SAYREVILLE, N.J. — Inside the same locker room where seven former players were charged with hazing and sexually assaulting four teammates nearly one year ago, new Sayreville High School head football coach Chris Beagan gathered his charges for an emotional pregame speech.
As a couple thousand spectators – many sporting royal blue T-shirts bearing the gridiron program’s new motto “Pride and Passion” – filed into the home stands at War Memorial Stadium for the Bombers’ first game since their season was abruptly cancelled in October 2014 following allegations of locker room impropriety, Beagan spoke in a measured tone.
“Men, sometimes people, good people, lose sight of the things that are most important,” said Beagan, a former Sayreville team captain who returned to his alma mater to coach.
“You guys tonight are the most important thing to me,” Beagan continued, his voice starting to rise in preparation of a season-opener against J. P. Stevens, which Sayreville soundly defeated 35-7.
“You guys are the most important thing going on out here tonight. It’s about the 2015 Bombers. It’s not about anything else. You’ve been working too hard for too long. I love this place. I love you guys. I love what this place stands for. I grew up here. You grew up here. You know what it is. We earn everything every single day. Every single day we earn it. We’re not afraid to do hard work. We’re not afraid to go after what it is that we want. This is about you. It’s your turn to shine.”
Minutes later, the Bombers exited the locker room, walking arm-in-arm out of the high school and across the parking lot to the field in their familiar home blue jerseys and grey pants.
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Residents who attended the game from the borough – which appears to remain somewhat divided over what actually transpired inside that locker room, with some calling the actions of the charged players “horseplay,” even after Middlesex County Prosecutor Andrew C. Carey said last week that “serious crimes occurred” – rose to their feet and raised their collective voices above the din of Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle” as the Bombers entered the stadium through the North end zone goal post.
Captains Anthony Porcaro (carrying an American flag over his right shoulder), Connor O’Brien (wielding a sledgehammer) and Coray Williams (carrying a Sayreville flag over his left shoulder) led their teammates onto the gridiron.
Instead of running through a “Bomber Country” banner that cheerleaders held, as had been the team’s tradition, Sayreville players calmly walked through it in businesslike fashion.
“Coach always tells us he doesn’t want to hear us, he wants to feel us,” star running back Michael Liberti, who rushed for two touchdowns, said in explanation of his team’s demeanor. “We just kept the emotions inside and when we went on the field to play we let it all out. Touching that ‘Bomber Country’ sign and being back on that field with our brothers – every one of us united as one and with everyone cheering behind us throughout the whole game – it was amazing.”
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This was clearly a team on a mission, focused on nothing but recapturing the glory that once united Sayreville and intent on restoring pride to a community whose reputation the scandal sullied.
“You couldn’t ask for a better evening to take a big step forward for our program and our high school and our entire district,” said embattled Schools Superintendent Rick Labbe, whose decision in concert with the board of education to cancel last season amid the allegations and to keep at least one player charged in the hazing off the team this season remains a bone of contention among some players’ parents.
“We are really looking forward to moving forward and getting back to normal. I am very proud of all our kids – obviously the kids in our football program – but all the kids in our high school for the great maturity, the great pride and the great dedication to this community that they demonstrate. Obviously, this has been a very difficult year, but our kids responded with great resiliency.”
The media circus school officials and borough police anticipated turned out to be little more than a throng of reporters and cameramen, mostly from local outlets, including some from WABC-TV and WNBC-TV in New York. The national media that descended upon the town this time last year was invisible.
The cases of six of the seven players charged have been adjudicated. As part of a plea deal in which Carey’s office agreed not to pursue mandatory sex offender registration as required under Megan’s Law, the six players were placed on probation and ordered to serve community service after some of them admitted to using their fingers to anally penetrate younger players. The status of the seventh defendant’s case is not known.
The game got off to an inauspicious start for the Bombers, who received the opening kickoff, as star quarterback Jay DeMild fumbled the snap on the first play from scrimmage and was subsequently sacked for a 10-yard loss.
DeMild quickly regrouped and marched the Bombers downfield, capping an 80-yard drive with an eight-yard touchdown pass to Andrew Willie in the corner of the end zone. The duo later connected on another score.
The initial touchdown sent the overflow crowd, which left some spectators standing outside the fence encircling the stadium, into a frenzy. The familiar boom and smoke from the Sayreville cannon, which Jeff Deverin has fired after every touchdown for nearly a decade, signaled that the Bombers were back.
“I think it’s a great crowd to show community support for the kids,” Deverin said after firing what was the first salvo in an eventual rout. “I missed last season and it’s great to see the kids. It was touching that football is back. It’s exciting for the town.”
Beagan said his staff and his players felt an awesome sense of responsibility to put on a near-flawless show and to represent the entire school community.
“They really wanted to perform, not just for themselves, but they really wanted to perform for this crowd that’s been behind us every step of the way,” Beagan said. “From the touchdown club to our staunch fans, they have been terrific behind us, and it’s really been a great feeling.”
A program that had forever united the borough but whose transgressions left it divided nearly one year ago now has a chance to help do what Carey summed up best.
“The community of Sayreville,” he said, “now must work together to heal.”