FANWOOD, NJ — One of the first steps to forming a football family bond at Arthur L. Johnson High School in Clark is the Crusaders’ annual August visit to the First Children’s School, located in Fanwood.
On Friday, Aug. 12, the players and coaching staff spent time with the children there, which is always an important part of the beginning of the season for Arthur L. Johnson High School football.
This tradition began in the 2000s under then–head coach Gus Kalikas, but, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this was the first time in three years that the Arthur L. Johnson football team was able to visit with the children there.
“The football program was thrilled to be able to assist with the daily routines and to participate in activities held at the First Children’s School,” Arthur L. Johnson head coach Anthony DelConte said. “It was fun watching the high school student-athletes as they interacted with the children.”
Members of the Crusader football team went into various classrooms and participated in activities relating to the school’s curriculum.
“I think both groups not only enjoyed the experience, but learned a lot while doing it,” DelConte said.
The First Children’s School is a stepping-off point for children who need highly specialized educational services for some period of time in their lives. First Children’s services extend into the home districts of students with special needs, to ensure that children with special needs get cutting-edge services in their home schools. In addition to school districts, First Children partners with other providers, such as Children’s Specialized Hospital and Eden Autism Services, to make sure that the children receive the very best services possible.
“The most important thing for us is helping the students and making them better people,” DelConte said.
Because Johnson did not have First Children’s visits in 2020 and 2021, this year’s seniors experienced this visit for the first time. The varsity and junior varsity teams, along with the coaches, attend. That includes seniors, juniors and sophomores, but no freshmen.
“It’s a great opportunity for our guys to give back to the kids and the school,” DelConte said. “Our guys make an impact on those kids. A former student of theirs remembered who we were and so we then had him run out with our kids one year on opening night.”
“The Johnson football team would like to thank everyone associated with the First Children’s School for welcoming us and allowing us to be part of a fabulous day,” said Kalikas, now the athletic director at Arthur l. Johnson High School.
“Their staff is amazing,” said DelConte, a 2006 Arthur L. Johnson graduate who started for the Crusaders and, as a player, was part of the visit. “They need to be commended.”
DelConte, at the helm of the Crusaders now for nine seasons, said that groups of players assisted the children with their assignments. There was also painting, and there were games, including wiffle ball and water-balloon tossing.
“To see a player who is like 6-foot 3-inches tall and 270 pounds go after people on the football field and then that same person is helping these students, it’s something else,” DelConte said. “We as coaches also get to see how our players as teammates help others.”
Arthur L. Johnson, which finished 2-7 last year, with a couple of victories against fellow South, Group 2 school Metuchen, is scheduled to open at home on Thursday, Sept. 1, vs. Governor Livingston High School.
“We don’t want the same results,” DelConte said.
ALJ closed its 2021 season at Governor Livingston last year, falling 24-21 to the Highlanders on Saturday, Oct. 30.
Arthur L. Johnson finished its season before Halloween last year and will be starting this year four days before Labor Day.
ALJ will be seeking to finish better than .500 for the first time since 2017, when the Crusaders went 8-3 and narrowly missed reaching the Central Jersey, Group 2 sectional state championship game.
This is the 20th anniversary of Arthur L. Johnson’s last state championship team. The 2002 Crusaders went to North Caldwell and defeated defending champion West Essex 29-7 in the 2002 North 2, Group 2 sectional state championship game. The year before in the semifinals, Arthur L. Johnson went to West Essex and lost 29-8.
Photo Courtesy of Gus Kalikas