It was a cool sunny day in Boston. With the light beating down on my knees and sweat dripping from my brow, I watched nervously what I had seldom seen all day: the Rutgers offense steadily marching toward me in brutally-fought increments. The Knights were down 21-15, and after having given up some big plays and making a few mistakes in the first half, they’d tightened up in the second. About halfway through their advance up the field, starting running back Kyle Monangai went down with a minor injury. No. 26 Rutgers took his place.
The young man who donned that number was redshirt freshmen Al-Shadee Salaam. I’d long been waiting to see what the East Orange speedster could do on the field, long believing that he could be a major difference maker. Myself, nor any other Rutgers fan was disappointed. We watched in awe from that endzone as Salaam took his next two carries 45 yards toward us, through and around Boston College defenders, and past the pylon for the game-winning score. I stood and cheered for Rutgers, and I cheered for Essex County.
I’d made that trip to Boston from my home in Downtown Newark, a city and a greater metropolitan area oozing with Jersey pride, yet sometimes overlooked in terms of Rutgers affiliation. But the Rutgers-Newark campus and Newark skyline boast glittering scarlet block Rs perched atop the medical school and business school, prominent pieces of the cityscape. Many of the kids who grow up here see those monolithic symbols their whole lives, and dream of playing for their home-state university, at the flagship campus in New Brunswick. After the game, Salaam made that clear:“As a kid, I always wanted to do it. Play for my home state.”
Salaam is not the only current player who hails from Essex County. The aforementioned Kyle Monangai is a Roseland native, and there are quite a few others. Defensive back Shaquan Loyal played for West Side High in Newark, an iconic historic institution and South Orange Avenue landmark. But West Side is the same high school where Principal Akbar Cook opened the doors from 6-11 p.m. on certain nights just to give neighborhood kids a safe place to hang out, and where he installed an in-house laundry room to fend off bullying. Loyal lost his older brother, Shakur, in 2017, and he has a young daughter to think about. Loyal’s parents, who support him at every game reported to NJ.com’s Patrick Lanni, that they just love to see him on the field, and try to help keep him motivated. The adversity in this city is nothing light. People who’ve made their lives in the dense, urban part of eastern Essex possess a certain edge, a certain element of hard-fought Jersey grit that is hard to replicate.
Sitting in the stands in South Philadelphia, watching as the Scarlet Knights’ offense struggled to get anything going, and seeing young Temple quarterback E.J. Warner drop back to pass on 3rd and 9, I caught another glimpse of that Essex edge. Shaquan Loyal came on a corner blitz and was able to knock Warner’s pass in the air. Rather than being content with just a busted play, Loyal located the ball in the air, caught it, and left the field behind as he sprinted into the endzone for the go-ahead score. It would be the only touchdown the Knights scored all day, and it was a big part of the difference in the game. “I saw that his eyes got really big. I knew he was about to give me the delivery, so I just put my hands up and made the play.” Loyal said.
Both these young man honed their craft in the public schools of their respective hometowns. Salaam was a standout at running back and corner back for East Orange, and Loyal starred at corner and wide receiver for West Side. In a time where so many sought-after recruits hail from parochial schools, add that as an extra element of undeterred achievement.
Two tough road games. Two wins. Two game-defining touchdowns by two second-year young players from the same area of eastern Essex County. Watching both those plays, I found it difficult to picture any other player with the requisite level of swagger, determination, and pride who could’ve gotten it done for the State University of New Jersey in the same way. And this is exactly what they came to do, to be difference makers at home. I’ve long anticipated the young men of this city bringing their unique talents and skillset from the Passaic to the Raritan, and with several years still to go for both these young men, the future on the banks, is bright.