It’s only approximately 20 miles from Hoboken to Wayne, N.J., but for two young men with roots in the Mile Square City, the distance could very well be measured in light years.
Ira Guilford and Joel Rivera are two graduates from Hoboken High School, having received their red and white diplomas in 2004.
The two were excellent athletes in their respective sports, earning All-State status. Guilford was a phenomenal standout on the gridiron with the Red Wings, rushing for almost 2,300 yards as a senior and scoring 29 touchdowns, earning the appropriate nickname as “The I-Train.”
Rivera was a top-flight baseball player for the Red Wings, a dynamite outfielder with lightning speed and perhaps the best throwing arm ever displayed in the history of Hudson County baseball.
The two also had a chance to escape from Hoboken via athletics. Guilford, one of the top recruited football players in the nation during his senior year, accepted a scholarship to play defensive back at Ohio State, which at the time was the defending national champion. Rivera was drafted out of high school by the Milwaukee Brewers and signed a decent contract to play for the club.
So Guilford headed off to Columbus to play football and Rivera went to Arizona to begin his pro baseball career. They were apparently well on their way to respective successes in their different sports.
However, sometimes fate is not kind in the world of sports. Sometimes things go totally awry.
The fates were kind to neither Guilford nor Rivera. The road to superstardom hit major obstacles for both Hoboken grads.
Rivera played in the Brewers’ organization for two years, but found himself stuck in Arizona and away from home.
“I was getting ready to get assigned some place, but I wasn’t happy in Arizona,” Rivera said. “I told them that I wanted to go home.”
The Brewers put Rivera on the restricted/suspended list for the remainder of the 2005 season, but Rivera never returned. He was then released out of pro baseball before he hit his 20th birthday, another case of unfulfilled potential gone to waste. Rivera took a job working at a drug store in his hometown.
Guilford’s story was even more disturbing. While he was just beginning his freshman season with the Buckeyes, Guilford was arrested, along with a fellow player, after allegedly assaulting another Ohio State student and stealing that student’s wallet.
Guilford and the other player spent the weekend in jail, hit with second-degree felony robbery charges.
For a school that was riddled with controversy and turmoil at the time, Ohio State wasted little time in cutting ties with Guilford.
“I had plenty of meetings with the school president, the school athletic director, with [head coach Jim] Tressel, ” Guilford said. “Tressel and Archie Griffin [the two-time Heisman Trophy winner from Ohio State and former AD] came to my defense, but based on everything that was happening out there at the time, the school had no tolerance and decided to let me go.”
Although Guilford was never convicted of the crime, he was handed his walking papers. He tried to transfer to USC, but he was required to attend junior college in Torrence, California to get his grades satisfactory to transfer. Guilford played one semester at El Camino, but never transferred to USC.
“My grades from Ohio State wouldn’t transfer,” he said.
Guilford couldn’t play for a version of the Trojans in Southern Cal, so he tried another team with the Trojan nickname. He then headed to Troy State University in Alabama, but left there before ever playing a down when the coaching staff wanted to make an undersized Guilford, who stands 5-11 and weighs 205, into a linebacker.
“It was just a bad situation,” Guilford said. “I really didn’t think I fit in as a linebacker.”
So “The I-Train” had stops in Ohio, California, and Alabama, all with no success. He decided to come home. He made a call to his former coach at Hoboken High, Ed Stinson, who had moved on to the world of college football as the defensive coordinator at William Paterson University.
“I had been through so much that I had to go with people I trust,” Guilford said. “I knew I felt more comfortable with people I trusted.”
At the same time, Rivera started thinking about William Paterson as well – and playing football for the first time since his Pop Warner days as a youth.
“I was talking with my cousinStephon [Anderson, who played at William Paterson last year] and he told me that I should give football a try,” Rivera said. “I was always undecided about football. I knew baseball was my future. But I spoke with Coach Stinson and then Coach [Mike] Miello [the William Paterson head coach], and they said they would try me out. It was definitely a big change.”
So the two classmates are now reunited in Wayne – Guilford as the Pioneers’ starting tailback, just like he played in high school, and Rivera as the team’s starting wide receiver.
“I’m toting the rock again,” Guilford said with a smile. “I’m very happy to be here, especially in this offense. I’m happy to be close to home and being with this coaching staff and this team. I think mostly I’m trying to shake off the rust from not playing for so long, but I feel I’m getting into my zone.”
Miello is pleased to have both Hoboken products on the Pioneers’ roster. The veteran coach had no qualms about welcoming Guilford to the program.
“I wouldn’t allow anyone into the program if I had major questions about him,” Miello said. “We knew about his situation. But Eddie [Stinson] assured me that Ira was a quality person and a solid person. I tried to recruit Ira when I was at Rutgers, so I knew of his background and his great family. If we shut the door on every kid who made a mistake, then there would be a lot of kids out on the street.”
“I’ve learned a lot with what has happened to me,” Guilford said. “I took things for granted and I now appreciate everything more. I’m more humble now. Everything that has happened is in the past. I’ve lived and learned. I’m making better decisions now.”
As for Rivera, he continues to be one of the biggest surprises in the Pioneers’ camp.
“I’ve been around a lot of receivers who are now playing in the NFL,” Guilford said. “Joel is just as good as those guys. He’s a capable athlete with NFL skills.”
“Right now, Joel is catching the ball and doing things as well as any kid we had when I was at Rutgers,” Miello said. “He has it all. He’s found a way to take his talents to the next step. I think he has the potential to end up in a [NFL] camp in the future.”
Rivera, who has sophomore eligibility, is still amazed that he’s now a starting wide receiver in college football.
“It’s really unreal,” Rivera said. “I never thought I’d be playing football when I got drafted. I just have to make the most of it.”
“It is a little crazy, with us being here,” Guilford said. “I’ve hit practically every region in the United States, but now I’m back home. It’s pretty wild.”
Guilford and Rivera are just two of 16 Hudson County products on the Pioneers’ roster this fall. Joining the two Hoboken products are sophomore defensive back LaFrance Spriggs and junior offensive lineman Geovanni Molina (Ferris), sophomore linebacker Larry Brockington and junior defensive back Wilson Medina (Memorial), freshman quarterback Mike Cafiero (St. Joseph of the Palisades), sophomore linebacker Angelo Silletti, and freshman defensive end Dyon Moore (Hudson Catholic), sophomore guard John Reilly (Weehawken), senior center Matt Ford (Secaucus), junior wide receiver Steve Natal (Union Hill), sophomore offensive lineman Saul Garcia, freshman offensive lineman George Somarriba, and junior defensive end Nick Martinez (North Bergen).
“There’s a lot of talent in the Hudson County schools, and Eddie does a great job recruiting in that area,” Miello said. “He knows that he has the free will to go get me guys from that area. Having Eddie on the staff is a big help in getting these kids.”
Especially the two former world travelers who have finally come home – and hopefully will make the most of this final chance.