He is 15 years old, 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds of cartoonish muscles on top of muscles. He had six-pack abs when he was 6. Today, he bench-presses one-and-a-half times his body weight and can leap from a standing position to the top of a car. He averages four touchdowns per game and hasn’t lost a wrestling match since 2012, making him the nation’s top-ranked football player and wrestler for his grade. And even though he doesn’t begin high school for another two weeks, he already is one of the most talked about athletes in New Jersey.
His name is Josh McKenzie.
But people just call him Man-Child, D-Train, Animal, Machine or Beast, and he is a once-in-a-lifetime physical specimen who looks like he was engineered in a lab, each piece meticulously sculpted, tested and refined.
Josh also embodies the runaway free-for-all youth sports have become. Specialized training. High school coaches lining up to woo players. Working out to the point of total exhaustion. Repeating a grade for athletic advantage. Bouncing from team to team. It’s all part of his family’s all-in, college-scholarship-or-bust gamble.
Sound extreme? Consider:
This past year, Josh’s family spent more than $15,000 on specialized training and thousands more to parade him around at showcases, tournaments and all-star events from Florida to California.
Most of the 10 specialized personal trainers he will see during the year — that’s right, 10 trainers — rely on state-of-the-art techniques and put Josh through futuristic workouts. He takes it a step further by wearing a Darth Vader-like elevation mask to restrict breathing and simulate training at elevations.
Josh’s stable of experts includes a mindset coach, an isokinetic performance trainer, a nutritionist, three sprinting specialists and a power-lifting guru. He also has a family friend who acts as his public relations guy, although Josh already speaks like someone who has had extensive media training.
Even his most mundane activities are meticulously planned and closely monitored. So, for example, he will record every morsel he eats in his iPhone app or log book, making sure to consume exactly 4,500 calories and 175 grams of protein each day.
“In this stage of my life, football’s my main focus,” Josh says. “My friends and all that partying can take a side seat for now.”
Josh’s family granted NJ Advance Media extraordinary access during the past year, revealing a remarkable, pressure-packed world in which everyone wants a piece of the Man-Child. When he wasn’t visiting schools, making his lunch or doing his own laundry at his family’s home in Monmouth County, Josh bounced from school to practices, competitions and workouts. At each nausea-inducing session — be it in a yoga studio, someone’s basement, a sprawling athletic facility or a strip mall gym — Josh left behind puddles of sweat and any chance someone might outwork him.
When those sessions finished, Josh would return home and torture himself in his family’s garage, hanging 10 minutes some nights on an inversion table in an effort to stretch himself taller and erase the one possible Achilles’ heel on his path to stardom.
He does this and more — all before his braces have come off.
‘A BUSINESS DECISION’
Just after 3 on a humid afternoon 15 months ago, Josh and 316 eighth-grade classmates from Wall Intermediate School take their seats in the high school gym. The graduates, wearing royal blue gowns, tap their phones and crane to find their families.
Josh, 14 at the time, strides confidently across the stage when called. He wears a pink shirt with a black-and-silver striped tie and stylish blue-tinted Ray Ban glasses. He takes his diploma, smiles, hugs a teacher and steps off stage.
Three months later, Josh returns to the eighth grade.
The controversial choice to voluntarily re-enroll at a new school and repeat is based mostly on athletic benefit, and Josh calls it another “business decision.”
Josh’s uncle and legal guardian, Bill Green, is the mad scientist behind the Man-Child. He says an extra year of middle school will help Josh “grow mentally and physically,” and hopefully “get him noticed” by college recruiters. Green also says Josh, with a March birthday, is young for his current grade.
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Countless high-profile athletes across the nation repeat, too, but Josh’s decision stokes his mostly anonymous critics because he is clearly ready to play in high school. In fact, Josh has been competing against older kids for years and still dominating. Bill, who is 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, thick with muscles and a demeanor that flips quickly, doesn’t back away.
