linebacker and defensive back, like a hybrid. It gives us versatility in our defense and helps us do what we need to do. Just by the way they play, they’re competitive by nature. They’re very aggressive and competitive. Mike’s a little more outgoing with a good sense of humor. They’re very similar that way in that they keep things light. They’ve enabled us to do many different things on defense.”
“I never thought once that we were fighting each other for playing time,” said Mike Dalena, who earned All Daily Record honors last year after recording six interceptions. “I think it was just a case of finding a way to get the best players on the field.”
Justin Dalena, who has battled some injury problems this season, like a concussion and a sprained ankle, agrees.
“The coaches just had to find the right spot for me,” Justin Dalena said. “I kind of like playing linebacker. I’m able to come up and fill the gap and make the play.”
Justin said that it was hard for him to sit and watch the first two games of the season due to the concussion he suffered in a scrimmage.
“I think when Justin was able to come back, it was a turning point for the team defensively,” Mike Dalena said. “We then had our entire team back.”
“I wanted to do whatever it was to help the team,” Justin Dalena said. “I’d play defensive end, tight end, linebacker, block, tackle, do anything to help us win.”
Both Dalenas have two interceptions on the season. Mike Dalena has 22 receptions to lead the team for nearly 300 yards and two touchdowns. Justin Dalena has caught three passes for 68 yards and a touchdown.
They are both major contributors on a team playing for a state crown, like so many other Dodger teams before them.
“It’s really like a dream to have this chance and to have this chance with my cousin,” Justin Dalena said. “We’ve had each other’s back 110 percent all the way.”
All the way to the Meadowlands.