Unlikely hero Franchino leads Lyndhurst to NJSIAA playoff berth

Lyndhurst High School’s football team is enjoying a spectacular season, winning seven of the Golden Bears’ first eight games, including an impressive 20-0 whitewash shutout win over Garfield last Friday night on Senior Night.

One of the seniors honored was perhaps the least likely of all those feted. Not because of his talents, because that’s not an issue at all. He’s perhaps the most diversified football player in northern New Jersey.

Nor is it his size, because what he does cannot be measured by a scale or a yard stick, although he’s listed at 5-10 and weighing in at a robust 150 pounds.

But Benny Franchino was one of those honored as a senior member of the Golden Bears Friday night. His mother and father came down onto the field with the rest of the senior grid standouts.

And sure enough, Franchino made sure that this game was a memorable one, coming from a kid who should have never been among the football players honored, because honestly, Franchino was a soccer player his entire life and never played a minute of organized football before his freshman year at Lyndhurst.

“I played soccer until high school,” Franchino admitted. “I was a center midfielder in soccer my whole younger life. Soccer was a big part of my life.”

But Lyndhurst head football coach Rich Tuero saw something in Franchino and wanted him to join the football team.

“I saw him running around like a maniac,” Tuero said. “I said to people that this kid has to play football. I saw him playing basketball, so I knew he was an athlete. I told the kid that he was good enough to play football. I’ve known his mother (Pam) since I was seven years old. I just knew this kid was an athlete. I thought it was worth taking a shot.”

Tuero was also friendly with Franchino’s older sister Jenette, so there was a connection.

Franchino started to listen to what Tuero had to say.

“When I was in eighth grade, Coach Tuero would always tell me, ‘Son, you’re not a soccer player. You should be a football player.’ I started talking to him and started thinking about it. I never played football before, maybe just in my backyard with friends.”

Tuero gave Franchino a nickname.

“You know the movie, ‘The Sandlot?’” Tuero said. “Well one of the kids is Benny the Jet. That’s who he is. He’s Benny the Jet. He’s that kind of an athlete.”

So “Benny the Jet” was born. Now soccer’s loss had to become football’s gain.

“It was really hard for me to give up playing soccer,” Franchino said. “Me and my Dad (Rich) talked about it for a while. I thought soccer would give me a better chance than football.”

Franchino became a wide receiver and defensive back.

There was another aspect to Franchino’s immediate success as an athlete.

“He could kick,” Tuero said. “I knew he was going to kick for us. I knew he could be a receiver for us right away, but we knew we had a kicker.”

It didn’t take long for the transformation to take place from soccer player to football player.

“He had hands,” Tuero said. “We found out that he could catch the ball. He could run and run well. He does it all for us. He’s a main weapon.”

Franchino had a great game against Hawthorne to start the season, collecting seven receptions, three of which went for touchdowns. He kicked a school-record 50-yard field goal against Secaucus, breaking the record of a 43-yarder set by the late Marcelo Lajterman back in 1968.

Lajterman was killed 48 years ago (Nov. 14, 1970) when the Marshall University football team all perished in a plane crash returning back to West Virginia after defeating East Carolina earlier that day. In all, 75 people died in that crash, 36 of whom were either Marshall University players, coaching staff or school officials, including Lajterman, a Lyndhurst native. The movie, “We Are Marshall,” starring Oscar-winner Matthew McConaughey, is about the Marshall University football team and re-starting the program after the crash. Fellow Lyndhurst native Ted Shoebridge and Harrison native Kevin Gilmore also died in that tragic crash.

“I knew who had the record,” Franchino said of Lajterman. “It was an honor and privilege for me to be able to break the record and to just be in the same circles with him. It was huge accomplishment for me. It definitely means a lot to me. Coach Tuero told me that I was going to break the school record this year.”

Franchino does so much for the Golden Bears. Not only is he a receiver on offense, but he also carries the ball. He handles all the kicking. He returns kicks. On defense, Franchino is a defensive back, lining up at both cornerback and safety.

“I think being a kicker was kind of obvious,” Franchino said. “I could always kick. Freshman year, I didn’t play much defense, but sophomore year, I started to play more as a defensive back. I love playing the other positions.”

