EAST RUTHERFORD – Before this season, the only game Paul Sacco missed during his 37-year tenure leading the St. Joseph football program was in 2010, when bleeding in his brain threatened far more than his coaching career.
“They said I was never coaching again,” Sacco said. “I wasn’t even going to live through the night.”
Surgery saved his life, and a week after sitting out a 50-7 triumph over St. Anthony in the state semifinals, he directed his team to a 20-8 Thanksgiving win over Hammonton.
That scary situation has long stuck with Sacco, but it couldn’t compare to what he went through this October, when a racially-insensitive social media video led to the discipline of a pair of players and a two-game suspension of South Jersey’s winningest coach.
“It was devastating,” Sacco said of the discipline. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever went through.”
St. Joseph topped Holy Spirit for the Non-Public 2 state championship. The Wildcats topped the Spartans, 41-22 at MetLife Stadium on Friday, November 30, 2018. Adam Monacelli, Cherry Hill Courier-Post
It’s one of the many reasons Friday night will hold a special place in Sacco’s heart as St. Joseph, the Gridiron Gang’s preseason No. 1 team, overcame the off-the-field incident and a pair of regular-season losses to capture their 27th championship with a 41-22 victory over Holy Spirit in Non-Public 2 final at MetLife Stadium.
“We’ve been here a lot and every time is more special,” Sacco said, “but this is really special because of the adversity we had to overcome this year. We stumbled early in the year, and then we had some problems internally, and to be able to bounce back like this, win our last five games, we didn’t play for three weeks, I’m proud of the kids. I’m proud of my coaches. I’m proud of our fans and our athletic director.”
Sacco wasn’t the only one who overcame hardship to hoist this season’s hardware.
Junior Jada Byers lost his grandma earlier this year and was playing in her honor.
Holy Spirit made it tough on the electrifying tailback, hitting him hard and hitting him often.
In the teams’ first meeting Byers ran for 266 yards, this time he managed only 96.
“He got hit tonight, a bunch of times, but you know what, he’s so resilient,” Sacco said. “He’s getting hit, hit, hit, and all of a sudden he’ll make something happen.”
And Byers did, though he surprised his coach by doing them as a receiver.
He caught a 55-yard TD pass from Jayden Shertel in the first quarter and a 60-yarder in the third.
“I’m like coach, listen, they’re prepared for the run,” said Byers, who finished the year with a single-season school record 35 touchdowns, the last of which was a back-breaking 36-yard run that gave his team a 12-point edge late in the third quarter. “Everybody knows 3 is getting the ball. … I can get open. Quarterback throw me the ball, that’s all I tell him, they cannot stick, that’s how I feel.”
He told his neighbor and “little brother” Ahmad Ross the same thing, and the sophomore delivered with three scores of his own.
“He told me a lot of people sleeping on me, go wake 'em up,” Ross said.
He did that almost immediately, returning an interception 15 yards to the house in the first five minutes of the game, giving the Wildcats an early 8-0 advantage.
Then he upped the ante at the end of the second quarter. Three plays after the Wildcats stopped the Spartans two yards from the end zone, Ross went 88 yards to pay dirt to extend St. Joseph’s lead to 20-6.
“We were just trying, honestly, to get out of here,” said Sacco, saying the Wildcats were attempting to run out the clock. “People in my ear are going let’s throw one up and I’m like no, let’s just not take a chance.”
“I was so happy, I started crying running down field with him,” Byers added. “I met him at the end zone and we celebrated it together.”
Ross then closed the game with a 25-yard TD in the final 90 seconds.
“Before last year’s championship, I had messed up in practice, made some freshman mistakes, and I didn’t get the opportunity to play,” Ross said. “… I just had that on my mind all year, and it was just a perfect way to end it.”
Sacco felt the same way.
“Things happen for a reason.” he said. “I made it through with these kids, they stayed by me, my coaches stayed by me and here we are again.”
Josh Friedman; @JFriedman57; (856) 486-2431; email@example.com
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