Harrison, NA kids finish grid season in style at MetLife Stadium

Bobby Crudele is a Harrison police officer who has been a volunteer coach with the North Arlington Recreation department for ages. Over the years, Crudele has developed a good relationship with the New York Jets, who graciously allowed North Arlington’s junior football team to play at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, when the Giants and Jets were not occupying the facility.

In years past, Crudele set up a game between North Arlington and the Kearny Generals to play there, but the Generals suspended operations last year in wake of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Wanting to keep with tradition, Crudele wanted to see if another local team would be interested in playing there.

“Why not Harrison?” Crudele asked. “I’ve been a cop there for 22 years. I always try to help them out.”

As it turned out, the powers-that-be in Harrison were all for the idea.

“I thought it would be a great opportunity for the kids,” said Mike Camara, a former Observer Athlete of the Week during his playing days at Harrison. “We’re not really a football oriented town.”

No, soccer rules in Harrison. It’s just the way of the world. But Camara has been coaching youth football in Harrison for five years.

“Something like this will encourage signups for the fall,” Camara said. “The kids were all shocked that they were getting a chance to play there. It might be their only chance of going to MetLife.”

The Jets accommodated both teams with tickets for their recent game with the Cincinnati Bengals, a game the Jets won, and then North Arlington and Harrison squared off afterwards.

Although MetLife Stadium can be seen from the outskirts of both municipalities, it might be a light year away for some of these eager youngsters.

“Most 11-and-12 year old kids don’t get a chance to go to MetLife for any reason,” Camara said. “So when we told them, they were really looking forward to this game.”

North Arlington veteran head coach Jay Leiner felt the same way.

“I was excited for the kids,” Leiner said. “We had a tough season. We had a very young team of seventh graders playing eighth graders. Once the kids found out they were going to MetLife, their eyes lit up. They were on Cloud Nine.”

When the two teams arrived at MetLife, they had the same reaction.

“Once the kids stepped into the tunnel, they stopped dead in their tracks,” Leiner said. “They were in such awe. Here were two struggling teams getting an opportunity to play a game there. I’ve been coaching a long time and I never had a chance like that. It was incredible. Our kids are still talking about it. They’re telling their friends that they had a chance to play there. It worked out well.”

“It was a surreal moment coming through the tunnel,” Camara said. “Some of them were quiet and others were hyped up.”

The two teams battled in a defensive struggle, with North Arlington scoring one touchdown to none for Harrison.

Giancarlo Glass scored the game’s lone touchdown for the Junior Vikings. Shane Crudele (Bobby’s son) was the winning quarterback, with linebacker/running back Richie Vargas, running back Eli Gonzalez and middle linebacker/center Allen Frias all having great games for North Arlington.

For Harrison, wide receiver/cornerback Taijan Jennings is a player to watch, so are tight end/defensive end Michael Zamora and fullback/linebacker Julius Fernandez.

“It was a thrill for me, because I’m a lifelong Jets fan,” Camara said. “We were season ticket holders at one point. But this was a good experience for everyone.”

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance,” Leiner said. “Some of these kids may never play football again, but they can say they ended their season at MetLife Stadium. Just seeing the expression on the kids’ faces was what this is all about. It means so much to them. And we’re building the program back up. This can only help. I can’t thank the Jets enough.”

The rebuilding phase is also ongoing in Harrison.

“The town covered the expenses for everything this year,” Camara said. “We got new uniforms. We were happy to get new equipment. We’re hoping that a game like this helps promote the sport a little more. We had full teams across the board, with 20 kids on the pee wees, juniors and seniors. It was good to see.”

After the game, the parents of the kids from both teams got together for a tailgate party.

“We were able to bring the families together for some family and football bonding,” Leiner said.

“It was all totally about the experience,” Crudele said. “They got a chance to play where the Jets and Giants play. They were up on the Jumbotron in the stadium. It was phenomenal for everyone involved.”

And it promoted the sport of football, which has taken a major hit since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Football is coming around again.

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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.”