Through early January, reporters will be looking back at and following up on stories and topics that were the most popular with our readers in 2016, according to metrics on poughkeepsiejournal.com. This story is part of that series.
Bobby Henderson’s eyes lit up when his number was called.
The running back from Hopewell Junction, who earned a place on the University of Michigan’s football team as a non-scholarship member five years ago, was going to be given the ball 13 yards from the goal line.
Taking the handoff, Henderson snaked through a line of Rutgers defenders, slipped past another, and dived into the end zone for the first score of his career. It was one of 11 touchdowns Michigan scored in the 78-0 victory on Oct. 8 in Piscataway, New Jersey, but his teammates mobbed him like it was the difference between winning and losing.
“At that point, all your teammates are coming after you on the field. You embrace with them,” said Henderson, a John Jay High School graduate. “Being a fifth-year senior, I’ve been around a long time. It was nice to see how many guys are happy for me.”
And though few high school football players from Dutchess County have ever played for a college football program with the pedigree of Michigan, an 11-time national champion, Henderson is just one of several playing at the Division I level, and one of many playing collegiately. The list includes Arlington High School product Alex Starzyk, a punter at Temple, and Beacon High School graduate Taurus Phillips, a wide receiver at Villanova.
The players represent the region’s latest brush with the highest level of football.
Last February, Dave Gettleman, a former Spackenkill High School teacher and coach turned general manager for the Carolina Panthers, made national headlines when his team reached the Super Bowl.
Two Marist College graduates, Terrence Fede and Jason Myers, are on NFL rosters — the first two such players in program history.
New Paltz High School graduate Charles Davis is an NFL on FOX television analyst who this year became a voice of the popular “Madden NFL” series of football video games. He also helped his former team gain national attention in November, when FOX aired highlights of the Huguenots’ Section 9 Class B championship victory on its Nov. 13 broadcast of a game between the New York Jets and Los Angeles Rams.
The Nov. 4 championship game was one of two New Paltz games Davis attended this season, and he wasn’t alone in returning to the region. Myers visited Marist on Oct. 29 for a game in which the school gave out bobbleheads in his likeness, and Starzyk said he enjoys working with the current Admirals during the offseason.
“I talk to the (Arlington) kicker, Alex Maier,” Starzyk said. “I see him at the field a bunch and we work out together when I come home.”
The high-profile accomplishments match a growing level of success for area scholastic teams. Last year, Our Lady of Lourdes High School became the first team from Dutchess County to reach a state championship game since Dover in 1997. And in 2014, John Jay High School earned the first Section 1 Class AA championship in the county’s history, beating Arlington, which also reached the final for the first time.
Trio contributes to college teams
Henderson graduated four seasons before that milestone win for the Patriots, but he played a role in building the program to reach that point. And when he scored his touchdown in New Jersey, his coach, Tom O’Hare, was one of many local supporters with a close view.
“We were standing on the 50-yard line in the second row. It was incredible,” O’Hare said. “It was really a ‘bring-a-tear to your eye’ kind of moment. He kind of chased a dream.”
O’Hare remembered what he shouted at his former star, too.
“When he came out and everyone was cheering his name, I yelled ‘Hard work pays off!’” O’Hare said.
After sitting out his freshman season as a redshirt, a rule which allows a player to retain his NCAA eligibility for the season, Henderson played in his first collegiate game against Michigan State on Nov. 2, 2013, and played in three games in 2015, a season in which he was named to the Big Ten Conference’s All-Academic Team.
This season, he has played in all 12 of the Wolverines’ games entering Friday night’s 33-32 loss to Florida State in the Orange Bowl. In those games — 10 of them wins — he has racked up 37 rushing yards and 23 receiving yards. He’s also returned three kickoffs.
“It’s been a phenomenal season,” Henderson added. “Coming into this season under coach (Jim) Harbaugh, we knew it had the potential to be a great season. We certainly played some good football as a team.”
Starzyk had the opportunity to make a more immediate impact for Temple of the American Athletic Conference, winning the starting punting role as a freshman and playing at least 12 games in each of his three seasons.
As a junior this season, he made 53 punts in 14 games, averaging 39 yards per punt. Five of them went for 50 yards of more. The 2013 Arlington graduate capped the year by punting five times in the Owls’ 34-26 loss to Wake Forest in the Military Bowl on Dec. 27.
Starzyk was a finalist for the Ray Guy Award, given to the nation’s top collegiate punter, but the honor was given to Mitch Wishnowsky of Utah.
Phillips enjoyed a breakout season for Villanova, which plays in the Football Championship Subdivision, the second tier of Division I football.
The 2014 Beacon graduate scored three touchdowns — the first scores of his career — in 13 games. He led the team in receptions (36) and receiving yards (497). The Wildcats finished the season 9-4.
“If there’s one takeaway (from this season): Have pride in what you do,” Phillips said. “When you do, it propels you further. It’s going to make you go 10 times harder.”
And with that pride, he’s setting his hopes high for the future.
“Next season, the goal is always to go to a national championship and win,” Phillips added. “And an individual goal is to be an all-conference player.”
Gettleman’s Panther’s reached the NFL’s national championship in 2016, but lost to the Denver Broncos, 24-10, in Super Bowl 50. This year, his team missed the playoffs, winning six of its 15 games entering Sunday’s finale.
The one-time Spackenkill High School driver’s education teacher, who helped start the Spartans football program and coached it from 1973-78 and 1980-81, is in his 31st season working in the NFL. His resume includes three Super Bowl championships: one in 1998 while working as a scout for the Broncos, and two as the New York Giants’ director of pro personnel in 2008 and 2011.
“I was in Poughkeepsie 10-and-a-half years and it was a great time in my life,” Gettleman, whose wife Joanna is a 1976 Spackenkill graduate, said last February. “It helped me. I learned so much. Coaching high school kids, you learn now. I’m still in touch with kids I coached. I’ve gotten e-mails. I’ve talked to them, I’ve had them down for games.”
Davis also has been proud of his mid-Hudson Valley roots, tweeting often about the New Paltz football team’s progress. This month, he tweeted a photo of himself with Gettleman, noting that “it was great catching up with him,” and mentioning past “great battles,” as Davis competed against Gettleman’s Spartans.
Davis was a standout for the University of Tennessee as a player from 1982-86, and spent a brief time with the Dallas Cowboys organization but never made the team’s active roster.
Fede, a defensive end, in 2014 became the first Marist College football product to be drafted to the NFL and make an NFL roster when he was taken by the Miami Dolphins, but he wasn’t the first NFL player with Marist ties. Menelik Watson, who played for the Marist men’s basketball team before transferring to Florida State University to play football, was picked by the Oakland Raiders in 2013.
Last season, Myers joined them in the league when he made the Jacksonville Jaguars roster as a free agent kicker.
Entering Sunday, Myers had made 25 of 30 field-goal attempts and 27 of 30 extra-point attempts for the 3-12 Jaguars, while Fede had made 11 tackles in eight games played.
Last week, the Dolphins won their 10th game to clinch a playoff berth. Thus, Fede will be the first player from Marist to compete in an NFL playoff game.
A.J. Martelli: firstname.lastname@example.org, 845-437-4836, Twitter: @AJM_PoJoSports