By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
The first really big game of Ahmad Brown’s football life came on Nov. 25, 2016. The Non-Public Group 2 state championship at Kean University. It looked as though the freshman would start his high school career off with a ring, as Holy Spirit was less than 20 seconds away from victory. But then Mater Dei pulled off a hook-and-lateral play, scoring with seven seconds left to notch a 26-20 victory.
“It was hard to come back from that,” Brown said. “In that game, I had an interception in the third quarter and I didn’t know what to do. If you run back the tape of that play, I caught the interception and then I stopped. I didn’t know what to do. I just started running. I was, what, 15 years old and playing in a game like that against those guys? I think one guy plays for Rutgers now. They had a great team, the atmosphere was crazy. It was heartbreaking to lose, but I honestly wouldn’t change it because it taught me so much.”
The following year, another heartbreaker, as Mater Dei knocked off Holy Spirit 35-34 in the state semifinals. As a junior, Brown and the Spartans again made it back to the state championship game, but this time got blown out late by rival St. Joseph, 41-22, at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford. For three years, Brown — a wide receiver, kick returner and defensive back, and also a star track athlete — was denied a championship ring.
But Spartans never give up, and Holy Spirit football has built a legacy of continuing to grind no matter what, through even the most devastating losses. Those losses built the foundation of the character that was necessary for Brown and his teammates to finally triumph last fall, when Spirit completely dominated St. Joseph, scoring a resounding 38-0 victory at Rutgers that solidified coach A.J. Russo’s first state title as head coach.
“My senior year, I had a talk with our dean of students and we talked about how I’ve grown from freshman year to now,” Brown said. “When I look back, I feel like this whole experience has changed me for the better and given me a sense of family and taught me about time management. I’m really happy I chose Holy Spirit, and all the people there who have helped me get to where I am today.”
The heartbreak of their first three years turns boys like Brown, Kurt Driscoll, E’lijah Gray and the rest of this year’s seniors into men, and following that win over St. Joe this past December there was an outpouring of emotion. During the state playoffs, Spirit lost an icon, as former beloved head and assistant coach Bill Walsh, a mentor to so many young men throughout the years, lost his battle with ALS and passed away. That, coupled with three years of frustration and nearly every sportswriter in the state picking against Spirit, gave St. Joe no chance. Holy Spirit was on a mission, and would not be denied this time.
“It felt like a dream. Edgar Allan Poe couldn’t have written this story better. It felt like it was meant to be. May coach Walsh rest in peace — I felt like he was with us that day. In the locker room before the game, as we were walking onto the field, I felt like he was with us, and it just felt like it was supposed to happen. My freshman year, going to the state championship and losing, I’m kind of glad we lost because it taught us how to win and we were able to go out on top,” Brown said. “Before we left to go to the stadium we were looking at the predictions and everyone thought we were going to lose. That was plastered all over the locker room. The locker room was dead silent. You could hear a pin drop. That was probably the most prepared we have ever been. We lined up and we knew what plays were coming. The coaches did a great job preparing us for that game. That was probably the most sound football I’ve ever been a part of.”
This past season, Brown — who originally was an RPO quarterback as a freshman — was the only Spartans player to start on both offense and defense. He almost never came off the field. He was too valuable and too athletic to replace.
“He was offense, defense and special teams. He was returning punts and kickoffs for us. That kid barely saw a break in any of the games. Sometimes you’re talking 120 plays per game and he was out there every play, playing his heart out, and the success he had speaks for itself. Knowing you can count on a guy to go out there and give his all every time he’s on the field makes a difference for a team,” coach Russo said. “It was just his athleticism. Being a track guy — a 400-meter guy — imagine having to sprint for 400 meters. I mean, there’s a pace to it, but there really isn’t. You have to go fast. So his ability to handle that mentality and convert that to the football field — knowing he could give it his all on every play and knowing he could handle it — that’s just a tribute to his athleticism, his conditioning and the type of kid he is.”
If there ever was a high school player who enjoyed the limelight, it was Ahmad Brown. After a win or a loss he was always available to the media. With a charming smile and outgoing personality he was a favorite among all Spartans fans, young and old. Russo jokes that he was like the mayor of Holy Spirit High School.
“Effervescent is a word I use for him. He’s always on the ball, always on point, he’s a happy kid who is polite, he’s conversational. He has it all going, athletically, academically, socially — he’s just a super kid. He knows the maintenance guys, the lunch ladies, they all love him. If there was a mayor of a school, that would be Ahmad,” Russo said. “There are a couple kids like him in terms of competitiveness, like E’lijah, and having kids like the seniors we had this year — this was the first group we really brought in and tried to promote Holy Spirit with, both academically and athletically, so those kids are near and dear to our hearts. They are the first kids we had coming in and to achieve what they did — Sabri Drinks travels from Millville every day to go to school here. So these kids are committed to Holy Spirit high school, our community and our football team. To have guys like that, it just means so much to the school and the program. The newer kids coming in feed off that and it continues to build. This senior class has been a huge part of contributing to the success we’ve had the last four years.”
The St. Anselm (N.H.) College recruit has always enjoyed being a high school football star and knows young kids look up to Spartans players. He took that responsibility to heart and always tried to set a good example to young kids.
“It taught me how to deal with people looking up to you. When you come in as a freshman, obviously you’re not going to be the big man on campus. I had great role models my freshman year with Dante Daniel, Reggie Jean-Charles, coach Walsh — they instilled in me to be humble, and coach Walsh stressed that no matter what you always have to be humble,” he said. “There are so many people — I could rattle off names. My track coach said good kids make good coaches and great kids make great coaches. He always stressed that no matter what you do, just work hard and great things will come. I grinded my freshman and sophomore years and I really appreciate everything Holy Spirit has done for me. We’ve had our ups and downs in football and track, but at the end of the day that was the best four years of my life.”
“These kids hung tough. They knew we had a competitive team and we would challenge every year. Against teams like St. Joe and Mater Dei, we knew every time we played them we’d have to play our best football. We came up short three years in a row, but these kids stuck to it and were able to take home a championship this past season,” Russo said. “It was heartfelt. The tears after the game were flowing, and they were tears of joy. The excitement these kids had after winning the championship was unmatched, and that’s a feeling I’ve never had and I know none of these kids ever had, either. That’s a memory these guys will have forever.”
Brown said he plans on pursuing a degree in criminal justice while at St. Anselm College. He wants to make a difference and be a positive influence in people’s lives, just like he was during his four years at Holy Spirit.
“I’m looking forward to playing with Jake (Cook, of Mainland) and all the other recruits we have coming in. I’ll be majoring in criminal justice and I’ll be looking for a career as an air marshal. I’ve always wanted to be a role model for kids and anytime somebody needed help I’ve always wanted to be there for people,” he said. “My parents always taught me that if you’re in a position to help somebody, you help them. I want to be able to give back to Holy Spirit, too, and be part of that alumni history that is built into this school.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays