By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
Craig Merkle didn’t have to go far to find inspiration in becoming a standout high school football player. The Nutley High School junior could have easily found that motivation in his own living room.
That’s because Craig Merkle has two older brothers who paved the way for him to become a Maroon Raider.
First, Chris Merkle went from being a fine two-way performer with the Maroon Raiders to a great career at Montclair State and eventually became a professional football player, toiling for a few years in the Arena Football League.
Then, middle brother Kevin came along and played for the Maroon Raiders before heading off to Union College two years ago.
“They definitely motivated me a lot,” Craig Merkle said. “I used to always go to Chris’ games when he played and I always followed Kevin. I always wanted to be a good football player like my older brothers. It was definitely a little tough, knowing all that Chris did and how far he got. They were some huge shoes to fill.”
Merkle definitely showed that he was ready to become the next in line last year, when he went from being a sophomore reserve to a prime-time performer.
“We tried to break him in slowly last year, because he was a sophomore,” Nutley head coach Tom Basile said. “But he ended up scoring 11 touchdowns every way imaginable, running, catching, kick returns, defense. He ended up leading the team in tackles. We worked him in as the season went on. He became a starter and wasn’t coming out.”
In fact, the youngest Merkle brother was so impressive that he earned a remarkable distinction as a sophomore.
“We gave him the Most Outstanding Player award at the season end banquet,” Basile said. “It’s virtually unheard of to give it to a sophomore, but that was the way to show everyone how talented he is. Obviously, he was our best player. He’s a good all-around football player.”
Merkle said that he was shocked that he earned the MVP trophy.
“I was pretty surprised,” Merkle said. “I didn’t think I had a chance to get it. It was a great accomplishment.”
But Merkle knew that he couldn’t rest on the laurels he gained a year ago.
“I knew I had to keep working hard,” Merkle said. “I knew that I would be the main running back this year, so that made me work a little harder. I loved the idea that I would be getting the ball more.”
In Basile’s eyes, it was a nobrainer.
“I did expect Craig to be the workhorse back this year, somewhere in the 20-to-25 times per game,” Basile said. “We do have other weapons, but Craig is our go-to guy. He’s the one who can get the tough extra yard, but he’s also the one who could break one. He’s that kind of kid.”
Merkle proved to be that kind of player – and then some – Saturday afternoon against West Orange. He carried the ball 29 times for 192 yards and scored touchdowns on runs of 13 and 51 yards. Merkle also gathered an interception and returned it 77 yards for another touchdown, leading the Maroon Raiders to a 49-27 victory, a win that pushed Nutley’s record to an impressive 3-0 in the early stages of the 2014 season.
For his efforts, Merkle has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week. Merkle is the first honoree for the 2014-2015 scholastic sports season. The weekly feature will culminate with the presentation of the Observer Male and Female Athletes of the Year sometime in June and July of 2015.
Basile said that Craig Merkle is a combination of his older two brothers.
“Craig is the best of both worlds,” Basile said. “He has the personality of Kevin and the intensity and physical level that Chris had. Kevin was more cerebral, but Craig has the best of both brothers. It’s a great football family. They’re all supportive of the program.”
Basile said that he loves Craig’s work ethic.
“He’s the one who is working all year round,” Basile said. “He never misses a day in the weight room and he also runs track in the spring, so he’s training all the time.”
Basile said that Merkle is also a great student and product of the Nutley community.
“He’s a solid B-plus student,” Basile said. “He does his job in the classroom. He’s also involved in the community. He’s the total package. He’s just a well rounded guy.”
Basile also feels that Merkle is a college football prospect.
“I think he’s still going to grow some,” said Basile of Merkle, who stands 6-foot-1 and weighs 220 pounds. “He’s basically still a baby. I obviously think he can play in college. He has the size and the strength to do it.”
But Merkle is just a junior. He has another year of high school football to worry about.
But Merkle has that goal in his sights already.
“That’s what I hope for every day,” Merkle said. “I want to play in college. That’s my dream.”
Merkle said that he doesn’t have a preference for which way he would want to play, either running back or linebacker.
“As a kid, I always played defense and it was my favorite,” Merkle said. “But when I got to high school, I liked running the ball, so now, I really don’t know. I like to play both.”
The Maroon Raiders will now get challenged in their schedule, facing Montclair this week.
“It’s a reality check now,” Basile said. “Our schedule gets solid now. We’re going to see what Nutley is all about.”
“We’re going good right now,” Merkle said. “We have a tough schedule coming up, beginning with Montclair, so we have to go in with a good mind. But right now, this feels great. Everyone is looking good.”
Just not as good as the Maroon Raiders’ best player, the one from the strong football family.