Wearing new white helmets this season as a symbol of rebirth and an attempt to shake the stigma of losing that has followed the football program for decades, Elmwood Park now sits on the precipice of history.
The Crusaders are 8-1 heading into their first-round North 1, Group 2 playoff game Sunday at home against Kinnelon. It will be their first home playoff game in school history, and a chance for them to bury the past once and for all.
“You can look it up; if you go on Wikipedia, the first thing they do is talk about the school, and then it says ‘historically bad football team with a 41-game losing streak,’ ” Crusaders coach Scott Wisniewski said.
The coach knows of what he speaks. He played four years at Elmwood Park and graduated in 2000. During that time, he won nine varsity football games. That losing streak Wisniewski talked about lasted over four years, ending in 2006.
“At some point, they just expected to lose,” said Wisniewski, 30. “They would go into games not thinking they had a chance to win.”
But the past didn’t faze Wisniewski. Instead, it enabled him to make some radical changes.
First were the helmets. Sure, it doesn’t sound like much: white helmets instead of red, which had been worn since the early ’70s, but the kids bought it.
“The old helmets, they weren’t that special; they were ugly and used and now we have brand new helmets that are comfortable,” senior safety Christian Mendoza said. “We had to show people we had the right equipment and we knew how to use it.”
“It’s silly, but we said we were going to take the last 35 years of wearing red helmets and just throw it away and start new,” Wisniewski said. “We wanted to start a new era.”
Last year, Wisniewski took the unprecedented step of starting seven freshmen, including quarterback Michael Dare. Not surprisingly, the Crusaders got hammered, finishing 1-9 and getting shut out four times.
It was difficult. Kids quit. Scores were lopsided. People said it was the same Elmwood Park and Wisniewski was just another coach who couldn’t turn things around and bring the school back to its glory days when it was East Paterson.
Instead of being intimidated, Wisniewski embraced the past. This year, he brought in former players who reached out to alumni, trying to get them interested and involved in the program.
On the field, Elmwood Park has seen a dramatic (emphasis on the drama) turnaround. The 8-1 record is the best in school history. The league title is the first in 27 years. It beat Glen Rock for the first time in 25 years.
Six of the Crusaders’ nine games have come down to the final drive, when either the defense has to make a stop or Dare has to lead a drive.
“There is just a confidence, an eerie calm about them,” Wisniewski said. “They have been in the situation so many times now, you don’t see anybody get rattled that early.”
The Crusaders have a dynamic offense. Dare has the second-most passing yards in North Jersey, and his favorite receiver is Nick Smith, who leads the area in receiving yards. If teams try to take away the passing game, the Crusaders are content to run the ball.
“Teams haven’t seen us,” Mendoza said. “Our receivers are all over 6 foot, and if teams try to double-team them, then we pound them with the run game. Our team is just stacked.”
The players also have seen the attitude change in school. Sunday’s game – the date was moved because of SATs – will be a hot ticket.
“Last year, you walked down the hallway and people were like, ‘EP football stinks, it’s always going to stink,’ ” Dare said. “We get new uniforms, new helmets and said there’s going to be a change. People were like, ‘Oh, what are you going to do? Get two wins? Big whoop. But we come out 3-0 and then it’s big win after big win.”
Wisniewski’s next challenge may be making sure the Crusaders aren’t content just to be in the playoffs. He swears it’s a wide-open section and his third-seeded team can play with anybody.
Elmwood Park, sectional champion? It sounds far-fetched, but the feeling at the school is that this is a new era.
“We have been down, the town has been down, but we have an opportunity to get all the way to the state final and possibly win it,” Wisniewski said. “Any team in our section can beat us, and we can beat anybody. It’s that simple.”