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By BOB YORK
That light at the end of the tunnel that AJ Dillon often imagined seeing during his days at Lawrence Academy and Boston College wasn’t the light from an oncoming train, after all. It turned out to be the bright lights of Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Granted, Green Bay isn’t known for its bright lights, but it has more than enough to illuminate Lambeau Field and as of April 25, they’re the only lights Dillon is fixated on. Lambeau is the home of the Green Bay Packers and that’s where he’s hoping to be hanging out for the next decade or so after the Packers made the former LA and BC running back the 62nd pick in the second round of last month’s National Football League draft.
Dillon was one of the marquee names plucked from the NCAA ranks during the draft and is also one of the premier running backs to ever appear on a New England Prep School Athletic Council football roster. He wasn’t the only NEPSAC alum whose tunnel vision went viral during the draft, though, as Matt Peart, an offensive tackle out of the University of Connecticut – by way of Governor’s Academy – was chosen 99th in the third round by the New York Giants.
NEPSAC also had five other former standouts see their dreams come true following the draft as they signed on the dotted line as free agents. They were Yale offensive guard Dieter Eiselen (Chicago Bears), who played his prep ball at Choate, while Georgetown wide receiver Michael Dereus (Baltimore Ravens), got his start at Williston Northampton. Ole Miss defensive lineman Austrian Robinson (Carolina Panthers) played at Trinity-Pawling, with Temple wide receiver Isaiah Wright (Washington Redskins) having played at Kingswood-Oxford. Tulane offensive guard Christian Montano (Steelers), meanwhile, began his climb to the NFL at Hamden Hall.
“I’m not surprised at all that AJ was selected in the second round of the NFL draft … the first time I ever saw him play football, I knew he was going to be a great one,” said Paul Zukauskas, who was the head coach at Lawrence Academy during Dillon’s four-year run through NEPSAC and the Independent School League that saw him help the Spartans chalk up a pair of bowl titles as well as three straight ISL pennants.
“He’s one of the premier running backs to ever play New England prep school football,” added Zukauskas, of Dillon, who completed his stay at Lawrence — which ended four games into his senior season with a broken leg – with 4,280 yards rushing and 65 touchdowns in just 26 games. “I don’t know of any running back to come through these parts in the past 20 years who could run with a football the way he could. He had the (6-3, 240) size to run over linebackers and the speed (he owns the school’s 100-yard dash record) to outrun defensive backs.”
In fact, during his junior season alone, Dillon, who was actively recruited by schools such as Alabama, Wisconsin and at one point, had committed to play for Michigan, rambled for 1,887 yards and 26 touchdowns and for his exploits, was later named both the NEPSAC and ISL Player of the Year.
Zukauskas knows of what he speaks when it comes to football as he earned All-State honors as well as Boston Globe and Boston Herald All-Scholastic laurels while playing at St. John’s Prep (Danvers, Mass.) and later garnered All-American and All-Big East laurels during a four-year career as an offensive tackle at Boston College. He was the first true freshman in 20 years to start on the Eagles offensive line and during his senior year, prior to being selected in the seventh round of the 2001 NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns, Zukauskas was part of a BC line that allowed just six sacks all season.
Zukauskas reflected on a young Dillon out of New London, CT, who entered Lawrence Academy at just over six feet and 215 pounds and left four years later at 240 pounds, “and he only got faster,” said his mentor. In fact, Zukauskas liked him so much, he played Dillon on both sides of the ball. On defense, he played linebacker, “and he played it so well, I’m quite confident he could have played linebacker at BC if they had wanted to make the switch.
Dillon’s versatility and overall athletic ability shined during the NFL combine where he graded out with an overall score of 84. He earned that grade by posting a time of 4.53 seconds in the 40-yard dash, which is equal to 18.06 miles per hour. He bench pressed 225 pounds 23 times, had a vertical leap of 41.0 inches and a broad jump of 131 inches.
Ironically, both NEPSAC draftees kept in touch with each other – literally – during their NEPSAC and collegiate careers as they faced off against each other every fall as both Lawrence and Governor’s are members of the ISL.
“As I remember, I think we split those four games,” said Jim O’Leary, the Governor’s coach, “and they were always highly competitive games, as are all ISL games. The key to victory in all of those games against Lawrence was shutting down AJ. Fortunately, we had someone like Matt (Peart) who, at 6-6, 260, played both offensive tackle and defensive end for us and helped keep AJ at bay.”
The two also met on the collegiate level their sophomore seasons, when BC hosted UConn at Fenway Park. The Eagles won the game, 39-16, thanks in great part to Dillon, who rambled for 202 yards on 24 carries, including touchdown jaunts of 53 and 20 yards.
Dillon also crossed paths with at least one other NFL wannabe during his days at Lawrence Academy when he took on Williston Northampton and its No. 1 weapon, wide receiver Michael Dereus, in a 2014 bowl game.
