Their leader has worn bright pink high-top cleats since the third game of the season and the other four linemen follow his lead to a chicken wing eatery whenever hunger pangs strike. They are more than teammates, and together they have helped create something seldom seen in Elmwood Park – a winning football program.
They rarely receive the accolades bestowed upon the players in the skill positions – the playmakers who run, pass or catch the football and put the majority of points on the scoreboard – but the Elmwood Park football team knows it probably wouldn’t have qualified for its first postseason appearance in more than 20 years without the work of its offensive line.
Seniors Rey Morales (6-foot-1, 290 pounds), Connor Murphy (6-3, 290), Jonathan Batula 6-2, 250), and juniors Giuseppe Camaci (5-9, 190) and Tim Hagen (6-2, 172) are major reasons the Tigers have compiled a 6-2 record with a backfield that averaged nearly 180 yards rushing in its first seven games. That number will rise even more after the backfield chewed up 228 yards on the ground in Friday’s 24-20 win over Fenton. The five have become close friends and admit to having the time of their lives on and off the field while enjoying this rare season of success.
The Tigers have faced their share of adversity this season with three of its top running backs going down with injuries, but because this tight-knit group of linemen has continued to open holes and push around opposing defenses, it doesn’t seem to matter who is carrying the ball, the result is usually the same – a very successful ground attack.
“We’re always together every day, all day,” Batula said. “Before school, after school, during practice – we’re all good friends and even more like brothers, pretty much. We talk a lot about blocking techniques and what we can do better to open up holes for our backs.”
“Every team in our conference knows we run the ball and that makes us hungrier to block and push it down their throats even more,” Morales said. “I think our success comes from being disciplined and just buying into the program and the blocking schemes.”
Hagen thinks communication between the lineman helps fine-tune the line’s effort.
“It’s all about the communication. If a blitz is coming, for example, we’ve got to let our teammates know that. Since we all are so close we don’t have a problem with communicating and I think that’s a big reason for our success. And, it’s all about teamwork.”
Camaci said the quintet isn’t worried about hurting someone’s feelings when things aren’t going right.
“Sometimes in the huddle we get on each other, but that helps us click I think,” Camaci said. “We point out what someone else is doing wrong and they tend to be more determined than ever to correct that mistake”
“We yell at each other a lot, but then move on to the next play,” Murphy said. “We’re all business out there on the field. We all know the program and the plays so much we know who messed up and we tell them. Then on the next play they usually correct it and drive the offensive lineman down the field. The skill people have their problems, but we always try to make the holes big enough for them to run through no matter who is carrying the ball.”
Elmwood Park coach Luis Arroyo said he is amazed at the way the offensive line continues to open the holes while the replacements for injured running backs Rocco Fanella, David Benavidez and Carlos Sandoval haven’t missed a beat in the backfield.
“These kids (three running backs) have not been completely healthy all year long,” he said. “One guy goes down, the next guy goes in, then he goes down, but we never panicked, never got nervous because every time we sent the next guy in he did the job. You have to give a lot of credit to our offensive line. These Tigers are warriors. No matter who was in there they did their job. This team, the tailbacks, the line, they all have so much heart. Today was a real storybook win for this squad. I can’t be more proud of these kids. They’ve put some much time and effort, hard work, commitment and sacrifice to get to where they are today.”
The Tigers line spends a lot of time together off the field, including three or four trips a week to WingStop to talk football and indulge themselves in plenty of chicken wings and fries.
While the “little” guys, Camaci and Hagen, said they consume only about 15 to 20 wings a sitting along with a large bag of fries, the other bigger three have been known to put down quite a few more.
“We go to WingStop probably four times a week at most but at least twice a week,” said Morales, who has been wearing size 13 hot pink high tops for weak ankles since Week 3 because they were the only ones that fit. “I probably eat 30 wings every time I go. They probably should come up with an unlimited wing special just for me.”
“I can probably knock down 30, but I usually get the 15-wing combo that includes the fries,” Murphy said. “All I know is that when we are finished, there are mounds of chicken wing bones on our table.”
Always the jokester, Morales likes to frequently prank his buddy Murphy.
“Rey and I both have fourth period off, so I go home and Rey likes to sneak in my house when I’m not looking,” Murphy said. “He hides in my house and just jumps out of nowhere and scares the bejeezus out of me. He does that all the time. I’ll get him back some day, though.”
Arroyo calls Murphy and Morales real students of the game who molded the O-line.
“They really understand line play and this goes back to when they were freshmen,” Arroyo said. “And, they’re big. They are both almost 6-2 and almost 300 pounds and they’ve been getting some looks from colleges. They smaller guards are great for our pull offense and when they all pull together, that’s 700-800 pounds of line coming straight at you. If our opponent doesn’t have the weight, the strength or the size they’re going to knock you back. If they match up, we are going to wear them down. We can’t win without the big three and the fast kids (Camaci and Hagen) on our offensive line.”