“It was kind of my choice, but I did bring it up to him,” Bill explains. “I mean, I gave him an option. I told him, ‘Look, this is what I want to do. Are you OK with it?’ He usually doesn’t fight me on much.”
Josh admits “it was embarrassing to tell people that I was staying back in eighth grade.” But adds, “I just don’t really care what other people think. It’s, like, my career.”
It is a career that has been carefully plotted.
Bill has told Josh and his older brother, Matt, their college money is being spent on training and travel. And Josh knows the smoothest path to his NFL dream is to be recruited to a big-time college program — a process that can begin in the eighth grade or earlier.
The family is anxious for Josh to receive his first offer, even if there is always that one nagging concern: his height.
During an interview last summer, Josh was asked his biggest fear. For once, he abandoned the carefully scripted responses and admitted he worries that he won’t grow to 6 feet tall, roughly the average height of defensive backs in the NFL.
It was the only peek into his soul he revealed during dozens of interviews, but hardly the only question that will arise as he prepares to enter high school.
What if he gets hurt? What if he picks the wrong high school? Can he meet Bill’s expectations? How can he hold onto the few remaining shreds of normalcy in his life?
And the big one: What if, after all the money and training and the extra year before high school, he simply isn’t good enough?
FOR THE FAMILY
The long stretch of grass is sandwiched between two rows of trees and makes the perfect workout field, right there in the family’s Wall Township backyard.
When Josh was 5 and Matt 7, the boys took turns lugging each other 50 yards each way. They did buddy carries (over the back), wedding cakes (carrying in front), fireman carries (over the shoulders), squats (while still holding the other) and pushed each other in a wheelbarrow. When the little boys weren’t carrying each other, they mixed in pushups, situps and Russian twist abdominal exercises, using a basketball for the weight.
A family picture from then shows Josh shirtless in the backyard, leaning forward and flexing, his abdominal, biceps and shoulder muscles rippling like a miniature bodybuilder. Matt is also bulging out of his skin. It’s an image that stays with you.
“We thought we were just having fun, but after a while we kind of understood,” Josh says. “(Bill) tried to make it fun, but he really knew we were, like, putting in work.”
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For Matt and Josh, just having a backyard was something.
They had lived in the gritty Munroe Towers in Asbury Park until 2004. Their mom and Bill’s sister, Debra Burgos, was addicted to drugs and alcohol, the family says. Josh says his and Matt’s father was in and out of their lives, leaving Bill’s mom to raise Josh, Matt and Ashley, their older sister.
The apartment, Bill says, had bed bugs and roaches, and the boys slept on air mattresses. Burgos, as Josh remembers, would come home drunk and start fights with his grandmother or sister.
“We would go in another room and just hope and pray they would stop,” Josh says. “We would cry. It was hard to see our mom, like, deteriorate the way she did.”
Bill, then single, says he was disgusted by the conditions, so he moved the boys and his mother into his house. That was 11 years ago, and family and friends say it was a courageous decision that forever changed the boys’ lives.
“I knew I was taking on a big responsibility, but they’re family,” Bill says. “It’s my flesh and blood. I just couldn’t see them — my mother and these kids — living like that.”
Josh remembers initially being scared of his uncle, but feeling better after Bill took everyone to dinner at Nino Jr.’s in Oakhurst, telling them to order anything. They watched the movie “Elf” over the first sleepover and the boys had the run of the refrigerator.
“He treated me like I was his own son,” Josh says.
THE CENTER OF EVERY UNIVERSE
At 10:45 on a warm September morning, Josh sits in Algebra class at Seashore Day Camp and School, the private school in Long Branch where he’s repeating eighth grade. Rob Schnoor, the teacher, talks about number sequences and patterns, and hands out quizzes to 13 students sitting at tiny desks.
Schnoor knows all about the athletic machine in the back of his classroom.
Not that Josh could blend in.
He has broad shoulders, bulging muscles and scraggly facial hair around his upper lip and chin — the Man-Child hulking over a room of boys and girls.
“So who do you play this weekend?” Schnoor asks.
