Locals shine with Caldwell sprint football team

The Caldwell University sprint football team recently completed a successful season with the help of some local players. From left are Anthony Haines of Nutley, Joe Witt of North Arlington, head coach Jim Kelly of Nutley, Frank DeMaio of Nutley, George Escobar of Belleville and Gennaro Longobardi of Nutley. Jim Hague photo

The Caldwell University sprint football team recently completed a successful season, posting a 5-2 record, thanks to the help of five young men and a head coach that are from the area.

Jim Kelly, the Nutley native and former head coach of the Maroon Raiders, went to Caldwell in 2018 to take over the school’s new sprint football program. Sprint football, where all players have to weigh 178 pounds or less, is played at several colleges in the Northeast in the Sprint Football Conference. It used to be called lightweight football for several years.

Kelly, who also spent two seasons as the head coach at now defunct Queen of Peace, heard of the opening for a head coach at Caldwell in 2018.

“I got a call from (Bloomfield High School head coach) Mike Carter who told me that a job had opened up,” Kelly said. “I thought at first it was a high school job. But when I learned it was Caldwell University’s sprint team, I was intrigued. It’s a good school in a great location. I thought the demographics were good. The program was in its infant stages, but I was intrigued by it.”

However, there was the challenge of finding players who would be willing to make the sacrifice of cutting weight. Football is generally a sport where size matters.

“You can’t just take an 18-year-old receiver and make him a lineman,” Kelly said. “The challenge was finding undersized linemen. Plus, the nature of the game is so fast.”

Kelly liked the campus and the facilities.

“I knew that Caldwell had some success with their athletic teams,” Kelly said. “I knew that the school did the right things to be successful. But I knew no players, no coaches.”

It was certainly the biggest challenge of Kelly’s coaching career.

Kelly found 65 young men who were willing to make the sacrifice from all over New Jersey. His knowledge of New Jersey high school football and the coaches in the state certainly helped with procuring players.

“I was encouraged by the players that were buying into the culture and the philosophy of sprint football,” said Kelly, who was also able to get New Jersey coaching legend Ken Trimmer to come aboard as an assistant. Trimmer was the highly successful head coach at Caldwell High School for more than 30 years and has been an integral part of the New Jersey Football Coaches Association that organizes the annual North-South All-Star Classic that is held every summer.

“The word is out that we have a program here,” Kelly said. “I think the New Jersey coaches are excited to have a program that they can encourage their players to consider coming to. I was fortunate enough to rekindle the relationships I made over the years. I think we all came to realize what the sport of sprint football is all about.”

The Cougars just completed their third season and survived the COVID-19 pandemic in doing so. The Cougars defeated Mansfield University last week to finish the 2021 season with a 5-2 record, which isn’t too shabby considering the infancy of the program combined with the pandemic that shut down everything.

Five of the players on the 2021 Caldwell University roster are from The Observer’s circulation area. Three of them are from Kelly’s hometown of Nutley and the proud Raider Nation program.

Frank DeMaio is a former Nutley athlete who first went to Delaware Valley University in Doylestown, Pennsylvania to continue his fine wrestling career.

“I found out that school just wasn’t right for me,” DeMaio said. “I came home and worked with my Dad (who is the Nutley director of recreation) for a year. Coach Kelly found out that I was home and asked me if I would play and I said, ‘Why not?’ I had no idea what sprint football was all about.”

DeMaio’s long time friend, Anthony Haines, was already headed to Caldwell to play.

“I just wanted some place to continue playing football,” said Haines, who played football and wrestled for Nutley. “Coach Kelly coached me at the recreation level. I thought it was perfect for me to live at home, play football and still enjoy my Mom’s (Marie) cooking.”

Ironically, the two long-time buddies are the only two quarterbacks on the Caldwell roster. DeMaio never played quarterback before arriving at Caldwell. He was a fine running back and linebacker during his days with the Maroon Raiders. One might think that there might be some fierce competition between the two quarterbacks, but that’s not the case at all. DeMaio is the starter, with Haines as the backup.

