The "Friday Night Lights" football game against the rival Governor Livingston Highlanders drew Hilltoppers to the tune of 3,000 to see the game at . Field goal after field goal left the Highlanders with a 42-point deficit by the time it was all over.
The three-peat started less than a minute after the game started with a kick-off return by Nicholas Watts, the first goal of the night; followed by double touchdowns by Austin Carbone and Mike Badgley. The door was left open for AJ Iarussi, Colm Dougherty and Luke Stephens to each score a touchdown.
It was a great night. The atmosphere was festive, the rain stayed away and the band played on to the "Jersey Boys" tunes at half time.
As kids approached Coach of the New Jersey Jets (whose son Seth is on the team) for a picture, he credited the Hilltopper's great teamwork to . “He’s a solid football coach. He is very positive with the kids, he works them hard and he and his staff do a great job.”
As to his Jets team, the coach said, “ I wish we were undefeated, (like the Hilltoppers), but the season is still young and we have many more games ahead of us."
The night was a night of many firsts. For Michelle Kennedy, co-president of the , the organization spearheading the Hilltoppers Weekend Celebration: “The response was great!
"Together with the music parents, the fire department, and the local Towne Deli, we were able to bring the crowds and fundraise for the school activities, all in one. It was a community effort,” she said.
At the event known as the “lights” game because it's held at night and not on a Saturday afternoon as most games are played, it was also the first time Summit High School retired three jerseys honoring some of the greatest Hilltopper athletes to ever play. Tommy Odell, Willie Wilson and Johnny Mallory's numbers were retired and forever etched at the top of the announcers booth at Tatlock Field.
Odell and Wilson wore #21 and Malory wore #22. All three were All-American Stars and lead their teams to many victories. Mallory, All-State in 1963 in football, basketball and track, now a retired ATT&T executive who has returned to live in Summit said this was a very special night because the ceremony retiring his jersey was significant, and also because it also “means that nobody will ever be able to wear numbers 21 and 22 again.”
He said he is proud to have grown up in Summit, not just for its great “football tradition” but also for its academic programs and the parent and teacher support. He says he comes to the games four or five times per year and he will continue to come to the games, something he remembers doing since he was five, when he would come to see his big brother Willie play. “I’ve been watching football here for 55 years, maybe even 60 years, when I was five and my brother Willie was playing.”
Tom Odell, who led his teams in 1968, '69, and 70 to three state titles and later went on to play with the New England Patriots, said he comes back to see the Summit Hilltoppers about five times a year and “helps the team now and then” when Coach Liberato asks him. He currently lives with his wife and four daughters in Madison and he credits the organizers with tonight’s turnout. “I hope they keep having these celebrations,” he said.
Willie Wilson a ’74 All-Star, is considered one of Summit Hilltoppers’ greatest athletes, who went on to play with the Kansas City Royals. He was not present. Mike Vernotico, master of ceremonies for the pre-game ceremony, said Wilson who lives now in Toronto, was unable to make tonight’s event.
The game began about three years ago when organizers looking to promote Summit High School’s football program got the assistance they needed from the Summit Boosters Association. According to Michelle Kennedy “Summit had never had football games at night or on Fridays and we wanted to create a spirited community event. So we rented lights and coordinated with other groups as a way to support the football team and to celebrate the community and the school spirit.”
Pre-game activities included a tailgate party at Tatlock Field with the sale of snacks by the Summit Music Parents who sold hot dogs, chicken nuggets and hot pretzels. The Booster table, staffed by Jenny Carbone and others, featured T-shirts, pom-poms and megaphones. Carbone said, “We are doing great. The t-shirts are selling like hot cakes.”
Towne Deli contributed by selling items from their menu including pulled pork sandwiches, chili and macaroni and cheese. The game started promptly at 7:00 p.m.
The Hilltoppers Weekend events continue on Saturday with the Girls Varsity Field Hockey game at Kent Place, Girls Varsity Tennis Tournament at Memorial, Boys and Girls Soccer games, and much more.