“Matawan,” Josh says.
“Are they still tough?” Schnoor asks. “I’ll have to come to a game.”
Everyone is friendly and Josh says he is learning, but the situation is awkward, especially early in the school year. Josh had a ton of friends at Wall Intermediate but doesn’t know anyone here at his new school, which Bill says will cost $12,000 for the year. He had a girlfriend last summer, but they broke up because “that’s a distraction at the moment,” Josh says. At his new school, where there are 105 students in grades kindergarten through eighth, he misses being around other serious athletes.
“They’re not on a mission like I am,” explains Josh, who will finish the year with straight A’s, a 98.72 overall average and a nearly perfect behavior report. “So school’s kind of, like, just a business day now.”
About an hour into algebra, Josh leaves the classroom and returns with a bottle of water and a plastic container of protein powder. He mixes and shakes until the concoction is thick and brown. Then he swigs the drink as he checks his math book.
Later, at lunch, he sits with classmates but hardly says a word.
September also means football, and Josh already has started practicing with his new team, the River Plaza – Lincroft Chargers, the most dominant program in American Youth Football’s Jersey Shore Conference.
When Josh walks onto the field for his first practice at Nick Trezza Park in Middletown, his new teammates follow every move. They’ve seen his YouTube highlights. Now, suddenly, he’s one of them and Josh has something to prove — specifically why he is the highest-rated eighth-grade player in the country.
“People are a lot more intimidated by us because we have Josh McKenzie,” teammate Kenny McCarthy says. “Everybody knows about him.”
Throughout the season, Josh will be treated more like an idol than a teammate.
The other Chargers ask him what type of touchdown dances he has planned. They offer to share their pre-game snacks. They beg him to pose in their photos. They claw over one another to high-five him after his highlight-worthy scoring plays. And after Josh leads the team through a cheer, one teammate turns to another and says, “You wanna know what makes that chant so cool? Josh does it.”
Another specialized training session begins at Hawk Sports Performance in Neptune Township, and Josh is moving with purpose and focus. His sports performance trainer, Kevin Hawke, explains they’re working on posture, low abs, internal and external hips, lower back, balance, coordination, flexibility and more.
Josh leans forward on his knees, holding a 5-pound weight in each hand, then explodes in one motion onto his feet. He squats a weight bar with thick metal chains draped over the sides and several massive plates piled on each end.
Hawke knows he’s seeing something otherworldly, asking, “You ever seen a 14-year-old who looks like that?”
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The next week, Josh visits professional strength trainer Joe McAuliffe. A year ago, McAuliffe was thinking Josh might be able to bench press 200 pounds by the start of football season. Josh hit 225. By this spring, he blows past 250.
“This is a super-human being,” McAuliffe says.
A few days later, Josh works on linear speed and hard sprint starts with Matt Bernardo, another of his 10 trainers and coaches. Toward the end of their session, Josh straps on an electronic belt that catches his time when he crosses a stick 10 yards away.
On his first try, he makes it in 1.7 seconds.
“How fast is the NFL?” Josh asks. “Like, 1.5?”
On opening night of football season, Josh races a quarter of the field for a touchdown, scoops a fumble and returns it for another score, then brings back a punt 75 yards for his third touchdown.
Several former Chargers watching from the sideline can’t hide their amazement.
“What do you do to make yourself faster?” asks Chaz Alessi, a freshman at Middletown South High.
“I just run,” Josh says.
Minutes later, after Josh smashes an opponent with a monster tackle, Justin Noah, a Red Bank Catholic freshman, says, “He just killed someone.”
“Wrote on his tombstone: ‘Sorry, Josh McKenzie,'” Alessi says.
River Plaza leads 26-0 a minute into the second quarter. There’s no mystery about the outcome or whether Josh needs to be on the field any longer. By mercy rule, the game clock runs without stopping the rest of the game.
Fans head for the parking lot, some jokingly asking Bill for gas money since Josh’s night was so brief. Bill smiles.