Last Friday night, in the 20-0 win over Garfield, Franchino had two receptions, one of which went for an 8-yard touchdown from Brian Podolski. He had two carries on jet sweeps. He kicked two field goals of 19 and 39 yards respectively and made seven tackles defensively.

For the season, Franchino now has 24 receptions, six of which have gone for touchdowns. He has three field goals and has collected one interception. Needless to say, it’s been a fruitful football season for Franchino and the Golden Bears, who will play host to Hanover Park Friday night at 7 p.m. in the first home playoff game in Lyndhurst football history.

Needless to say, Tuero is impressed with the way his team has performed.

“I always respect Garfield,” Tuero said of last week’s opponent. “They’re a very good football team. I was a nervous wreck before the game. They always have athletes.”

Garfield is the home of football greats such as Wayne Chrebet, Luis Castillo and Myles Austin, all of whom played in the NFL.

“This team was legit,” Tuero said. “I didn’t feel good about it before hand. It was going to be a battle. (Former head coach and current assistant) Joe Castagnetti is an unbelievable coach. Having him is a major advantage. These kids have bought in and they’re doing their jobs.”
And the Golden Bears continue to overachieve.

“No doubt, our kids are doing better than I thought we would,” Tuero said. “Brian (Podolski) has been playing out of his mind and Piotr (Partyla) is better than I knew. The defense is unreal, Pompton Lakes scored one touchdown, Secaucus scored one touchdown and we shut out Garfield. The kids are just playing hard and have gotten better. It’s no secret.”

Partyla has been a two-way beast.

“The kid has 12 sacks so far,” Tuero said. “Joe Castagnetti said that Piotr is one of the best defensive players he ever coached. Against Glen Rock, Piotr had 16 tackles and four sacks. Joe doesn’t give out praise like that all the time. The kid is unbelievable. As good as he is offensively, he’s that good defensively.”
And of course, there’s Benny the Jet. Tuero believes he’s good enough of a kicker to become a big-time college placekicker.

“I haven’t received an offer yet,” said Franchino, who plays basketball in the winter and runs track in the spring. Incredibly, Franchino is part of two school records in track and field, with the 4×100 and 4×200-meter relays.

“I like doing a lot of sports,” Franchino said. “It keeps me busy. But I think I’m a football player. I want the opportunity to play, not just kick, because I would get bored.”

But Franchino would have never picture all of this could happen – that he would become a football star before being a soccer standout.

“I had no idea,” Franchino said. “If someone would have said this before I came to high school, I would have said they were crazy, if they said that I would be the one to break the school record (for longest field goal). It’s all a really nice compliment. It’s been a great year. Coach (Tuero) said that we were the ones who were going to change this program around. I never would have dreamed this could happen. No way.”

Now, there’s only one way – the Benny the Jet way.




Lyndhurst is having a phenomenal football season thanks to the play of senior do-everything Benny Franchino, a kid who never played football at all before high school, but now finds himself in the school record books. Photo by Jim Hague






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Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer

Sports Writer Jim Hague was with The Observer for 20+ years — and his name is one of the most recognizable in all of sports journalism. The St. Peter’s Prep and Marquette alum kicked off his journalism career post Marquette at the Daily Record, where he remained until 1985. Following shorts stints at two other newspapers, in September 1986, he joined the now-closed Hudson Dispatch, where he remained until 1991, when its doors were finally shut.

It was during his tenure at The Dispatch that Hague’s name and reputation as one of country’s hardest-working sports reporters grew. He won several New Jersey Press Association and North Jersey Press Club Awards in that timeframe.

In 1991, he became a columnist for The Hudson Reporter chain of newspapers — and he remains with them to this day.

In addition to his work at The Observer and The Hudson Reporter, Hague is also an Associated Press stringer, where he covers Seton Hall University men’s basketball, New York Red Bulls soccer and occasionally, New Jersey Devils hockey.

He’s also doing work at The Morristown Daily Record, the very newspaper where his journalism career began.

During his career, he also worked for Dorf Feature Services, which provided material for the Star-Ledger. While there, he covered the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.

Hague is also known for his announcing work — and he’s done PA work for Rutgers Newark and NJIT.

Hague is the author of the book “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man.”