“It was one of the most memorable football games I’ve ever been involved in,” recounted Mark Conroy, Williston’s athletic director and its football coach at the time. “I can remember that behind the running of Dillon, Lawrence jumped out and led 27-0 at halftime. In the second half, however, we managed to contain him and finally got our offense going and came back and at one point, led 28-27. In the end though, we lost a tremendous game 35-34.”
“AJ’s just a freak when it comes to running backs,” said Rich Gunnell, the Eagles running backs coach who was a wide receiver at BC and ranks third in career receptions with 181. “He has all the physical ingredients … the size, the power and the speed … to run over, around and through his opponents,” he said of Dillon, who earned ACC Rookie of the Year honors as well as three straight berths on the All-ACC first team and All-American laurels.
“I’m not surprised AJ went so high in the draft … we all knew what he brought to the game and obviously, the Packers did, too,” added Gunnell of the future BC Hall of Famer, who despite leaving college a year early for the draft, departs as the school’s all-time leading rusher with 4,382 yards as well as its leader in rushing touchdowns (38), total touchdowns (40) and all-purpose yards (4,618).
It’s probably hard to believe now, but Matt Peart, who stands in at 6-7 and 303 pounds, was a late bloomer. When Peart was a freshman at Governor’s, he was just 6-5, 250. The other fact that’s hard to believe, according to Jim O’Leary, Peart’s coach at Governor’s, was “he’d never played football before he came to school here. He came here primarily as a basketball player and now look at him … he’s a third-round pick in the NFL draft by the New York Giants.”
Under O’Leary’s tutelage, however, Peart caught on quickly and was soon playing on both sides of the ball – at offensive tackle and defensive end – and helped Governor’s capture four consecutive league crowns as well as four straight bowl appearances.
“Because Matt was new to the game, it was a rather slow process at first,” said O’Leary, “but once he caught on, he became a natural at what he did both on offense and defense. With his size, his long arms (35 5/8 inches) to help keep defenders away from him and his quick footwork, I always felt offensive tackle would be a perfect position for him on the collegiate level.
“Matt’s a great kid,” added O’Leary. “He worked hard to get to where is now and deserves this opportunity. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.”
While offensive linemen don’t make a habit of hogging the stat sheets, Peart’s record at UConn speaks for itself: he started on the offensive line in all 48 games on the Huskies’ schedule during his four-year career there. What’s more, the senior captain, who was named to the first-team American Athletic Conference All-Conference Team, was invited to play in the 2020 Senior Bowl and take part in the NFL Combine.
“Matt’s a great kid and an extremely hard worker who does whatever is asked of him,” said UConn line coach Frank Givfre. “There’s a lot to like about his size, his strength, his lengthy arm span and his quick feet. They’re all necessary to play anywhere along the offensive line in the NFL, but particularly at tackle.
“Matt put up some good numbers for himself at the combine,” added Givfre, “and if he just keeps putting one foot in front of the other come training camp, I feel quite confident he’ll do all right for himself.”
Mike Dereus was a two year student at Williston Northampton where he earned first-team All-League both seasons and All NEPSAC honors as a wide receiver his senior season. In fact, he finished his 15 game Williston career with 52 catches for 1,115 yards and 16 touchdowns.
“Mike was not only an impact player for us … he was an impact person for the entire Williston community,” said Williston football coach Mark Conroy. “He was a tremendous representative for his family and for his school.
“He had God-given speed and a tremendous work ethic and we tried to take advantage of both here at Williston,” quipped Conroy. “In fact, I use to joke that our favorite play when he was here was, ‘Mike, go long!’ Our quarterback could not overthrow Mike (who owns the school records in the 100 and 200 meter dashes) who specialized in big plays in big moments!”
“For Mike, getting this shot with the Ravens has to be the thrill of a lifetime,” added Conroy, “and it’s a testament to his hard work and his athletic ability that has put him in this spot and I know the entire Williston Northampton community wishes him the best of luck.”
As a Hoya, Dereus wrapped up a productive career this past fall by earning a first-team berth on the All-Patriot League squad following a season in which he chalked up 41 catches for team-high marks in yards (726) and five touchdowns. Through four years of collegiate action, Dereus posted 115 catches for 1,879 yards and 13 touchdowns. His first appearance on a Hoya highlight film came during his freshman season when he posted a 100-yard kickoff return against Holy Cross.
Like Matt Peart, Dieter Eiselen entered the realm of prep school football without ever having played the game. Peart had four years to prepare for his collegiate debut, however. Eiselen, who entered Choate as a postgraduate, had just one.
“Dieter attended a Yale football camp the summer prior to coming here,” explained LJ Spinnato, the Choate football coach, “and despite his lack of experience, they liked what they saw in a 6-4, 315-pound kid who could run a 40-yard dash in 5.26.” So, Yale signed him up and Choate supplied this South African, who was well versed in rugby, with a crash course in Football 101. He passed with flying colors, too, as he settled in quite nicely along the defensive line and helped lead the Boars to a 2015 NEPSAC championship.
