August 25 marks a long-awaited date for . It is when the Monroe College Mustangs will start the first football season in the college’s 79-year history. The Mustangs are scheduled to play their first scrimmage during an away game against the Valley Forge Military Academy in Township, PA.
The first official game of the season takes place on Sept. 2 when the team plays on the road against Wagner College in Staten Island. More than 110 players are participating in tryouts this month and 40 of those players are on some form of scholarship. That leaves about 45 open spots that still need to be filled.
Ruben Demosthene out of Clarkstown South High School already made the team as a freshman linebacker. He said the team is coming together quickly.
“It’s only been a week and we’re already a family,” Demosthene said. “There’s a lot of potential in each and every single guy on the field and we’re just ready to get started.”
But for players like running back and New Rochelle resident Justin Johnson, the date has real significance. It means Johnson, who last played organized football seven years ago for , no longer needs to defer his dreams.
“I haven’t played since I graduated high school and I graduated in 2005,” the 24-year-old Johnson said Friday during the team’s media day. “I had a lot of problems going after high school. I couldn’t get anywhere. Once I heard the school was starting a football program, I jumped on it.”
Johnson said he’s the player who's spent the longest time away from the field, but he said there are other players who have been away from the game three to four years since leaving high school. Just like Johnson, they were drawn to Monroe College by the chance to turn their dreams into reality.
“Last year I was at ASA (College in Brooklyn) and I tried to play for them and it didn’t work out there,” Johnson said. “Once I heard about Monroe College...I live in New Rochelle, I’m from New Rochelle, so I just went there as soon as I heard.”
Bert Shillingford, the athletic director at Monroe, said players like Johnson are the reason why his school is starting his football team at time when many local schools are shutting their programs down.
Shillingford said a feasibility study was done to determine if a football program could be viable and if there are enough players available to build a roster. School officials decided to move forward after they determine a program could be built.
“Basically there was a void in the community,” Shillingford said. “When you really think about it, so many high schools here play football. How many junior colleges are there that offer football in the area? Very few. How many four-year colleges offer football in the area? Very few. So you have all these kids graduating from high school who play football, but have nowhere to go.”
Shillingford said his program will give students the opportunity to develop academically and athletically to the point where they are able to continue playing at a four-year college.
The team will hold its practices at the Joseph F. Fosina Field in New Rochelle and play its home games at SUNY Maritime’s Reinhart Field, located at the base of the Throgs Neck Bridge in the Bronx. Admission to home games will be free this season.
Shillingford did not say what the start-up cost for the football team is, but he said the costs easily reached six figures. The cost to equip the players alone was upwards of $200,000, according to Shillingford.
“The initial cost will be high, but subsequent costs will be much, much cheaper,” Shillingford said.
The athletic director said the department is still in the process of ironing out kinks as it prepares for this season and future years. For instance, the programs was unable to form a cheerleading squad in time for this season.
As for the program’s goals this year, Shillingford said school is taking things slowly.
“The key is that we want everyone to have a good experience,” Shillingford said. “That’s first and foremost. When we talk about athletics at Monroe, we talk about the experience. We need individuals who are good students and good athletes. Student-athletes first.”
Terry Karg, coach of the Mustang football team, said initial practices have consisted of teaching offensive, defensive and special teams schemes.
“We’re just trying to get everybody acclimated to what we’re going to be doing from a terminology standpoint, on defense and alignment standpoint and various personnel groupings that we’ll have on the field on each side of the ball,” Karg said.
Karg said he wasn’t worried that the team's first game is about two weeks away.
“It’s not a daunting task because we have two weeks,” Karg said. “In the past, I’ve worked with programs where we’ve had to be ready in a week or two weeks...I’m not trying to say that it’s more than enough time, but what I’m trying to say is that we’re going to make the most of those two weeks before the 25th of August.”
Monroe College, which has campuses in New Rochelle, the Bronx and the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, will play in the North East Football Conference, which is Division I of the National Junior College Athletic Association. It offers
bachelor's and master's degrees.
A copy of the team’s schedule is available here.