When the high school football City All-Star Game rolls through town, there are no shortages of things to play for.
With a father and uncle who had played in this contest once upon a time, Connor Golden and Connor Rooney had legacies to honor. Meanwhile, Joe Nigro vowed to go hard on every single play in honor of a seriously injured teammate who was unable to lace them up.
They all promised themselves — and each other — one thing: the players who made up the Non-Public League roster would leave it all out on the field in their final contest as high school football players. They owed that to their teammates, old and new.
When the clock ran out at Northeast’s Charlie Martin Stadium on a pristine Saturday night, Rooney, Golden, Nigro and their Non-Public teammates had prevailed over the Public League, 34-20, in the city’s 40th annual all-star football showcase. Thanks to a stellar defensive effort by the three aforementioned players, as well as many others, this trio got to walk off the gridiron one last time as winners.
And after spending the previous four years trying to one-up each other in the rugged Catholic League, the rivals-turned-teammates all enjoyed the ride, brief as it may have been.
“My dad played in this game his senior year at North Catholic, so it meant a lot to him to see me play in the same one,” said Golden, a wide receiver/free safety from Archbishop Ryan who will play his college ball at Bucknell University in the fall. “Now, I’ll always be a part of history. Not everyone gets to say that, so it was pretty cool to be chosen.”
Rooney, a linebacker and Raider teammate, agreed with Golden.
“I had an uncle who played in it, and he came to watch me,” said Rooney, who had six tackles in the victory. “It’s interesting, because all of a sudden the guys you were so used to trying to stop are playing on your side. There’s a lot of talent on both sides. There’s a little weirdness, socially, at first, but after two or three practices everyone comes together nicely.”
In all, seven Ryan players and five from Father Judge, including Nigro, participated in the game. The Non-Public squad, which also featured players from the Inter-Ac League, jumped out to an early 14-0 lead; Cardinal O’Hara’s LaMont Veal scored on a 26-yard run on the game’s first drive. Later, after Ryan’s Jesse Wireman recovered a fumble to thwart a burgeoning Public drive, the Non-Pub went on a 14-play, 91-yard drive punctuated by Dashawn Darden’s (O’Hara) eight-yard TD pass to Kendall Singleton (Archbishop Wood).
Samuel Fels superstar Jylil Reeder (3 catches, 140 yards) scored on an 80-yard TD strike to make the score 14-6, but the Non-Pub scored the next three touchdowns, including Rooney pressuring the quarterback into throwing a 55-yard pick-six to make the score 21-6. Veal and Singleton would score again, before the Public League scored two straight times to end it, including Washington wideout Hassan Brockman’s 44-yard TD catch. Reeder was named the offensive MVP on the Public side.
It was a dominant defensive effort, as the Non-Public team allowed just 47 rushing yards on 25 carries while forcing four turnovers. Nigro, a middle linebacker who was a defensive stalwart for the Crusaders, was heavily involved in the action.
“I couldn’t ask for a better way to end my high school football career,” he said. “These last four years, I never thought I’d end up being friends with my rivals, guys I’ve played against. As the practices for this game went on, we became closer and closer. I can say I made a lot of new friends, which is pretty cool.”
Nigro and the other Judge players in the game had even more to play for. One of their Crusader teammates, Jim Galasso, was selected to play in the game but was unable to go after he and two other Judge student-athletes were attacked during a March 21 altercation on Rowland Avenue near Lincoln High School. During the incident, the trio was stabbed a combined 20 times, including 11 wounds for Galasso, the most seriously injured of the three.
Unable to play, Galasso sat in a wheelchair on the sideline with his mom, Joanne, close by. While the other two attack victims, cousin Joe Galasso and football teammate Tom Bayer, have returned to school, Jim Galasso has not. He cannot walk without the aid of crutches, and is mostly confined to a wheelchair with his left leg immobilized in a large brace.
“It killed me seeing Jimmy not being able to play,” Nigro said. “I’m used to see him lining up next to me on defense. It’s great to see that he’s doing better, but it kills me that he couldn’t be out there with me. Having your teammates out there, it gives you a comfort level. It’s what you’re used to, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
For Nigro and Rooney, the game represented one final shot to play together as teammates. The two grew up playing together for Holmesburg Boys Club before deciding to attend rival high schools.
“We played together from, I’d say, age 5 to 14,” Rooney said. “Even when we went to rival high schools, he was still one of my best friends. We’ve been close for a long time. We’re going to different colleges, so it was great for us to play together one last time, and for our parents, as well.”
Above all else, the City All-Star Game gives these student-athletes, ones who have worked so tirelessly perfecting their craft the last four years, one final shot at glory before graduation, adulthood and the real world come calling in the coming weeks and months.
It’s their version of a curtain call, one final occasion to go out and proudly represent their school and teammates one more time. After that, everything will change, something the players are all cognizant of.
“School ends, then I leave for Bucknell in early July,” Golden said. “It’s kind of cool, and I can’t wait for college, but I don’t want to leave all my friends behind. There’s mixed feelings. It’s hard to join a new team after being with the same guys the last four years. It kind of hit me at the end there that this was the last one. But it still feels good to say we did something special.”
“We knew this was important, and above all else, we wanted to win,” said Nigro, who will play football in the fall at Delaware Valley College. “Judge has been my second family and will be for the rest of my life. You’re football players, sweating every day doing whatever it takes. It’s a family that sticks with you forever, and I can also say I made some new friends on top of that the last few weeks. That’s what makes it the best experience for me.”
Like the other two, Rooney said it was something he’ll remember forever.
“I’ll always remember how every guy just played a great game,” said Rooney, whose next stop is Moravian College. “My little brother is 7 years old and he’s already playing football. Maybe when the 50th game comes around, I’ll be able to watch him play in this game. The entire experience is something I’ll never forget.” ••