Second in a two-part series
ROSELLE, N.J. – Friends, fans and supporters of the Jersey Bearcats have reason to celebrate as the Jersey Bearcats football team appears to be headed to the playoffs.
The Jersey Bearcats, who have been around for four seasons, winning the Mid-Atlantic Football League Championship in 2020, took last year to develop their brand and to secure their position as part of the American Arena League. The team plays its home games inside Warinanco Park at the Warinanco Sports Center in Roselle, New Jersey.
Now, in second place at 6-1, the Bearcats had an open practice on Saturday, June 3, after learning on June 1 that their originally scheduled opponent, the United FirePower, had forfeited the game.
Jermaine Sanders, co-founder, president and CEO of the Jersey Bearcats said the front office of the United FirePower had made the decision to shut down operations for the remainder of the season.
With the unexpected change, the Bearcats will have more time to prepare for the last regular season game on Saturday, June 10 (7:30 p.m.). They will take on the Eastern Shore Rage with Youth Football Jersey Night/Bearcats Alumni Night as the theme for the evening.
Sanders and AJ Roque (co-owner and general manager) said with an extremely talented and hungry group of players, they’re optimistic about their post-season prospects.
“We lost a heartbreaker to the Steel City Stampede (Whitehall, Pennsylvania) in our opening game who came back to beat us in the last minutes, 34-32, in a game that we should have won,” he said. “They’re still undefeated but we’re right behind them in second place. It’s been a few years since we’ve been to the playoffs and our guys are hungry. They’ve worked hard all season and we’re proud to be the best offensive team in the league.”
Four teams make the playoffs, with the No. 1 team playing No. 4, and No. 2 taking on No. 3 on June 24, based on the standings at the end of the regular season.
The championship game is slated for July 8. The site for the playoffs is yet to be announced but Sanders believes they will be held on the home field of the team with the best regular season record.
Childhood fantasies can come true but it ain’t easy
Everyone knows the name of Jackie Robinson – the UCLA standout who broke the color barrier in 1947 – becoming the first African American to play Major League Baseball (MLB). But far less is known about four talented and determined Black men who, in 1946, broke the color barrier in the National Football League.
Facing racial slurs, taunts, and threats, they debunked the notion that Blacks were incapable of excelling in the formerly all-white league and blazed a trail for future generations of athletes. They included: Bill Willis and Marion Motley, both with the Cleveland Browns (1946-1953); Kenny Washington, LA Rams, (1946-1948) – also the first African American to sign an NFL contract; and Woody Strode, LA Rams, (1946-1947).
Now, almost 70 years later and with football having eclipsed baseball as the most popular sport in the U.S., African Americans constitute the greatest share of players by ethnic group in the NFL – just over 56% in 2022.
However, race notwithstanding, tens of thousands of today’s youth are putting on their gear and learning the rubrics of the game of football, fueled by dreams of one day playing at a professional level. Unfortunately, the odds are not in their favor.
According to data released by NCAA, there were 1,083,308 high school participants in 2016 – 73,660, nearly 6.8% of them, got the chance to compete in NCAA. Only 16,369 or 22% of those collegiates were deemed Draft Eligible. In the end, just 251 NCAA participants, 1.5% of those Draft Eligible players, were drafted to the NFL.
So, what motivates young men to push their bodies with rigorous training, to ignore the pain that comes with injuries and to refuse to accept the harsh reality of nearly improbable odds that they must overcome to achieve their quest as professional athletes?
You might be surprised to hear what we learned in a recent discussion with a group of athletes who proudly wear the Jersey Bearcats uniform.
Teamwork makes the dream work
Steffen Colón #2, QB, Harlem, New York
Mantra: If you put your mind to it, you can do it. Only you can make yourself quit.
“I’ve dreamed of becoming a professional football player since I was 12 – my three best friends were better in basketball, but football was where I really excelled,” said Colón, 33, who actually did pretty good in basketball, scoring 1,000 points in his high school career.
“My greatest challenge was earning the respect of my coaches, especially when I was younger. They found it hard to believe that a kid from Harlem could be a good quarterback. I decided to transfer from my all-Black high school in New York to one in West Virginia because I knew I had to become a student of the game. When the Bearcats won the championship a few years ago, all the hard work proved to be worth it. And being with guys who I’ve grown close to, some of whom I once played against and are now my teammates, that’s something special. It makes me want to keep working and keep getting better.
“I tell young kids that struggle is a two-syllable word. You must have both short term and long term goals. We’ve all been kids at one time, just learning the game and trying to have fun. Look where I came from. But it’s important to keep trying and to remain focused. You can change your life for the better and help your family as a professional athlete. But that means avoiding negative people and negative situations. If you don’t have someone close to you that can be your role model, pick a pro player and listen to what they say, watch what they do and how they do it. If they were able to achieve their dreams, you can too.”
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Nasir Adams #9, RB/DE/TE/LB, Newark, New Jersey
Mantra: Productivity breeds positivity. You must put in the work to get the desired results. Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift – that’s why they call it a present.
“Where I come from, a lot of people don’t go to college – others drop out of school. But I knew I couldn’t go that route because to move on to the next level in sports, I had to stay in school, and be ready for my opportunity so I could show people what I could do,” said Adams, 23, who plays both offense and defense and is in his first year with the team.
