The closing ceremonies of the 2012 Olympic games will take place on Sunday in London, and then the athletes and supporters will return to their home countries to reflect on the experiences of a lifetime.
Just over two weeks later, a contingent of more than 150 Northeast Philadelphians will cross the Atlantic Ocean and land roughly 360 miles to the northwest, in Dublin, Ireland, to support their own young heroes. To the Father Judge football community, the trip will be an opportunity of Olympic proportions.
On Aug. 28, Crusader football players, coaches, family, alumni and other supporters will fly to Ireland in preparation for Judge’s opening football game against Notre Dame Prep of Scottsdale, Ariz. The contest will be played three nights later under the lights at a 20,000-seat, grass stadium in Navan, County Meath, about 30 miles outside of Dublin. The trip will culminate the following night with admission to the Notre Dame-Navy game to be played at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium. The Crusader group returns home on Sept. 2.
It’s a plan that’s been in development for well over a year, and now with the departure date rapidly approaching, members of the Crusaders can hardly contain their excitement.
“We all found out on a Saturday morning last season that we were actually going over there, and we’ve been talking about it literally every day since,” said senior offensive and defensive lineman Vince Lostracco. “Not every high school football player gets to go to Ireland to play football…it’s not like it’s a once-a-season thing, you know? It’s once-in-a-lifetime, and we’re all treating it that way.”
“It gives us an opportunity to go over there and show people in a different country how awesome this sport is,” added senior lineman Dan Toner. “We’re going to go out there, knock each other around and have fun doing it. A game like this, an experience like this, will really set the tone for the rest of the season. As a result, we’re treating every practice like a game. There’s no slacking off right now.”
Traveling for the Judge football team is not a completely foreign concept. In the 1980s, under legendary coach John “Whitey” Sullivan, the team kicked off its seasons with a trip to Wildwood to play St. John Neumann near the beach at Maxwell Field. Since those Beach Bowl days, the program has scaled back any grand travel plans, opting to play in closer locales like State College, or against nearby suburban schools such as Neshaminy and Council Rock South.
Current head coach Tommy Coyle, a 1987 Judge grad who got to experience playing down the shore for the Crusaders, fondly remembered the days of getting to play a few blocks from the beach. He wanted to do something special for the current Crusader players, and his longstanding, close relationship with Bill Gallagher, a 1968 Judge alum, allowed the seemingly far-fetched idea slowly come to fruition.
Coyle and Gallagher’s paths first crossed years ago at Penn Charter, where the former was a young assistant on Gallagher’s staff. Years later, Gallagher became involved with Global Football, a division of Global Sports Group, Inc., a Texas-based company owned and operated by Patrick Steenberge, a former teammate of Gallagher’s at Notre Dame in the early 1970s. The Global Sports Group is a “sports special events and international travel organization providing the opportunity for young amateur athletes from different countries to compete against one another, while experiencing and learning firsthand about each other’s cultures,” according to the company’s Web site.
A few former Judge players, such as last year’s captain, Eric Condron, and Dan Toner’s older brother, Kevin, have played with Global Football in Europe under Gallagher, so the idea lingered enough for Coyle to pursue something on a much larger scale.
“In a sense, kids like Eric and Kevin were trailblazers for our kids today,” Coyle said by phone Monday night. “They represented themselves, their community and their school in a first class manner, and that’s sort of where this idea was born.”
With the idea hatched, then came the hard part. Estimated cost per person was approaching $3,000 for airfare, lodging, meals and Navy-Notre Dame game tickets; with a group as sizable as Judge’s contingent, the total figure soon skyrocketed.
Massive fundraising efforts soon began, which culminated in an April 27 benefit that drew close to 800 people. That, combined with the efforts of people like Ed Lloyd, a Judge grad and owner of Lloyd Sixsmith Sporting Goods in Mayfair, has shown even more that few communities rally as strongly as the Crusaders.
“As soon as I heard about it, I was instantly excited and fully behind Tommy,” said Lloyd, whose store has been selling Judge gear and donating proceeds to the Ireland fund. “There are bigger players with deeper pockets than me, but I had the ability as a grassroots guy to help them raise money. Being a Judge alum, it’s exciting for me and my staff to be a part of it.”
Added Gallagher, who will serve as game director: “I was the connection, but from that point on Tommy has just taken this thing and ran with it. He’s done an unbelievable job, as has the Judge community that respects and supports each other.”
There were other hurdles to clear, such as getting clearance from the archdiocese, as well as making sure all of the players, many of whom have never traveled outside the United States, had passports. As Judge assistant Fran Costello quipped, “It wasn’t exactly like planning a trip to the shore.” But once all of the obstacles were in the past and the per person cost was significantly lowered, it was finally time to be able to celebrate the trip of a lifetime.
“I remember the day I went into Tommy’s office and he first brought up the idea to me, I think I asked him, ‘What the hell are you even talking about?’” Costello said with a laugh. “Then I thought, ‘Holy s—-, this is amazing if it’s even remotely possible.
“It’s been a lot of work, and the behind the scenes stuff has been draining,” he continued. “First and foremost, we want to make sure everybody has a safe trip. We also want to go out there and win a football game, but either way, we want the kids to learn from it. It’s about more than just football, and to be able to go over there and experience a different culture together as a team and with our families will be truly special.”
When all was said and done, Coyle and his staff wanted to reward the players with the once-in-a-lifetime trip for conducting themselves in a professional manner on and off school grounds. Few schools in the area preach the importance of personal conduct and giving back to the community stronger than Judge, and those lessons remain for the long haul and are ultimately passed down to future generations of Crusaders.
“The fact that we’ve had so much help [in putting this together] doesn’t surprise me at all,” said Coyle, a Crusader for going on 30 years. “To enhance a young man’s life and give him a positive high school experience is the Father Judge way, and the support has been humbling for all of us. It’s beyond and of our imaginations to be able to share something like this together.”
“Most of our coaches are Judge grads, and all of the different generations have been taught the same thing, from the younger guys all the way up to guys in their 60s and 70s,” Costello added. “We don’t take life, or each other, for granted. We want to see these kids do great things.”
After all of the sightseeing and team and family bonding, the Crusaders know they also have a football game to play, one that could set the tone for their entire season. And there will be no rest for the weary, as Judge will travel to Council Rock South and play under the Friday night lights just a few short days after their return.
Armed with a talented group of senior leaders, Judge players say that they won’t let the big trip distract them from taking care of business back in the states.
“I’d tell all of our fans and supporters to get ready for a fun season,” Lostracco said. “And expect to see us playing for a championship in November.” ••
To purchase travel packages to both games or to watch it live, go to www.gift2012.com. To make a tax-deductible donation, contact the Father Judge football office at 215-338-9494 ext. 1132.EndFragment