By MARK TRIBLE
Glory Days Football Writer
BURLINGTON TOWNSHIP — This one may have been just for a night, but it had also been years in the making.
This 2022 class had been a core of special players, from major midget-level success right on up through the ranks for Burlington Township. There’s much expected of the core, 27 by headcount — 18 of whom start or get regular snaps.
Senior Night came decorated for them. They did not disappoint. The Falcons showed off their firepower in a 33-21 win over Pennsauken. They also showed off Anthony “A.J.” Johnson.
“Going over to Shawnee and getting our ass handed to us like we did (42-21 on Sept. 17) kind of brought us down a little bit,” coach Tom Maderia said. “They knew going into this game how good Pennsauken was … I could tell just the way they acted today before the game in school that they were going to play.
“I didn’t know how the results were going to be, but they were going to play.”
It took two offensive snaps to know how both factors would go. On a 2nd-and-9 at his own 21, quarterback Gage Miller saw 1-on-1 coverage on Johnson. The star receiver reached out and tipped the ball.
“It was a little overthrown,” Johnson said.
“I think it was a little overthrown,” Miller said a few minutes later.
The commentary speaks to their similar wavelength.
Back to the pass — which did have a little too much mustard on it. Johnson tipped it back to himself, but too far. He reached behind and tipped it again. And again. By the time he hauled in the ball, a defender had him in grasp.
Johnson, committed to play at James Madison University next year, simply broke the tackle and scored.
“He’s incredible,” Miller said. “I’ve never seen anyone like him before.”
No. 19 in all-black grew up with his cohorts here. He moved away briefly and came back sophomore year. At that point, Johnson had played quarterback. Miller owned that role, so instead, Johnson did, well, a little of everything else.
That translated at Edward Steinmetz Stadium.
Burlington Township (3-1) led 12-0 after the first frame, but Pennsauken (4-1) battled back. Big Red came within earshot at 19-14 by intermission.
After a quick punt to start the second half, the Falcons found another big play. You’d never guess who it made it.
“I’m just an athlete, so I can play both sides,” Johnson said of his interception that came along the right boundary. “I just came up and made a play.”
That wouldn’t be all for Johnson. He also ran a reverse in from 16 yards out in the fourth quarter to round out the score.
“You know, here’s what the thing is — it’s really not (special),” Maderia said of Johnson’s performance. “He’s that good!”
“I expect that from him.”
After the loss to the Renegades, Maderia gave Johnson the truth so many have echoed around the gridiron each autumn.
“Primetime players play in primetime games,” Maderia said.
Johnson certainly did. Evidenced by his monster night and the way his fellow upperclassmen continued to fight off pesky Pennsauken.
“The big thing with them, their senior leadership took them over the top,” Pennsauken coach Clinton Tabb said. “But, we’re going in the right direction.”
True North could be found on a roadmap with Friday’s foe. A young core is expected to continue to grow and flourish for Big Red, notably sophomore tailback Elijah Jennings and junior wideout Ejani Shakir. Both flashed glimpses of their ability throughout the game, enough to make Maderia worry the Falcons’ missed extra points would come back to bite them.
That wasn’t the case. It came as too much when the defenders rallied and turned up the heat with a double-digit lead in the final stanza.
Sure, Johnson put the brightest colors on the canvas, but other seniors added to the picture-perfect event. Ju-Juan Lee darted his way through defenders and ran in a touchdown. Jacob Bricker did the same. Miller remained poised and delivered some tough throws. Martice Chestnut-Tillman found his way the backfield several times from is defensive line spot. Harvard-bound Jordan Dotson routinely made his impact felt.
“We always had chemistry and we were always winning when we were younger, so I knew it wasn’t going to change,” Johnson said of his mindset when he came back in the area from Pennsylvania. “I knew I was going to play my position, fill my role and I didn’t have to do everything because we have a great team around us.”
The ballyhooed 12th-grade unit showed its diverse strength with Friday’s dozen-point triumph to prove Johnson’s point.
Though, he did almost everything anyway.
Mark Trible covers high school football for Glory Days Magazine. Check out his weekly Facebook Live show every Wednesday at 7 p.m. The South Jersey Football Frenzy Show can be seen at facebook.com/acglorydays. You can also take in Mark’s “Hat’s Off” podcast every Sunday at 9 a.m. at our Facebook page.