The next game is another bloodbath. In the first quarter, Josh drills a ball carrier and the boy crumples to the grass. After being helped off the field by his mom and several coaches, the boy sits on the sideline, crying with an ice pack against his forehead.
Josh’s teammates know the feeling. During an early practice, Josh’s hit during a one-on-one drill gave teammate Gavin Goldbaum a concussion. “It literally feels like you’re getting hit by a thousand pounds,” teammate Jack Tedeschi says. “It’s like you’re getting hit by a bus.”
At halftime of the second game, Rich Hansen, the head coach of national powerhouse St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City, shows up with his son, Rich Hansen III, who is also the team’s defensive coordinator. Bill wanders over and the coaches hand him a St. Peter’s brochure. Josh comes by and chats. They’re all smiling.
Not everyone is a fan.
In a blowout a few weeks later, Josh scores and begins to head off the field when an opposing coach starts screaming and shouting obscenities toward Josh. The coach is upset that Josh isn’t playing in high school. Josh stops and stares back, in shock. Once he gets to the sideline, Josh tells Rob Fischer, the Chargers’ head coach, who reports the incident to the league.
“This isn’t something that should happen, for an adult coach to be yelling at a 14-year-old,” Fischer says. “I’ve been coaching 35 years, I’ve never yelled at a kid on another team.” (Despite repeating the eighth grade, Josh meets the league’s age requirements.)
Later in the season, after the Chargers win the conference semifinals, River Plaza’s cheerleaders form a line for pictures — with just Josh.
“You’re the bomb!” one gushes.
“Can I have a hug?” another asks.
EVERYONE WANTS A PIECE
The stately Lawrenceville School campus is showing off in the warm morning light. The red brick and brownstone buildings are flawless, a fact not lost on Josh as he passes through the rotunda, Woods Memorial Hall, Cleve House and the Jigger Shop.
The place oozes Ivy League.
Josh and Bill are joined by tour guide Priyanka Chodhari, assistant football coach Chris Malleo and head coach Danny O’Dea.
At one point, Chodhari asks, “So, are you interested in the newspaper, yearbook, science?”
The group smirks before Malleo, an old friend of Bill’s, interjects. “All those things,” he says.
“Uh, he’s a student athlete,” Bill says.
The tour ends at the admissions office after 80 minutes and Chodhari leaves. Josh, Bill, Malleo and O’Dea sit at a round table under a high, domed ceiling. O’Dea leans forward and begins his pitch.
“If you come here, you’ll get the best of everything,” he says.
O’Dea boasts about the school’s top-notch academics, the state-of-the-art weight room and plays up Josh’s opportunity to put Lawrenceville football on the map.
“I’m not going to tell you, you can come in here and you’re going to play right away,” O’Dea says. “But looking at your film, you’re going to come in here and probably play right away.”
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Malleo chimes in throughout, playing off his relationship with Josh and Bill.
“I’m invested in you because I care about you and I want to see you do well,” Malleo says. “There’s going to be people who pretend to care. But people who genuinely care, it’s a close circle.”
After the visit, Josh calls the day “pretty amazing” and Bill says, “I don’t know how you turn that down.” Later, Bill says there was no discussion of cost or any type of scholarship. (Lawrenceville is not a full member of the state’s governing body for high school athletics, so it does not abide by recruiting rules.)
Josh takes other visits — to Bergen Catholic, St. John Vianney, St. Peter’s Prep, Don Bosco Prep, the Peddie School, Blair Academy, DePaul Catholic and St. Joseph of Montvale. The feeling is similar after each trip.
“It’s kind of confusing, really, because you go to one school, you fall in love with them,” Josh says. “Then you go to the next school, you fall in love with them.”
Visits are just the beginning.
High school coaches and others are texting often, as a look at Josh’s phone reveals. And after a Chargers scrimmage, two parents and a River Plaza assistant also playfully make pitches.
“He’s going to look good in gold and black,” says a parent decked in St. John Vianney gear.