“Being so new to the game, we figured we’d start him off on defense and as he grew more comfortable playing the game, we began using him at offensive tackle over the last four games of the season as well. He’s a smart guy and he caught on to playing offense pretty quickly.”
Eiselen was situated at guard while playing at Yale and earned All-Ivy League honors his junior and senior seasons. As a junior he helped the Bulldogs chalk up the top-rated rushing game in the Ivies, while as a senior, his blocking sparked Yale to the top spot in the league in total offense. For his outstanding play, Eiselen earned first-team All-Ivy and Third-Team All-American honors, plus Yale’s Hammer Award, which goes to the team’s hardest hitter.
Austrian Robinson entered Trinity Pawling as a 6-5, 280-pound basketball player and three years later, he departed for Ole Miss as a football recruit. Then, late last month, he inked a free agent contract as a defensive lineman with the Carolina Panthers.
“Austrian’s just a great kid, who’s very humble and very grateful to be getting this opportunity, but he earned it … he worked very hard over the years to get his shot at a job in the NFL,” said Trinity Pawling coach Nick LaFontaine. “The Rams were also very interested in him, but in the end he opted for the Panthers because he felt he had a better opportunity at earning a roster spot with them.”
Robinson highlighted his career at Old Miss prior to his senior season by being named recipient of the Chucky Mullins Courage Award, which is the school’s most cherished football honor. It’s named in remembrance of Chucky Mullins, an Ole Miss defensive back who was paralyzed following an injury he sustained during a game in 1989 and subsequently died from complications of those injuries in 1991. In 1990, the school created the award, which is annually presented to a defensive player and recipients receive a framed Mullins jersey as well as the honor of wearing Mullins’ No. 38 uniform the following season, which Robinson did his senior season.
Robinson’s career at Trinity-Pawling caught many a recruiting eye, as various scouting services rated him as the No. 33 defensive end in the country his senior season, as well as the No. 59 offensive tackle. As far as his home state of New York was concerned, he was listed that season by various scouts as the second or third leading prospect in the state.
Isaiah Wright is one of the most dynamic football players to ever slip on a Kingswood-Oxford football uniform as he played on both sides of the football for coach Jason Martinez and helped lead KO to three league titles and a pair of NEPSAC bowl appearances.
“Isaiah was rated as the number-three college recruit in Connecticut his senior year here,” said Martinez of his charge, who earned all-conference laurels for three consecutive years and was voted All NEPSAC as a junior and senior before heading off to a productive career at Temple University. “He had the athletic ability, the speed and the intelligence to be an outstanding football player and now he’s going to get an opportunity to show what he can do on the NFL level with the Washington Redskins and I can’t wait to see how he does.
“In addition to his talent level, I think his versatility will also help him land a job in the NFL,” added Martinez. “In addition to being able to catch a football, he can also throw it and he can also run with it too … he has good speed and is very elusive.”
While at KO, Wright registered 91 catches for 1,917 yards and 19 touchdowns. He also played in the secondary on defense and logged 74 total tackles, 44 of them being solo tackles. He also registered four interceptions as well as a pair of fumble recoveries.
During his sophomore season at Temple, Wright showed off that versatility for all the world to see by becoming just the sixth FBS player in the past decade to score five different ways – receiving, rushing, passing, kickoff return and punt return—in the same season.
Overall, Wright covered a lot of territory during his career with the Owls. As a receiver, he caught 134 passes for 1,552 yards and 12 touchdowns while he rushed for 552 yards on 91 carries and three scores. A total of 84 kickoff returns accounted for 2,029 yards and two TDs, while 43 punt returns added 444 more yards and three more scores to his credit. In all, Wright finished his career at Temple with 4,577 yards in total offense.
Christian Montano’s trek from the preps to the pros began at Hamden Hall, where the 6-4, 300-pounder proved to be the center of attention of coach Joe Lenta’s offensive line.
“Chris was not only a hard worker, but a tireless worker as well,” remembers Lenta of his former center and defensive tackle who signed on as a free agent with the Pittsburgh Steelers following this year’s NFL draft. “Whether he was playing offense or defense, he was always prepared to do his job and his physical and mental preparation served him well.”
It did indeed, in addition to being named team captain his senior season at Hamden Hall, he culminated his prep career by being named first team All NEPSAC and first team All-Fairchester League. He then moved on to Brown, where he moved over to tackle early in his junior season and made the most of the shift by earning All-Ivy credentials following his junior and senior campaigns.
This past fall, Montano took his game to Tulane as a graduate transfer student and started all 13 games at center for the Green Wave. He then wrapped up the year by being named the 2019 Walter Camp Connecticut Football Player of the Year. This award is presented to the top college football player who is a resident and/or played scholastically in the state of Connecticut.
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