By Justin Feil, The Packet Group
When Chris Rossi returned to his Hillsborough home for winter break, it was as an All-America, ECAC all-star and All-Northeast-10 Conference lineman.
Most importantly, he returned with a championship, something that he had always played for with the Hillsborough High School football team. Five years after his graduation, he got his title as a red-shirt senior captain for LIU Post, also referred to as CW Post. The Division II team won the NE-10 Conference Championship, and Rossi’s contributions did not go unrecognized.
”I would definitely say it does add to it,” Rossi said. “They’re all on different levels. The conference, that’s your conference. And the all-star one, I don’t know exactly who makes up the ECAC, but there were guys from Michigan and Ohio. Then All-America, it’s second team All-America, but there are kids from Colorado, Virginia, Florida, all over the country. To have my name mentioned with those kids, it was an honor.
”But I could have not had that, as long as we had a team championship I would have been happy. Winning the Northeast 10 championship and making playoffs, that was the real icing on the cake.”
Rossi is still going to the gym, now trying to slim down from the 285 pounds that he played at, and is at peace with ending his football career. His long journey to a college conference title began 17 years ago and every step he took in Hillsborough prepared him.
”I played Junior Raiders from the time I was 5,” Rossi recalled. “I played high school football all four years. It comes back to all the coaches I had. My dad was my coach until I went to high school. Steve Ughetta, he was a longtime Junior Raider coach. Coach (Fred) Keiper, he was a longtime coach. He was around. Coach (Don) Adams, all those guys. Coach (Jim) McFarland. I was really prepared to go to school and play football.
”I always wanted to play college football. My coaches knew that and always were working me hard. It’s all the little things. I learned that coming up from the Junior Raiders. It’s the hard work and the little things that can set you apart from the next guy.”
Rossi left HHS, where he also wrestled, as an offensive tackle. He red-shirted along with most of his class when he arrived at LIU Post. He practiced every day and used the year to prepare himself for the rigors of college.
”Ninety-nine percent of freshmen offensive and defensive linemen aren’t ready to play,” Rossi said. “‘You’re not physically ready to go up against a 22-year-old who’s been in a program four years. It’s off the field too — it’s academics. We have the ACE program, where you have a sign-in card that you get your professor to sign to show you’re going to class. There are different programs. It’s adjusting to life away from home. We had a lot of seniors and we all went through it. It was interesting to see how we grew through it.
”There’s some red-shirts that got to travel with the team and I was one of them. It was a great experience. You get to see how the team operates on the road, stay in the hotel, get the per diems, and we had meetings until 10-10:30 at night. I got to see my parents every weekend which eases homesickness too. I think it’s the best route for the majority of kids. It does give them a lot of aspects of college life and a way to assimilate.”
From there, it was Post trying to figure out where best to use Rossi. He played defense in his red-shirt year, but he was happy to move back to the offensive side in his red-shirt freshman year. He started the next year at left guard, then last year he started at right guard before moving to center. This year, he played both guard spots and center again.
”They really had me moving around,” Rossi said. “When it came down to it, my most accurate position was center.”
Rossi was one of four Post players named to the first-team All-NE-10 team along with quarterback Steven Laurino, tight end Sean Binckes and wide receiver Shane Hubbard. Wherever Rossi played, the three-year starter tried to be an asset to less experienced players.
”Our quarterback was a fifth-year senior too, so we had a good quarterback-center combination,” Rossi said. “We did a lot of silent counts. He would tell me when he was ready and then I was snap it when I wanted to. He knew what I was thinking, and I knew what he was thinking. At one point we had a true freshman at left guard. He really grew into the position. He could come to me with a question or on the sideline, I knew what he was doing and could help him. As center, you have to know what everyone is doing.
”Towards the end of the year, we’d come off the field, after a touchdown, or interception or anything, and the offensive line coach who was offensive coordinator, he’d ask me what I was seeing out there. We helped the offensive line come together. It was important to have at least one experienced guy on the offensive line.”
Rossi had come in to a Pioneers program that had success in his first two years. It was a slow growth process to find success this season.
”My first two years, we were 7-4, but I wasn’t playing,” Rossi said. “It was great to see that group of seniors do well, but for me personally, it feels like you’re not doing too much. My first year starting, we were 3-7. Then junior year, we were 5-6. Then this year, we lost our first game, which was a close game to East Stroudsburg. Everyone was like, we have to pick this up and make sure it doesn’t turn into last two years. Then we won on the last play against New Haven. We used that momentum and it was a snowball-fest from there.”
LIU Post had the chance to avenge one of its losses when it met American International College for the Northeast-10 Conference championship. American International had won the regular-season meeting, 27-24. This time, the Pioneers won, 58-25.
”You always have a real optimistic outlook on your team,” Rossi said. “We had 14 seniors, which is a lot for any program. We were all fifth-year guys. We had a few transfers. All the seniors, we’re fifth-year guys. The extra year, it adds so much experience and knowledge of the program.
”We had an idea we had a good team. Once we got rolling, then we knew we had something special going on.”
The Pioneers lost in the first round of the Division II playoffs, but making their first appearance in the playoffs in almost a decade was a significant achievement. It finished a season and a career in the perfect way for Rossi, who declined the invitation to play in the College Football Bowl for seniors in Mississippi, though he acknowledged it was another huge honor.
Rossi will return to LIU Post after winter break for his final semester. He will graduate in May with a masters in criminal justice, and he is pursuing a job in law enforcement.
”I’m excited for that,” Rossi said. “I’m excited to start a new chapter of my life.”
If his next chapter brings him back toward Hillsborough by the fall, he has some plans. He’d like to go watch HHS play to support what was such a vital part of shaping his career.
”I haven’t been able to go to a game in five years,” Rossi said. “If I’m still living in the general area, I’d love to go watch a game. Last time I watched a Hillsborough varsity game was when I was a freshman in high school.”
Almost a decade later, Rossi was winding down his career on the football field in fitting fashion. He’d worked his entire career for the chance, and in the end the all-star could celebrate a championship.
”When we won the championship, I’m not going to lie, I wept like a baby,” Rossi said. “My parents and both my grandparents were there. It was an unreal feeling. There’s no better way I could have gone out.”
By Justin Feil, The Packet Group