DeMaio, a junior at Caldwell, had 322 yards rushing this season with three touchdowns and completed 62 of 129 passes for 1,036 yards and eight touchdowns. Haines completed eight of 15 passes for 96 yards and a touchdown in limited action as a freshman.

“Frank was a senior when I was a freshman at Nutley,” Haines said. “I’m still learning from him. It has been tons of fun playing together. We might be competitive in practice, but come game time, we’re on the same team.”

“Being a quarterback this year has been a blast,” DeMaio said. “I think I wanted to prove that I could still play football.”

DeMaio is majoring in education with the hope of becoming a teacher and coach somewhere in the future. Haines is majoring in sports management and communications.

“I’m grateful to Coach Kelly for bringing me in,” DeMaio said. “It’s been fun to have this Nutley connection here.”

There’s another Nutley player on the Caldwell roster. Fellow freshman Gennaro Longobardi is a slot receiver for the Cougars. Longobardi scored one touchdown this season.

“I spoke to Coach Kelly about playing here,” Longobardi said. “I always dreamed about playing college football, but I’m not the biggest guy in the world. I think this fit perfectly for me. I’ve known Coach Kelly for a long time. He was my coach in eighth grade, so it was good to have a coach who knows me. I’ve also been friends with Anthony (Haines) since third grade and it’s great to be his teammate again. I’m happy he’s with me.”

Longobardi is undecided about his major, but might consider business. He also commutes to and from school.

“I think it’s great we were winners here,” said Longobardi, who along with Haines played on the undefeated Nutley team of 2020 that proved to be the last season of the late Steve DiGregorio’s illustrious career. “I’m proud of my guys here. I couldn’t ask for anything more. We have a young team with a lot of football left in us.”

Joe Witt had a great athletic career at North Arlington, but wanted to have a place to play his primary sport, which is baseball.

But Witt, who is also not the biggest athlete on the planet, learned of sprint football, he was interested.

“Honestly, I had no idea that there was such a thing,” Witt said. “I knew Coach Kelly and knew of the school. I wanted to have a chance to play both sports. I wasn’t going to college to play football, but this is a place where I can play both.”

Witt, a freshman, played quarterback his last two years at North Arlington, but has managed to go back to his natural position of wide receiver at Caldwell.

“Football is still a sport that I love,” said Witt, who is majoring in sports management. “Football wasn’t even a thought for me. I’m very grateful to Coach Kelly for bringing me in. There are a lot of familiar faces here with Haines and Gennaro, guys I played against in baseball. I get along with them all. I just love staying active and I’m glad to play the two sports.”

Witt will play baseball this spring with former NA teammate Eric McKenna, the former Observer Male Athlete of the Year two years ago.

George Escobar was first a soccer player during his high school days at Belleville, but he became a football player due to some prodding by Belleville head football coach Jermain Johnson. Escobar is the Caldwell placekicker who made four field goals this season.

“It’s definitely a different feeling than playing soccer,” said Escobar, a sophomore at Caldwell majoring in political science with the hope of one day working at the United Nations.

Ironically, Escobar’s holder is Haines, and the two have been able to put the old Nutley-Belleville rivalry aside for the good of the Cougars on the gridiron.

“Anthony has become such a great friend,” Escobar said. “We have formed a great friendship. I was just looking for a place for me to kick. It’s a great feeling to be close to home. I never thought I’d be playing college football. It’s such a great time.”

Escobar also converted 17 of 18 extra point attempts.

So its safe to see there is a local connection with the Caldwell University sprint football team.

“It’s been a challenge,” Kelly said. “The fun part is seeing the kids realize what it takes to be successful. I think we’re all living off that enthusiasm. They’re all eager to do the right things. We’re definitely moving in the right direction.”

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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.”