Veteran Lincoln High School head football coach Robert Hampton is never at a loss for making analogies.
He’s used movie references and music references thousands of times to associate with his team. Hampton is a huge movie and music buff.
So when asked if his football team is ready and raring to go to face Raritan Saturday night at Kean for the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group II state championship, Hampton pulled out another gem.
“This is a loose bunch,” Hampton said. “They are some wild cats. They’re like a rock band on the road and I’m like the road manager. They’re going back to trash the hotel room after the concert is over. They’re a fun bunch. They’re unflappable. They have that rock band swagger. It’s not cocky, but it’s a good swagger. And look at the results.”
The result is a perfect 11-0 record heading into the state title game against a Raritan team that entered the state playoffs as the sectional’s No. 6 seed, was under .500 at the start of the playoffs and now owns a 6-5 mark.
“They play with an athletic arrogance,” Hampton said. “I just have to keep them within the framework of the team. I just let them go.”
The Lions have a quarterback in Zymire Gordon who has thrown 25 touchdown passes after missing two weeks because he had an internal problem he had to deal with. The team has two wide receivers in Frank Darby (31 receptions, 953 yards, nine TDs) and Jason Harrison (36 receptions, 700 yards, 10 TDs), perhaps the most lethal pass catching combination in the entire state.
They have defensive stoppers like James Burgess (100 tackles) at linebacker and Nyeem Riley (88 tackles) at defensive end. Riley had 16 tackles in the Lions’ 40-26 win over Johnson to reach the title game.
“I think we had two marquee wins this season,” Hampton said. “Union City, we never beat before. That game set the example of the way we want to go. Hudson Catholic, we took away their running game. Our defense was unbelievable that day. It made me realize that we had the stuff to make the run.”
Hampton was asked what has made this team so dominant.
“I think winning became an obsession,” Hampton said. “They felt they left a part of their soul on the field last year at MetLife Stadium [a 36-28 loss to Mountain Lakes in the North 2, Group 2 final]. Mountain Lakes was an animal of a team, but we felt we could have beaten them. It didn’t happen, so our kids just started working, going to college camps, like Penn State and Syracuse, because they wanted to make sure that they made it back to the state finals.”
The Lions are looking to become the school’s first state champion since winning the North 1, Group III crown in 1981, defeating Lakeland Regional, 22-14, with Franklin Walker as the head coach.
Hampton just missed playing for that Lincoln team, but remembers it well.
Hampton was also informed that the 1971 team was the last to go undefeated, a team that featured Bobby Morgan and Marcus Thornton.
“We have a chance to do some historic things,” Hampton said. “This is a special group, because as freshmen, they were about to leave [Lincoln] after things were said about me.”
Three years ago, Hampton was arrested and charged with hindering the prosecution of one of his players on sexual assault charges. Hampton was suspended from coaching for the remainder of the 2012 season, but the incident never went to a grand jury for a possible indictment and the charges against Hampton were dismissed.
“Street agents were telling the kids to go to another school, but they stuck by me and I’m eternally grateful to them for that support,” Hampton said. “They stayed and now here we are.”
Hampton said that his current team has been bolstered by the addition of former Lincoln great and two-time Hudson Reporter All-Area honoree Ronald Butler to his coaching staff. Butler was the quarterback who led the Lions to the North 2, Group I state title game at MetLife Stadium in 2010 and eventually had a brilliant playing career as a wide receiver at Utah State.
“He’s helped a great deal with our receivers especially,” Hampton said of Butler, who is a volunteer. “The best is yet to come there.”
So whatever transpires Saturday night, Hampton is just so totally grateful.
“It’s a fun bunch to coach,” Hampton said. “I’ve probably never laughed as much as I have with this group this year. I’ve really enjoyed the ride with them. I’m happy about it, win or lose. A lot of them are going on to play in college. That alone says a lot.”
About facing Raritan, Hampton said, “it’s going to be a contest with different philosophies.”
“I think it’s going to be a nice matchup,” Hampton said. “They present a challenge with their play-action passing. They’re huge upfront. They have tough backs. I think it’s like an old heavyweight fight, with the slugger [Lincoln] against the bruiser [Raritan]. I think we match up well and I like our chances.”
So does a lot of other people who saw the Lions ramble through an undefeated regular season and two state playoff wins. The idea is unthinkable, but this will be an undefeated state champion from a Jersey City public school. Believe it. It can – and will – happen. Hampton has all weekend to think of an analogy for this one. – Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.