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Vic’s Subs cover story: Holy Spirit doing the little things necessary to keep football tradition strong

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By DAVE O’SULLIVAN Publisher It’s probably not too much of a stretch to say that Holy Spirit is the Notre Dame of South Jersey. The Spartans modeled their uniforms after the Fighting Irish, and although they don’t paint their helmets with real gold before every game, the same pride and tradition holds true for the Absecon program. New coach A.J. Russo bleeds navy and gold. He played football for Holy Spirit before graduating in 1981 and his two children, A.J. and Erin, also graduated from the school. He has been around the school for the better part of four decades, and now that he is the head man of the football program he said he is intent on upholding the storied tradition that this football program has become known for. Holy Spirit is 3-3 this season and tied for third in the Cape-Atlantic League’s National Conference, but despite a young roster and a .500 record, Russo said the standard of excellence that has become a hallmark of the Spartans’ program has not — and never will be — lowered. Russo has been doing the little things necessary to ensure that this crop of Spartans understands the history of the program and the expectations that permeate the school hallways and the athletic fields. He has hung up jerseys of former great Holy Spirit players in the weight room. Before games, the team files out of the locker room and under the home bleachers under the leadership of junior Joe Votta’s haunting bagpipe playing. He has brought back alumni on a weekly basis to talk to the team, including guys such as William Green, a professional football player, and a 23-year-old Navy SEAL. “It’s important because the legacy that Holy Spirit has is a positive legacy. Not only from the football program, but with the football players being good students, being gentlemen in the hallways and being good football players when they get out onto the field,” Russo said. “I think it’s important they know that, not only so they can continue on with that tradition, but since it’s a positive tradition it will help them become successful in life. And that’s the most important thing we are trying to do here at Holy Spirit High School, to prepare kids for their adult life. Traditions that are carried on at this school and on the football field will help prepare them for the future.” He also has brought back former coach Bill Walsh to be part of his staff. Walsh has been a part of the football program at Holy Spirit on and off for nearly three decades. “It’s handed down from generation to generation, and it creates a culture. That’s probably the most important thing we can do is create a culture where the kids understand the dedication, work ethic and toughness that it takes to be a part of what this program is about, and always has been about. We didn’t invent it, it goes back to Ed Byrnes, to coach (Greg) Roman,” Walsh said. “These kids are still learning a lot of the little things that were such a huge part of this program, the nuances that we experienced as players and that’s what makes the place special.” Holy Spirit's signature plain gold helmet is modeled after the storied Notre Dame program. (Glory Days Magazine photos/Dave O'Sullivan) Holy Spirit’s signature plain gold helmet is modeled after the storied Notre Dame program. (Glory Days Magazine photos/Dave O’Sullivan) The football stadium is named after legendary coach and athletic director Ed Byrnes, who died in 1996 at age 48. Byrnes won 101 games during his 15-year head coaching career and led the Spartans to state championships in 1980 and 1982. In its storied history, Holy Spirit has won 10 official state championships, as well as four prior to 1977, when the state began recognizing parochial title winners. Russo said he hopes the little things the coaching staff is doing to make today’s players understand the tradition of the program are having an impact, and he believes the players are understanding what it means when they put on that gold helmet. “I think they do, but we are doing our part in making sure they understand it by bringing guys back who have been through the school to talk to the kids on a regular basis. I’d say at least once a week, or once every two weeks, we have somebody coming back to talk to the kids. We had William Green here at the beginning of the season, A.J. Holland, who has played professional baseball for the Atlanta Braves organization,” Russo said. “We continue to do that. Just having them talk about their life experiences, talking about what they gained from being here at Holy Spirit and the tradition of the school. If they don’t realize it initially, the more we discuss it with them I think they get a good understanding of what it’s like to be a Holy Spirit Spartan, both in the classroom and on the football field.” The players are starting to get it. “I love my team so much. Holy Spirit is the reason I am what I am now,” said senior lineman Khayel Richardson. “(This program) has taught me how to do the right thing. It feels great knowing that we have state championships in our past, and it’s the people that make up the tradition.” “It’s a big tradition. It’s always been a big family, and our goal has always been to win a state championship. We’re working hard toward that, and it’s something we will always work hard for,” added senior defensive back Marquez Jones. “(Bringing back alumni) shows a lot of tradition and it shows that people make it far after Holy Spirit. We know the main goal is to win a state championship and we want to keep that tradition up. It shows they still care and still love this program and school, and will always come back, no matter what.” “Until you have success you don’t know what it takes to have success or be successful. We’re experiencing a little bit of roughness, but we only have five seniors,” Walsh said. “They are starting to understand. We had an alumni, a Navy SEAL, come and talk to the team and he’s a pretty dynamic guy, so the message is constantly reinforced.” Walsh said the program is in a bit of a transition period, introducing a whole new coaching staff this season, but said the message remains the same — that players are expected to give 100 percent on the field and conduct themselves the right way off the field. In time, some of the players on this year’s team may be the ones coming back to talk to players about their experiences at Holy Spirit. First-year coach A.J. Russo is a Holy Spirit alum, and wants to keep the long and proud Spartan tradition going strong for the next generation of players. First-year coach A.J. Russo is a Holy Spirit alum, and wants to keep the long and proud Spartan tradition going strong for the next generation of players. “We want kids who are tough, who understand the culture, and can be really good students when they are walking around the school; when they walk through the fence they can be tough and give tremendous effort. Once you have that, you can win some games at the high school level,” Walsh said. “With the transition of the staff, there is a lot of newness going on. We have five sophomores starting. We have new coaches, a new offensive system, new terminology. I think they do understand it’s a privilege, based on some of the alumni that have come back. “Some of the alumni who have gone on to play college football, we’ve put their jerseys up so that they can see every day when they walk into the weight room that we have had a whole bunch of kids who have come here and have gone on to be very successful in a lot of different things. The alumni are a huge part of that when they come back. The Navy SEAL said he regrets that he didn’t give as much effort as he could have, and he doesn’t want any of these kids to have the same regrets. He’s a pretty special individual and that still bothers him, so that was good stuff.” For Russo, having the opportunity to coach the football team at Holy Spirit is an honor, he said. It’s a job he takes seriously, and he said he wants the kids he is coaching today to have the same love and respect for the program and the school throughout their lives that he has. “Getting the opportunity to give back is probably one of the most important things a high school coach can do, and that’s something that is kind of bred into you here at Holy Spirit. With all the alumni who do come back and help out, that’s what we are here for,” Russo said. “We are here to continue the traditions that have been held up and make sure we pass that along to the kids who are here now. That’s what was done for me when I was here, and that’s something we have a responsibility to do for our students, and it’s something we will continue to do. It’s neat to be involved in that and be able to give back.” Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sully@acglorydays.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays [adsense]

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