Shore Bulldogs giving a second chance to players

Semi-pro team plays in Old Bridge

BY TIM MORRIS Staff Writer

Staff Writer

Above, Mahaki Burns of the Shore Bulldogs scrambles for a first down during a recent game against the New Jersey Wolves in Old Bridge. Below, Sayreville's Mike Thomas heads downfield for a big gain for the Wolves.  Above, Mahaki Burns of the Shore Bulldogs scrambles for a first down during a recent game against the New Jersey Wolves in Old Bridge. Below, Sayreville’s Mike Thomas heads downfield for a big gain for the Wolves. The Garden State Football League is all about second chances.”Everyone dreams of a second chance,” said Freehold Township’s Emeka Nkwuo.

Nkwuo plays linebacker for the Shore Bulldogs, a first-year team in the GSFL, a semi-pro league that plays its home games at the Old Bridge Rams Pop Warner Football field on Marlboro Road.

Nkwuo, a recent graduate of Rutgers University, had not played football since high school. He tried out for Rutgers as a walk-on but tore a hamstring muscle during the tryouts, and with it, seemingly ended his football career.

“I thought that that was it for me,” he recalled.

Then, while surfing the Internet one day, he learned about the Bulldogs and that they would be holding tryouts in May for the 2006 GSFL season.

PHOTOS BY SCOTT PILLING staff PHOTOS BY SCOTT PILLING staff “I was a little nervous,” he said. “I didn’t know if I still had it. As soon as we put on the pads on the first day, I felt right at home. It’s like riding a bike – you never forget it.”

Nkwuo brought one of his former Patriot teammates to the tryout, Brian Brown, and he is playing defensive tackle.

The Bulldogs, in turn, have given the 1996 Middletown North High School Lions Central Jersey Group IV state sectional champions a second chance to be teammates again.

Mike Cinquegrana, a tight end/free safety for the Bulldogs, played in the league last year with the Jersey Cynder, who play out of Bayonne. Back on the gridiron again, he started making phone calls to his old high school teammates, and soon several ex-Lions joined him.

“Playing with friends, I’m enjoying it,” he said. “The adrenaline before a game gets you flying, reminding you of your youth.”

One of the players Cinquegrana coaxed into playing this year was Mahaki Burns, the quarterback of that state championship team. Aside from some flag football, Burns hasn’t played football since leading the Lions to the CJ IV title at the Meadowlands.

“It’s something I decided to do for fun,” he said. “It’s never too late.”

Burns admits it took a few practices for him to get back into it, but once he did, it was just like Middletown North all over again. In the first two games of the year, he was 11-for-19 passing for 298 yards and two touchdowns.

“After a few weeks I got back into it,” he added. “Everybody has worked hard.”

Having so many players familiar with one another may help explain the Bulldogs’ 4-1 start in their debut season.

“Most of us have played together,” said Cinquegrana. “That makes a big difference.”

Another ex-Lion of that championship team, Jeff Castillo, a linebacker/fullback, lives for the contact that only football provides.

“It’s the collision,” he said. “I like being out there on the field with 10 other guys thinking what I’m thinking.”

Nobody exemplifies dedication like John Zaro, who commutes from Manhattan for practices and games. By day, the Columbia University grad works for Smith Barney, and evenings (practices are Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights) and on weekends he’s knocking heads on the gridiron as the team’s center.

Zaro hadn’t played football since high school in Philadelphia. He was a varsity crew member at Columbia, and that kept him off the gridiron. But football never left him, and that brought him to the Bulldogs.

“I couldn’t give up football,” he said.

Like so many of his teammates, football fills a void for Zaro. It’s the way football physically challenges you on every play that only football can fill for them.

“There’s still something inside you that makes you want to prove yourself,” said Zaro. “It’s fulfilling. I tell my co-workers that it helps me keep the edge.”

Manalapan’s Pat Brandefine is looking for a second chance as well. At 19, he’s the youngest player on the team and just two years removed from playing for the Braves.

“I wanted to play football again,” the offensive tackle said.

The ex-Brave noted that there are players on the Bulldogs who have a lot of football experience, and he is learning from them.

Along with learning from his teammates and becoming a better player, Brandefine is also looking to capture the eye of college scouts. He’d like to play college football.

“I’m looking to get exposure and play football at a four-year school,” he added.

Nkwuo pointed out that over time, this eclectic mix that is the Bulldogs began to mesh, putting them in a position where they are tied for first place in the Southern Division of the GSFL with the New Jersey Wolves (out of Plainfield)

“At first, everyone came from different high schools and colleges,” he said. “It started to jell. It really feels like a team now.”

From what he has seen of the GSFL, Nkwuo said there are a couple of things that have separated the Shore squad from the rest.

“We’re a fast team, we have a lot of speed,” he remarked. “We have a bunch of guys who came from winning programs like Middletown [North] that have won state championships and are used to winning.”

The Garden State Football League has been around since 1997 and has earned a reputation as one of the best semi-pro leagues in the nation, having been named the best first-year league in ’97. There are 12 franchises in the league from four state (New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts). In addition to the Bulldogs, there are the New Jersey Wolves, New England Knights, Brooklyn Mariners, Rockland Bruins, Jersey Cynder, New York State Broncos, Long Island Seahawks, Long Island Eagles, Brooklyn Blue Devils, Reading Raptors and Long Island Tribe.

The teams in the Southern Division with the Bulldogs and Wolves are the Cynder, Bruins, Raptors and Jackets. The 10-game regular season concludes on Sept. 30. The Bulldogs’ final home game in Old Bridge is Sept. 23 at 5:30 p.m. against the Reading Raptors.

The GSFL participates in the U.S. Football Association’s National Tournament as well as all-star games against other leagues. Last year, the league gave its players the opportunity to be evaluated by professional scouts when it held a combine.