“What are you talking about? Orange is his color,” says a parent connected to Middletown North.
“No, navy,” counters the River Plaza assistant, referring to Middletown South’s colors.
Josh shares a Facebook message from an alum of a prominent North Jersey Catholic school that reads, “Big fan of yours. Hope to see you in (our school colors) someday! If there’s anything I can do for ya let me know.”
In the fall, Josh says the student section at a St. John Vianney football game he attends spontaneously chants his name: “Josh Mc-Ken-zie! Josh Mc-Ken-zie!”
He says the same thing happens at a Bergen Catholic wrestling match.
Josh doesn’t seem to get too wrapped up in all the adulation, but experts in the field of sports psychology worry about the long-term effects of hero worship and families going all-in on sports at such a young age.
Charlie Maher, a professor emeritus of applied psychology at Rutgers University who has consulted for the Jets and Cleveland Browns, does not know Josh or the Green family, but the situation concerns him.
“They’re taking a risk putting their child through this — putting all the eggs in one basket,” Maher says. “What happens if he doesn’t continue being the exceptional athlete? If he does get injured? If he comes to the conclusion, ‘Hey, I just can’t keep doing this, day in and day out, year after year.'”
Bill counters and says Josh “understands this isn’t just about sports. He knows that he has a purpose here in life; it goes above and beyond sports.” Bill points to Josh’s near-perfect grades, the way he greets people with a smile, handshake and eye contact, and his goal to attend a strong academic college to pursue a career as an entrepreneur.
“A lot of people would be like, ‘I don’t understand how he does it. There’s no fun in it,'” Josh says. “But I enjoy it. I like the regimented plan and I enjoy getting better and working hard. I like seeing the results.”
The family’s Christian faith is also “a big part of Josh’s life,” Bill says. He and Josh talk often about praying for guidance and asking God for signs during trying moments, such as the high school decision process. And Bill is quick to credit God’s blessing — and not training or coaching — for Josh’s athletic abilities.
“We talk about leaving a legacy, making an impact, making a difference in other people — and not just through sports,” Bill says. “He’s a smart kid. He gets it.”
JUST … 3 … MORE … INCHES
At the end of another long day of training, Josh heads for his family’s two-car garage, sidestepping a weight rack and strapping his ankles into an inversion table. Josh presses a button and the table dips back until he’s almost upside-down.
“It’s hard because the blood rushes to your head,” Josh says. “You can, like, feel your back stretching.”
Will it make him taller? Can it help? It doesn’t matter. He refuses to not try.
The relentless pursuit of greatness — and three more inches — doesn’t end on the inversion table. Josh tries downing a disgusting concoction of red cabbage, fava beans and tomato. He read it could spark growth.
It’s one of the gems from his nighttime reading: “Grow Taller 4 Idiots.”
Josh also follows a supplement program drawn up by sports nutritionist Tom Bilella. He typically downs a protein-rich weight gainer in the morning called “Up Your Mass,” followed by a pre-workout carbohydrate drink and a post-workout 3-to-1 mixture of carbohydrates and protein. He also takes a daily multivitamin packet.
He eventually begins carrying a small cooler to workouts, filled with protein bars, apples and peanut butter, so he can fuel his body after training. He logs everything in his iPhone and then by hand in a black, spiraled journal — detailed entries that include breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, supplements and training, along with how much fat, protein, fiber, carbs and calories are consumed.
As the school year drags on, Josh does get bigger, stronger, faster. But the one thing he can’t control — his height — has stayed about the same.
“If I don’t (grow) I’ll just play with my heart,” Josh says. “It will just make up for my size.”
‘HE’S DEFINITELY THEIR DAD’
Like most of his childhood friends in Asbury Park, Bill, now 47, says he wanted to play in the NFL. But he says he was only an “average athlete” — a starting linebacker on the high school football team and a bench player during basketball season.
After high school, Bill went to Kean College (now University), where he says his focus shifted from “sports to girls.” Then, he partied hard for a while after college. He doesn’t divulge much about those years, but says, “I had more bad times than good times.”
