BRIDGEWATER – It has always been Chuck Kaiser’s intention to serve his country. The 17-year-old North Plainfield High School senior will head off to the U.S. Marine Corps boot camp on Sept. 8. But, first he will proudly don the USMC logo as a member of the Devil Dogs squad for the 3rd annual Gunnery Sgt. John Basilone Bowl.
“I am just excited to be a part of the Marines before I actually officially become one,” said Kaiser, a linebacker/fullback who enlisted with the Marines in October. “I am looking forward to playing with the others who have been chosen. I had heard that it (the Basilone Bowl) was a really great experience from older players. I had always look forward to this opportunity to play with all the best players. It is an honor.”
Kaiser, who played under NPHS Head Coach Bobby Lake, is the second player from that school to join the military and participate in the Basilone Bowl. The first was Omar Bradley, who is now a sophomore at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
On Sunday, representatives from the USMC and the Somerset County Football Coaches Association kicked off the 2015 Basilone Bowl with Media Day at Bridgewater-Raritan High School. Kaiser was among 86 men who will graduate in June and then immediately take to the football field one more time. The players, all seniors, are chosen by the coaches association for their athletic ability, scholastic performance and content of character, said Scott Bray, head coach at Bridgewater-Raritan High School.
“It is an opportunity for them to play one last time with their team mates and with their counterparts on opposing teams that they have played against for the last four years,” Bray said. “This is a unique and neat thing to see how within four days, a brotherhood and team comes about. They become the Devil Dogs and the Leathernecks and their common denominator is football.”
“They are on to the next stop of their lives,” USMC Capt. Zachary Smith said. “They are recommended for this honor because of their character on and off the field. Their excellent ability as an athlete, their grades in the classroom and the integrity of their character. we do not let just anyone wear our U.S. Marine logo across their chest. They had to have earned it and they must understand that. It is an honor not to be taken lightly and we are not going to give it away lightly.”
The Basilone Bowl is held in honor of Gunnery Sgt. John Basilone, who was raised in nearby Raritan Borough. Basilone was awarded the Medal of Honor in recognition of his outstanding heroism at Guadalcanal. He returned home to fame and was paraded about the country as a hero and help raise funds, but Basilone “had a fire in his heart” to return to the men in the field, Smith said.
Later, during the Iwo Jima campaign, Basilone was killed in action on D-Day, February 19, 1945. The Bridgewater-Raritan High School Field House is dedicated to his memory.
“They represent their school, their parents, their community,” he added. “They represent the best. John Basilone — that’s the type of character we are talking about who wears the USMC across his chest.”
On Sunday, the athletes viewed a short film showcasing the heroism of Basilone. After, Bray and Smith further discussed the Medal of Honor winner’s connection the the area and the concept of the game.
“It is an honor to be representing the Marines and to be chosen as one of the best football players,” said Thomas Foreman, 18, a tight end/wide receiver from The Pingry School in the Basking Ridge section of Bernards. “It is a good opportunity represent your school and I am excited to be a part of it.”
According to Sgt. Samuel Nasso, the game features high-school seniors from 14 different schools in Somerset County. The public and private high schools include Bernards, Bound Brook, Bridgewater-Raritan, Franklin, Hillsborough, Immaculata, Manville, Montgomery, North Plainfield, Pingry, Ridge, Somerville, Watchung and Delaware Valley.
According to Nasso, the concept of the all-star game was developed a few years ago. Until that time, there was no venue to honor the seniors. Some Somerset County schools attended the Sunshine Bowl, but it was not consistent. The Snapple Bowl had proved to be a successful program for Middlesex and Union county senior players.
“The biggest thing for us was to highlight Somerset County football and its athletes,” Bray said. “We think we are playing a great kind of football here in Somerset County. We brought in the Marines and they bought into the concept wholeheartedly.”
“This game not only honored the seniors in an all star setting, but honored John Basilone as well,” Nasso said.
Each school nominates five players and then additional players are added based on positional needs, Bray said. Also, some schools’ football programs may not have as many seniors as others, so each school has different amounts of players.
The student-athletes are then divided among the Devil Dogs and the Leathernecks to create two balanced teams of equal strength. It is not geographical, he said.
Beginning the Sunday before the June 25 game, the players will practice every day for four days. While football skills are at the focus of the practices, Marines will be on hand to encourage and discuss leadership. Before the game, there will also be a military flyover the field.
Usually, the football game is held at the Bridgewater-Raritan field, but due to renovations to the track, instead will be played on at 7 p.m. at Somerville High School.
“It is still appropriate, “ Bray said. “That was John Basilone’s high school.”
Tickets are $5 each and each of the players are asked to pre-sell tickets. Proceeds from the tickets sales have benefited veterans and the local Wounded Warrior Project.
Staff Writer Cheryl Makin: 732-565-7256; cmakin@MyCentralJersey.com