“I’m one of the youngest players on the team and by the fourth practice, I knew that they were more than just a team – we were like a family. That’s important to me especially since I don’t have much of a family myself. Here, the veterans help the younger players and we all work together. It’s something that I hadn’t experienced before – everyone working as one, making me want to be part of that process.
“What I remember most from this season is the first time I heard my name announced. It was like being in the big leagues – unforgettable. Even when I’ve had injuries, I refused to give up. You have to stay tough because while pain is temporary, when you achieve a victory, that’s forever. I believe that my greatest challenge used to be myself. Some people get great opportunities but they give up on themselves. I’m determined to win and to succeed by betting on me.”
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Stevie Puzzo #11, WR, West Caldwell, New Jersey
Mantra: I am the man in the mirror and I believe in me. Each day I am determined to better myself 100%.
“I’ve always dreamed of becoming a professional football player,” said Puzzo, 25. “Football has been my outlet from as long as I can remember. It was fun and I wanted to play. I was an aggressive kid from a big family – big like a football team – so, football was a perfect fit. And I liked it because it’s a contact sport. I don’t know if I’ll make it to the NFL, but I’m confident in my skills at this level. Why shouldn’t I be able to continue to advance? When I talk to young kids, I encourage them to go after their dreams. I’m honored to be able to inspire them. But I practice what I preach – I’m going after my dreams each and every day.”
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Kyle Ward #6, WR, Asbury Park, New Jersey
Mantra: Always remember the greatest competitor you will face is yourself.
“I began playing football at 14 – now, I’m in my third season and every moment is amazing,” said Ward, 27. “It’s a brotherhood – a family – and the owners make it more than just football. I came from some challenging conditions as a youth. My parents weren’t working and we were struggling financially. My cleats had holes in them and with the violence around me in the hood, I had to steer clear of getting into the wrong kind of situations. Things are so much better for me and my family today. I just want to help them, show them I love them and continue to create positive memories. And our coaches are more like life coaches. I think anyone who really loves this game like I do has dreams of going pro. For me, football is my passion and my escape.
“We meet a lot of kids after our games and I tell them that any sport, including football, can change your life. Maybe it helps you release anger or frustration. Maybe it’s a way to go to college with a scholarship, even if pro sports aren’t in your future. There are so many positives. You can be a different person with sports if you stay focused and avoid the negative roads.
“I remember hearing my name announced during my first game. That was like being in the big leagues – I had really achieved something special.”
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Joey Ramirez #88, DE, Eatontown, New Jersey
Mantra: Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.
“I’ve always been playing football – at least since I was six and I’ve always wanted to move up to the highest level possible,” said Ramirez, 31. “My parents put me in all kinds of sports but one of my earliest memories with football involved one-on-one tackling drills. I was out running and got tagged – knocked down. My dad asked me if that was what I wanted to keep trying to do and I remember immediately telling him I did. It wasn’t long before I moved to defense – I like the hitting part better.
“My greatest challenge has been being undersized. I’m 260 lbs. now but in high school, playing defensive end and on the line, I was 180 lbs. going against guys who were 300 lbs. – sometimes double my size. But I was fast and I was strong. My advice: never take skinny kids for granted.
“I’ve been in the league for six years and with the Bearcats for three – winning the championship my second year with the team was the best experience I’ve ever had. And it was my first at any level of the sport.
“I’ve always been goal-oriented and focused. For young kids, peer pressure is often their downfall. But I tell them one mistake can ruin everything. It’s often the kid who hangs with the wrong crowd one time and they’re the one who is caught and loses the scholarship. If you’re serious, you’ve got to keep pushing toward your goal. But it’s also important to make sure you’re having fun. Some kids get burned out from the pressure of the game or from their parents. If you do something that you love, you’ll keep working hard to get better. Tomorrow has all kinds of possibilities for me but right now. I just want to help our team keep winning and gelling.”
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Jervonne Young #99, Defensive Line, Newark, New Jersey
Mantra: Not all superheroes wear capes. What you put in is what you get. If you put in just enough, maybe you’ll get just enough back.
“Playing football has always been my dream – probably since I was around eight,” said Young, 22, who spent his formative years in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. “You must have the will to play and be physically strong and strong-minded. I’m a big man but I’m also quick on my feet.
“Because of the pandemic, this is my first full season with the Bearcats – before this I played for the Jacksonville Sharks (National Arena League). Being one of the youngest players and new to the team, I’m still getting used to things but from day one, I’ve been working as hard as I can. And the practices have been intense. I knew this was where I should be when we went to North Carolina for a game. I got to know my teammates so much better – beyond the practices – what they liked and what they were all about. We really bonded and I now look at them, especially our quarterback, Steffen, as my brothers.
“Poor grades in college forced me to have to stop playing football and I thought I was done forever. But I continued to train, eventually moved to Florida, and was later signed with the Sharks. I follow the same advice that I give to young kids: keep working; practice the things you do well over and over again; and believe in yourself. And instead of striking out at others who may want to hurt you or persuade to do the wrong thing, I tell kids, especially Black youth, that we should look at and treat each other like we’re family.”
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For part one of this series, visit https://njurbannews.com/2023/04/09/american-arena-leagues-jersey-bearcats-poised-for-april-15-season-opener/
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Jersey Bearcats were notified on June 6 that their final game of the regular season had been cancelled. Their opponent forfeited the game. No additional details have been received to explain the decision. However, this now puts the Bearcats at 7-1 — second place in the league. Their focus now turns to the playoffs, scheduled for June 24. Look for further updates as they become available.