Cast away

  • Lend a hand: Father Judge senior linebacker and captain Joe Nigro said there was ‘no way’ a broken bone in his left hand would prevent him from playing in the Catholic League semifinals. Though the Crusaders fell to La Salle, 35-0, Nigro played the entire game despite most of his left arm being covered in a cast. BILL ACHUFF / FOR THE TIMES

  • Lend a hand: Father Judge senior linebacker and captain Joe Nigro said there was ‘no way’ a broken bone in his left hand would prevent him from playing in the Catholic League semifinals. Though the Crusaders fell to La Salle, 35-0, Nigro played the entire game despite most of his left arm being covered in a cast. BILL ACHUFF / FOR THE TIMES

By the time the third quarter had ended in Fri­day night’s Cath­ol­ic League foot­ball semi­final con­test at Ply­mouth-White­m­arsh High School, the dam­age had long been done.

La Salle held a com­mand­ing 35-0 lead on a night where everything went right for the five-time reign­ing champs; on the vis­it­ing side­line, the in­verse was true for the chal­lenger, Fath­er Judge, which had come with­in one point of beat­ing this same Ex­plorers team a month ago.

But still, even in the midst of the sea­son’s worst, most lop­sided loss, a last­ing im­age of a team that re­fused to quit broke through in the form of its de­fens­ive cap­tain. And his cast. 

Oh, that cast.

Seni­or middle line­back­er Joe Nig­ro played the en­tire game with an enorm­ous, bulky cast cov­er­ing most of his left arm. It was de­signed to pro­tect a broken second meta­carpal, an in­jury he suffered while mak­ing a tackle in a 10-7 win over Ro­man Cath­ol­ic the week be­fore. 

Nig­ro may have been battered, and his team may have been trail­ing by five touch­downs, but he wasn’t com­ing off the field. In the last post­season con­test of his high school ca­reer, noth­ing short of hand­cuffs and a squad car would have been able to re­move Judge’s uber-in­tense de­fens­ive lead­er from the bat­tle­field.

“I went to the doc­tor and he said I didn’t need sur­gery, and as long as I didn’t need sur­gery, I could play,” Nig­ro said. “It’s the play­offs of my seni­or year. I wasn’t go­ing to miss it. There was no way. I had to get used to the cast, and it was more dif­fi­cult com­ing off blocks and wrap­ping up guys, but once I got used to it I was pretty ef­fect­ive. It wasn’t that bad.”

It surely wasn’t pleas­ur­able for Nig­ro and his team­mates to watch La Salle quar­ter­back Kyle Shur­mur throw for 258 yards and a city play­off re­cord five touch­down passes, but they fin­ished the job they star­ted non­ethe­less. It wasn’t long ago when Nig­ro and com­pany stood toe-to-toe with the Ex­plorers, build­ing a 16-0 lead on Oct. 5 be­fore Shur­mur burned the Cru­saders for two TD passes, in­clud­ing the go-ahead one in the fourth quarter.

“They just ex­ecuted, their of­fense passed a lot on us and our of­fense couldn’t get any­thing go­ing,” Nig­ro said. “In the first game, we forced some turnovers and this time around they just did a bet­ter job. 

“You just play your heart out the en­tire game, you nev­er give up. That’s how I was brought up to play. You have pride in your­self and you play the whole game the hard­est you can. We just wanted to go out this sea­son and earn some re­spect back while play­ing our hard­est. I think we did a pretty good job of do­ing that.”

Blo­wout loss to La Salle (8-2) not­with­stand­ing, Nig­ro and the Cru­saders (6-4) ex­per­i­enced more peaks than val­leys un­der first-year head coach Mike McKay. Nig­ro ad­mit­ted there was a bit of a get­ting-to-know-you peri­od when McKay re­placed Tommy Coyle (Coyle left for Penn Charter after 13 years as head coach), but that things soon began fall­ing in­to place.