Bill works as vice president of sales at Atlantic Business Products, an office product and technology solutions company, working from home and the road, logging roughly 55,000 miles a year. His second job is building Josh and Matt into college scholarship material.
When asked why he chose this all-or-nothing college route for Josh, Bill says there wasn’t any single reason. He wants Josh to earn a scholarship and to support his passion for sports. But Bill also says emphasizing a commitment to training and putting in more effort than the competition teaches a lifelong lesson that hard work pays off, whether in sports or in life. Josh’s around-the-clock dedication doesn’t concern Bill because he says it’s what Josh wants.
And it’s hard to argue with the results.
Matt plays football and wrestles at Wall High. This winter, as a sophomore, he placed sixth overall at the New Jersey State Wrestling Championships.
But Josh is a uniquely gifted athlete, and Bill is fiercely protective. He cuts a familiar figure on the sidelines, almost always in a Southern California ball cap and sunglasses, nervously pacing and puffing on an electronic cigarette. He fumes when people criticize Josh.
During an early season game, another River Plaza parent scolded Josh for standing off to the side and talking to the St. Peter’s Prep coaches.
“Your team’s over there,” the parent said, pointing to the sideline.
Bill is told about it and stalks over to the parent.
“Don’t say anything to my kid,” Bill warns the man. “You don’t know him. You don’t know me.” Bill later apologizes, but admits the fuse is short when it comes to family.
Bill’s wife of six years, Tricia, says her husband has a strong personality but is good-natured and will do “anything for anyone.”
Tricia and Bill have three children of their own: Will, 9; Sasha, 4; and Uriah, 3. From time to time, Will joins Josh and Matt for their workouts — running hills and drilling on the beach. Will plays organized basketball, football and lacrosse, and Bill is devoting similar time and financial resources to his training.
Bill’s mother, Marian, also lives with the family. Their home is comfortable but hectic, the wooden front door constantly swinging open to get another kid to another practice or workout.
Josh and Matt’s mom, Debra, is now clean and living in Brooklyn, where she works as an administrator/office manager at Brooklyn Teen Challenge, a nonprofit organization supporting youths in need. She is again involved in her boys’ lives, but praises Bill for raising them.
“Bill may not be their biological father, but he is definitely their dad,” Debra says in an e-mail. “He has sacrificed his own life for their sake.”
Tricia says there are few differences between Josh and Matt and their biological children. Josh and Matt have been a breeze to raise, she adds. They never talk back, they do their own laundry and make their own lunches.
When asked what makes Bill happiest, Tricia finds the answer quickly.
“He’s so incredibly proud of the accomplishments that Josh and Matt have had,” Tricia says. “You can hear it when he talks to people about it. He’s so, so happy.”
Josh reveres Bill and says his main objective is “just to make him proud.” From a young age, Josh recalls being able to please Bill through sports. “I remember (Bill) cheering,” Josh says. “He would invite his friends to my games and they were just, like, amazed, he had this nephew who came out of really nowhere.”
Still, Josh is often quiet around him. Bill admits it’s hard for him to know what Josh is thinking. Josh says he considers Bill his father, but for reasons he can’t explain, he has never called him “Dad” — even in a touching Facebook post that Josh writes this past Father’s Day.
“It’s just kind of weird,” Josh says. “He basically is my dad. (But) I can’t, like, call him, ‘Dad.’ There’s just something about it.”
‘HE TOOK A BEATING’
River Plaza makes it to Orlando, Fla., in early December for the national championship tournament and Josh is a rock star in shoulder pads. Before the first game against a team from Oregon, he paces the field in full uniform.
“Who is that?!” one parent asks.
“He’s in eighth grade?” another says. “God damn!”
Everyone constantly asks Josh where he’s going to high school. One coach says, “Forget high school; I want to know where he’s going to college!”
