Father Judge senior Dan Toner was utterly fatigued. He was also extremely sore and competitively disappointed.
So then why was he in such a good frame of mind?
“We did something that no other team at Father Judge had ever done,” Toner said. “This was something that none of us will ever, ever forget.”
If you took a poll around the country and asked how many people have ever flown more than 3,000 miles to play a high school football game, odds are you wouldn’t find many.
However, you will find 47 Father Judge Crusaders who can raise their hands and say, yes, our high school team boarded a plane in Philadelphia, had a layover in Boston and then finished a 3,164-mile trip to Shannon, Ireland, followed by a scenic, two-hour bus drive to the city of Dublin, just to play one football game.
“So as we were on the plane coming home,” Toner said, “I was definitely feeling really good deep down even though I was bruised and bummed that we lost the game.”
MORE THAN JUST A GAME
Of course, the five-day stay included much more than a 20-6 loss to Notre Dame Preparatory High School of Scottsdale, Ariz. In fact, as the players and coaches later acknowledged, the gridiron battle was secondary.
In addition to some practice sessions, there was a decent amount of touring, sampling of local cuisine, marching in a parade, a University of Notre Dame football game against Navy and, believe it or not, autograph signings.
Playing a foreign version of a sport called football — which is known as soccer to the Irish and many other countries around the world — the Crusaders were considered mini-celebrities as they met teenage peers before and after playing some American football before an estimated 10,000 fans inside Navan’s Claremont Stadium, about 30 miles outside of Dublin.
“That was absolutely amazing,” senior captain and two-way lineman Vince LoStracco said. “All the Irish kids wanted our jerseys and our spikes. I was never asked to sign an autograph before. I was thinking, ‘Wow! This is what professional athletes get to do every day.’”
LoStracco said he was happy to supply his John Hancock, but as for the other requests, he wasn’t as generous.
“I only have one pair of spikes,” he said with a chuckle. “Some guys gave people their gloves. It was an experience that was beyond cool.”
Like many in the large contingent that included 47 teenage football players, a full coaching staff and many parents and family members, LoStracco had never traveled outside the United States. He had only been on a plane once before, about eight years ago.
In terms of inexperience in the air, senior teammate Brandon Spatz has him beat.
“First time on a plane,” said Spatz, who, like many of his teammates, were admittedly nervous as the plane departed Philadelphia International Airport. “No way was I going to let that stop me. I was really excited from the time we learned about the trip.”
Father Judge head coach Tommy Coyle acknowledged that it was nearly impossible to mention all of the many people who helped make the trip a reality.
Among them were extremely generous alumni, the players’ families that needed to raise $2,000 each, the world-renowned Global Ireland Football Tournament (GIFT), local businesses such as Lloyd Sixsmith Sporting Goods and many anonymous benefactors.
“We have an incredible community,” Coyle said. “The generosity was overwhelming. So much work — so much planning — goes into something as big as this. But I’m not surprised that Father Judge was able to make it happen. I’m really not.”
Although the Crusaders lost the game, Coyle said the result did not diminish the “countless positives” that emerged from the trip.
“We received calls from many people saying how our players were gentlemen and how they handled themselves as young adults and how impressive they were,” Coyle said. “I wasn’t at all surprised to hear that, but it’s always good to hear nonetheless.”
LoStracco said there was “no way” anyone from the team was going to ruin the event. “We were definitely on our best behavior,” he said. “All of us wanted to represent the school well. If anyone had plans to do something stupid, we wouldn’t have let him do it.
“But that never came up because every single player was on board with what we wanted to accomplish, and more than anything else, that was to represent Father Judge well and make sure everyone knew we appreciated what so many others had to do to make this happen.”
Spatz said that, moving forward, the entire Father Judge program would benefit from the Ireland jaunt.
“It’s something that people will always talk about,” Spatz said. “You can’t help but be proud of your school and football team for pulling off something so big.”
“On our way home, I thought about how this was something that I was going to remember for the rest of my life,” Toner said. “It was such an amazing group of people.”
Toner described the Arizona team as “down-to-earth kids” who were “just like me and my buddies.”
“They said they were loving the experience, too,” he said.
While a memorable stop at the famous Cliffs of Moher in County Clare, some 400 feet above the Atlantic Ocean, was a highlight of the trip, perhaps the ultimate experience was sitting in Dublin’s Aviva Stadium watching the University of Notre Dame roll past Navy, 50-10, on a crisp Saturday afternoon.
“I didn’t think the trip could get any better, but that was just unreal,” LoStracco said. “It just kept getting better and better.”
That’s not to say the entire trip was perfect.
“Our hotels didn’t have air conditioning and beds and bathrooms were small,” LoStracco said.
And who complained about that?
“No one,” he said.
And that pretty much says it all. ••