After Judge gave up 30 points in the first half in the sea­son-open­ing loss to Epis­copal, Nig­ro and com­pany pos­ted 17 con­sec­ut­ive sco­re­less quar­ters on de­fense. In that time, Judge outscored its op­pon­ents, 143-0; des­pite al­low­ing crooked num­bers to St. Joseph’s Prep (reg­u­lar sea­son) and La Salle (post­season), Judge still al­lowed just 15.7 points per game as a unit, even more im­press­ive when con­sid­er­ing the over­all qual­ity of the league — even last place Arch­bish­op Ry­an boas­ted an of­fense that av­er­aged just un­der 30 points per game.

“Those shutouts, we took a lot of pride in that as a de­fense and as a team,” Nig­ro said. “When we even­tu­ally let up some points (four games later), we wanted to move on and start an­oth­er streak. We went out there and played our hearts out every game, to prove to ourselves that we could com­pete. We also tried to go out there and have the best time we could. I’m very happy with how this sea­son went.”

Des­pite be­ing elim­in­ated by La Salle, the sea­son isn’t over yet for Nig­ro and the Cru­saders. They still have the an­nu­al Thanks­giv­ing game with Lin­coln to look for­ward to, mean­ing they have a few more weeks to­geth­er as a team. Still hav­ing a game plan to fo­cus on and a goal to pre­pare for means everything to Nig­ro and the rest of the Judge seni­ors.

“We have off this week, and it’s already start­ing to hit me that it’s al­most over,” he said. “I already miss it. I want to be out there prac­ti­cing, even though there were plenty of times when it was a struggle just to put on pads be­cause I didn’t want to be out there. Now that there’s not too much time left, I want to be out there more than any­thing.”

Count McKay as one of Nig­ro’s biggest fans.

“Joe didn’t have to be the biggest or fast­est guy to be suc­cess­ful,” McKay said. “Those oth­er in­tan­gibles come in to play when it relates to Joe, like heart, tough­ness and a de­sire to suc­ceed. He anchored the middle at line­back­er.

“Joe has been bat­tling in­jur­ies since the sum­mer, and he would do any­thing to get on the field and stay there. He’s been com­mit­ted since I met him. He led by exmaple with how he prac­ticed, pre­pared and worked right up through the game. He is re­spec­ted by his team­mates and coaches for that. Per­son­ally, he is one of the cap­tains and seni­ors on my first team at Judge and was in­stru­ment­al in some of the suc­cess we had. Al­though he will move on to fu­ture suc­cesses, his con­tri­bu­tions to Judge — and my­self — can­not be re­placed.”

Nig­ro is still fig­ur­ing out his col­lege plans for next fall. He doesn’t know where he’ll head next, though he did men­tion that he would like to con­tin­ue play­ing foot­ball while study­ing something in the math­em­at­ics field, maybe en­gin­eer­ing. He said the fu­ture of the pro­gram un­der McKay’s dir­ec­tion is bright with un­lim­ited po­ten­tial, and Nig­ro be­lieves it won’t be long be­fore someone — hope­fully Judge, he said — un­seats the Ex­plorers as Cath­ol­ic League cham­pi­ons.

For now, he just wants to en­joy the pre­cious months he has left with his class­mates at a school that, like so many stu­dent-ath­letes who walk through these halls and play on these fields, has grown to mean so much to him. 

“I want to make the best of it, the time I have left here with my friends,” he said. “A lot of us will go to col­lege and I know I won’t see many of them for a long time. I want to just not take it for gran­ted. This sea­son, I didn’t think it would go that fast, but it did. Some­times I feel like maybe I did take my time here for gran­ted, so I’m fo­cused on fin­ish­ing strong and hav­ing the best time I can.

“I love the school. It’s taught me a lot of life les­sons, like how to work hard and al­ways be de­term­ined. It means a lot to me. It’s not just a school, it’s a fam­ily. Every­one is so close to­geth­er, and we all get along. You want to do any­thing to help that per­son next to you. I’m def­in­itely go­ing to miss it here, but at least it’s giv­en me so many good memor­ies.” ••

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