Fischer, the Chargers’ head coach, says the trip is probably the easiest Josh has had it in months, “like a vacation,” because “he’s not working out 10 times a day.”
Fans push against the fence once the game begins and Josh morphs into a highlight reel. He runs for three touchdowns and passes for two more — in the first half. River Plaza coasts, 38-0, setting up a huge matchup two days later against the defending AYF national champion, the Winston-Salem, N.C., Rams.
One of the most physical teams in the tournament, the Rams also have the size of a high school team.
Josh shrugs. “They’re nothing special.”
Once the game begins, the Chargers rely on Josh for everything — rushing yards, tackles, special teams coverage, even punts. River Plaza’s coaches try to conserve Josh, but the team can’t move the ball if it’s not in his hands.
The game is one violent collision after another. Every time Josh touches the ball, Rams converge and crunch. By the second half, Josh has blood on his forearm and jersey, and the eye black on his face is smeared.
Bill watches from the sideline, screaming after nearly every play, like the other parents. He yells advice, encouragement and criticism. He also begs players to “HOLD ONTO THE BALL!” when someone other than Josh carries.
Late in the fourth quarter with the game tied at 14, Josh plows through the middle, bounces outside, shakes a defender and tip-toes down the sideline for a big gain, with 15 more yards tacked on for a face-mask penalty. A few plays later, Josh spills into the end zone, and River Plaza goes on to win, 20-14.
Afterward, Josh’s entire body throbs from the punishment.
“He took a beating,” River Plaza assistant coach Tom Fischer says. “But he kept on telling us he wanted the ball. If he lost a leg, he was going to keep on going.”
The Winston-Salem coaches are impressed but concerned.
“They put the ball in his hands too many times,” defensive coordinator Kelvin Gwyn Sr. says. “The body can’t take but so much of a beating. If they continue to do that to him, they’re really doing him an injustice.”
Later that night, Josh takes an ice bath in his hotel room, squeezing his bruised body into a tiny tub and soaking, even though the two, 10-pound bags quickly melt. Bill relaxes and sips a cup of Johnnie Walker Blue. Josh has only one day of rest before River Plaza faces the tournament’s premier team, the Inland Empire Ducks from southern California.
The Ducks have a team filled with Joshes — 12 players repeating the eighth grade, according to their coach.
River Plaza has no shot, losing 55-6. The beating is so bad Josh is expressionless when it’s all over.
He’s already thinking about getting back to Jersey, working out and wrestling season.
WHEN THERE IS NO OFF-SEASON
The first wrestling match of the day ends in 45 seconds, the second in 28. Just like that, Josh is in the finals of the “War at the Shore” at the Wildwood Convention Center in early February.
The final match is anti-climactic. Josh tortures his opponent, 18-3, and doesn’t sound the least bit upset that he has missed a pin.
“I kind of beat him up,” Josh says. “Made him cry. That was good.”
After the tournament, Josh hops in a coach’s car and rides 122 miles up the Parkway to his football team’s banquet in Hazlet. He has been asked to speak.
Wearing a light colored collared shirt and bow tie, he walks confidently to the lectern in the packed, dimly lit ballroom. The crowd falls to a hush. Inspired by Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch’s reticence for speaking obligations a week earlier during the build up to Super Bowl XLIX, Josh clears his throat and begins.
“I’m only here so I won’t get fined,” he says into the microphone.
The crowd bursts into laughter.
“Where are you going to high school?”
Josh says he has been asked the question nearly every day, in some form, for the past year.
But as winter gives way to spring, Josh and Bill have narrowed the list to four: Bergen Catholic, St. John Vianney, St. Peter’s Prep and the Peddie School. That hasn’t stopped others from trying. Bill says he still speaks with coaches at St. Joseph of Montvale, DePaul Catholic, Don Bosco Prep, Blair Academy and Immaculata.
Josh struggles to make up his mind.