On Sunday a 5k run and a 2-mile walk sponsored by the YMCA and a dinner will close the three-day festivities.
Summit High School Principal Paul Sears, who was keeping guard by the entrance to the football field said, “We have great extra curricular activities across the board, and this is great for the kids to get involved. The more the kids are involved in high school activities the better they do in academics. I live in Jamesburg and I commute up here because it’s a great community and a great school system. Here the kids start seeing themselves as part of the high school since they are very young.”
A similar comment came from Patricia Sheaffer, who was at the game with her daughter Hannah, 9, her friends Sydney, 10, and Julia, 9. She said, “We come to games all the time because we love watching the team, the cheerleaders, and we enjoy half-time because we have friends in the band and we love to see them play.”
Then she whispered, “I think Hannah wants to be a cheerleader.” Sheaffer said she has been living in Summit for seven years. She grew up in South Jersey in Brigantine and lived in New York City for 10 years and she believes: “Summit is beautiful and friendly, and a vey supportive community.” She had a message for the organizers about the Friday Night Lights: “I wish they did this every year. It gives a great sense of community and it’s a great fundraiser for the schools.”
This was the first game ever for Denice Christian, 34, and her 2 year-old daughter Ciara. She has two other daughters Maliya, 8, and Aja, 15, who is a cheerleader. She said she moved to Summit from Hillside because Summit has a better school system and she said, “Moving to Summit has made a huge impact in our lives. We enjoy the school system and I look forward to raising all of my children here,” she said. “This is my first time here (at the game) and it’s awesome!” It’s great to see Summit supporting its own.” For Fred Swick, Class of ’51, a retired magistrate and former Special Agent with the IRS, who know lives in Virginia. He was motivated to come to the "Friday Night Lights" game with his sister, Jean Taylor, a retired Summit science teacher, because he heard they were retiring Tommy Odell’s jersey, and he considered Odell part of his family. “He played football with my brother Gary and they graduated together,” said Swick.
He also came to his 60th class reunion, an event he found sad and happy at the same time since many of his friends are now gone. “So it’s happiness and sadness remembering those who have died,” he said.
Many of the class reunions and the first-ever Alumni Night was organized by Peter Laughlin, Class of ’75, President, and Kim Bredahl, Vice President, members of the first-ever Summit Schools Alumni Association, a non-profit organization created in February 2010. Laughlin said the alumni association came about because “many private schools are able to keep in touch with their graduates thru programs sponsored by their budgets, and Summit High School being a public school, does not have a system to maintain a relationship with its graduates,” he said. “So, a small group of alumni, serving on a volunteer basis, organized events this weekend to coincide with the 'Friday Night Lights' game and the Hilltoppers Weekend in what we hope if the keystone to our alumni outreach program."
But this wasn’t just a class reunion, it was also neighbors seeing each other after a long time, Steve Derienzo, 45, who now lives in Scotch Plains, came to the game with his dad, Al, and faithful neighbor Luke Stevens, when they heard Willie Wilson’s jersey was going to be retired. Derienzo said he grew up watching Willie (Wilson). He had not seen his dad and neighbor at the game in a very long time.The triumphant Hilltoppers received the winning trophy from President and , sponsors of the event. The MVP from both teams will each receive a $500 scholarship and a plaque that will be presented to them at their respective teams scholarship dinners. Billy Hadley, No. 54, was sidelined with a hit to the left knee and remained out the last few minutes of the game. He said he's going to be all right. His teammates took turns coming by to see how he was. Coach Liberado said, “the special thing about tonight’s game is not just playing Gov. Livingston, I think it’s great our kids know they are playing for all the Hilltoppers before them.”
Summit is celebrating “Hilltoppers Weekend” with sports, arts, music, alumni reunions and many more. The events culminate on Sunday with a 5K/2 mile and dinner at the Broadway Diner. Follow the events on Twitter @HilltopperWkend