RAHWAY, NJ — “This is just a really tough time we’re going through right now,” Rahway High School head football coach Brian Russo said in a phone interview with Union County LocalSource on Monday, Sept. 12.
It had been just four days since it had been reported that Rahway senior football player Ali Muhammad, 17, died in his sleep Thursday, Sept. 8, and the pain, a heavy pain, was still there in Russo’s voice.
“He was a really nice kid,” Russo said of the four-year football player.
Muhammad was found unresponsive when his father, Percy Lamont Brown, tried to wake him up for school.
Muhammad’s mother died in July 2021.
Russo and assistant coach Daniel Garay went to Muhammad’s home on Thursday, Sept. 8, to pay their condolences. Russo canceled practice, but at a team meeting later that day, it was decided that Rahway would still play its scheduled game on Friday, Sept. 9, against Lincoln High School at its Caven Point turf field in Jersey City.
“I thought we would cancel the game, but the players wanted to play,” Russo said. “They wanted to play, and they wanted to win the game for Ali.
“We told all of our players that, if they didn’t feel up to playing, if they were not comfortable, they didn’t have to play.”
After trailing by a point early on, Rahway proved dominant the rest of the way en route to a 45-16 victory that pushed the Indians to a 2-0 start for the first time since 2019.
Standout senior Kyle Hall led the way with a stellar performance that included him rushing for 162 yards and scoring two touchdowns.
Rahway players spoke after the game about dedicating that win and the rest of the season to Muhammad. They donned white T-shirts under their shoulder pads with Muhammad’s name written across the front and had stickers with his number, 52, on the back of their helmets.
Rahway, which is now preparing to play against Scotch Plains–Fanwood High School on Friday, Sept. 16, does not play at home again until Friday, Sept. 30, against Cranford High School. Russo said that the Friday-night atmosphere at Rahway River Park will surely pay tribute to Muhammad, who, as a backup center this year, was just as valuable as any starter, especially when it came time to get starters prepared in practice.
“Ali was our second team center and our scout team center in practice and was counted on to make things work,” Russo said. “We try to make our program for everyone, not only on the field, but with other things, such as pool parties for a common bond.”
Muhammad was on the junior varsity team his freshman and sophomore seasons and also his junior year, when he also saw action on the varsity for the first time.
“He rotated in and saw some action on the varsity last year,” Russo said.
“I can’t imagine how the family is coping with this,” Russo said. “This is reality, and this brings everything back down to earth. This is final.
“As a coach, I’ve never dealt with this before.”
Photo Courtesy of Raymond Giacobbe