There has been a lot of coverage about tight ends on the site in the past day. Former Rutgers player Tim Wright signed with the Detroit Lions. Our Bob Cancro previewed the current players at the position as well. It’s only natural that we now discuss the career of the greatest tight end in Rutgers history.
On Sunday, Rutgers held the dedication for the Marco Battaglia Practice Complex, marking a significant step forward for the football program’s facilities. This was made possible due to the generous donation of Jeff and Amy Towers. What I love most about their contribution is they chose to have it named after Rutgers great Marco Battaglia, rather than themselves.
In honoring Battaglia, it ties tradition and past greatness to the modern day era for the program, as head coach Chris Ash works to lead Rutgers up the ladder of the Big Ten. For fans that have lived and died with Rutgers football for the past several decades, an ode to the past, while progressing towards the future, is comforting. It also occurred to me that many younger Rutgers fans never had the pleasure to watch Marco Battaglia play in scarlet and white in the mid-nineties. I wanted to take a minute and point out what a special player he was at Rutgers and what he meant to fans during that time.
Although he had a completely different skill set than current star Janarion Grant, he brought out the same feeling of hope and thought that anything is possible when he was on the field during his Rutgers career. It was also satisfying to watch Battaglia blossom from a player who caught 17 receptions as a freshman, to becoming the consensus best tight end in college football as a senior. He led the team in receptions and receiving yards during the 1994 & 1995 seasons, his last two on the banks. However, his senior year is one of the best all-time campaigns of any Rutgers player ever.
In 11 games, Battaglia had 69 receptions for 894 yards, a 13.0 yard per reception average, and caught 10 touchdowns. He set the tone for his last season on the banks with an epic performance at the Meadowlands against Penn State, one of the best college football teams in the country at the time. They won their 20th straight game overall in a 59-34 defeat of Rutgers that ended in controversy over head coach Doug Graber barking at Penn State head coach Joe Paterno for running up the score. However, I left that game appreciating how special of a player that Battaglia was and how fortunate we were to have him.
He caught 13 receptions for 184 yards and 3 touchdowns in a truly dominant offensive performance. The fact that he produced such numbers with starting quarterback Ray Lucas on the sidelines for most of the game after cutting his hand, made it even more impressive. He showed humility and a team first attitude after the loss, saying "The best games are the ones we win. Stats -- big deal. It comes down to winning and losing. Tonight we lost -- handily."
Although Rutgers only went 4-7 that season, Battaglia never complained, performing so well that he became the program’s first consensus First Team All-American. Battaglia was also the Big East’s Offensive Player of the Year. He led the conference in receptions and receiving touchdowns, besting one of the top receivers in NFL history, Marvin Harrison of Syracuse. Last year, ESPN listed the top tight ends to ever play for all 14 current Big Ten teams and listed Battaglia as the fifth best of all-time.
Although his NFL career produced only modest statistics, he played during an era in the pros before the tight end was used as often as it is today. During the mid to late nineties, only three or four players at that position caught over 50 receptions a season. The last two years in the NFL, ten players surpassed that mark. The Bengals, who Battaglia played the majority of his career for, after being drafted by them in the second round of the 1996 NFL Draft, utilized Battaglia primarily as a blocker in their offense. Despite being unable to produce offensively in the NFL the same way that he did at Rutgers, Battaglia had a solid eight year run, doubling the average playing career in the league. He also played in the NFL in a time when seeing a Rutgers alum on Sunday's was rare, unlike nowadays.
It was never about stats in appreciating the greatness of Battaglia at Rutgers. It was the joy he brought to Rutgers fans who had the pleasure watching him dominate on the field. He broke tackle after tackle and had great speed for a player his size. He left his heart out on the field. During a time when the program struggled to put together a winning season, Battaglia was the chip that fans could use to boast about Rutgers Football. In an era when Rutgers played traditional east coast powers in Penn State and Miami, as well as Virginia Tech, Syracuse and Pitt, Battaglia was the player in scarlet they could never stop, only hoping to contain him. They were often unsuccessful in doing so. Before there was Rob Gronkowski playing tight end, there was Marco Battaglia.
Here is a fantastic congratulatory video that RVision produced in honoring Battaglia for this past Sunday’s practice complex dedication in his name. There are many highlights of his Rutgers career included, which makes it a must watch. It was also great to see so many former Rutgers players and coaches salute him in this video. He continues to be an integral part of the future of the program in his current role as assistant AD for development. Battaglia is a true loyal son and for that, all Rutgers fans should be extremely thankful! Thanks for the memories Marco and congratulations on being honored for your great career.