At St. John Vianney, a group of girls knew about Josh and asked to take pictures, leaving an impression. He’s always loved Bergen Catholic and has a close relationship with assistant wrestling coach Joe Trause and other Crusaders coaches. At St. Peter’s, he likes the urban campus in Jersey City. And Peddie is now coached by Malleo, the close family friend and former Lawrenceville assistant.
The decision comes down to whether Bill is comfortable with Josh going to high school 72 miles away at a place such as Bergen Catholic. Bill calls the process “one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done.”
Eventually, Josh and Bill narrow the choices to Bergen Catholic and St. John Vianney, which is 21 miles from home. Bill says Josh will make the final call.
On the big night, April 6, Josh sits at the dining room table wearing an AYF hoodie, playing up the decision for a video camera, like a high school senior picking his Division 1 college.
Bill, Tricia, Matt, Will and Larry Musico, the family friend and PR guy, stand in the background.
Josh stares into the camera.
“All right,” he says. “After a long, thought-out decision, I finally decided to attend …”
Josh, smiling sheepishly, peels off his sweatshirt, revealing the winning school’s T-shirt.
“… the school in Oradell and become a Crusader of Bergen Catholic!”
Bill grins and claps. Musico bellows, “Yeah!”
Moments later, Josh calls Bergen Catholic football coach Nunzio Campanile. He pretends it’s bad news.
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“It’s just really a hard phone call to make,” Josh says, stammering. “But I know we have a really good relationship. But, you know, just, Bergen’s kind of way too far. But, you know, I’m willing to make that sacrifice, and I’m glad I’m a Bergen Catholic Crusader!”
It takes a second for Campanile to process the news.
“Oh, that’s awesome, man!” Campanile says. “That is great. All right, time to get to work then, huh? We have a friggin’ state championship to win.”
Josh beams, but the decision will mean huge sacrifices. In the fall, Bill says, Josh will live with a Bergen Catholic teammate’s family three or four nights each week. The school’s tuition also costs $15,725 annually, according to Bergen Catholic’s website, and Bill says he may have to pay in full. Per state athletics rules, any monetary assistance would have to take the form of financial aid or a merit-based academic scholarship.
“We’re still working on that,” Bill says. “I’m still trying to get them to help me a little bit.”
Bergen Catholic will begin the 2015 school year with one of the nation’s best high school wrestling teams, and a football squad that will face seven opponents that finished 2014 ranked among the top 100 nationally. The Crusaders also will play on national television at least once.
Josh believes he has found the perfect school.
ONE MORE THING TO PROVE
It has been two months since Josh has made his decision to attend Bergen Catholic — two months of criticism on social media and in online comment sections. People are ripping him for repeating eighth grade and taunting him about his height — which holds steady at 5-9.
Bill does not let go of the criticism. He is livid, puzzled and deeply hurt. “I’ve never seen more negative publicity in my life for a 15-year-old,” he says.
Josh calls it “a little crazy, but comical,” and says it drives him.
On the first Thursday in June, Josh is back at McAuliffe’s gym in Eatontown.
It’s his second workout of the day and he’s looking forward to finishing his second year of eighth grade in less than 24 hours.
The mood is light as he and Matt put in their work.
Josh shows off his progress, bench-pressing 135 pounds 35 straight times.
Matt then lights a fire, challenging his little brother’s claim that he can bench 275 pounds, reminding him that his best is 265.
Josh wastes no time.
He loads 275 on the bar, then turns to Matt, who spots him, and warns him not to help. He wraps his chalky hands around the bar. Others stop to watch.
Josh heaves the bar off the rack, then draws it quickly to his chest and fires it back up.
The load stops abruptly halfway between his chest and the cradle. Josh’s arms and body quiver.
“Don’t touch it! Don’t … touch it,” he warns Matt.
Just when it looks like Josh is doomed, he draws a final surge to push the 275 pounds up and back onto the rack.
He hops from the bench, eyes bloodshot, a sly grin on his face. He reaches for a drink and looks at his brother and others who were firm on the 265 number.
“You can change that now,” Josh says, sounding every bit like the proud little brother who has something to prove.