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Big Central Conference NJ Football: Rahway Football Honors Teammate

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JERSEY CITY — Rahway’s soccer players reached for the sky, one hand clenching five fingers and the other raising two, while chanting “For Ali.”

“This is for you Ali”

“Ali”

In unison, it was like a warm group hug and a collective high-five for their teammate, number 52 Ali Muhammad, his name scrawled on their t-shirts and undoubtedly tattooed in their minds.

The senior went to training on Wednesday, then died unexpectedly some time later and didn’t wake up to go to school.

The news broke Thursday when the students saw his father’s Facebook post, and it was an advertisement tweeted that night by the football team.

Head coach Brian Russo and his coaches asked the seniors if they still wanted to play Lincoln High School just over 24 hours later.

The answer – we play.

So on Friday, Rahway headed north past the Statue of Liberty and under a full moon, turned his raw feelings into hard-hitting football mode and beat Lincoln 45-16 at Cavan Point Sports Complex.

It wasn’t that easy, especially when the players observed a moment of silence in the locker room before walking away quietly, then pausing for a moment of silence on the pitch.

The AP announcer noted what they already knew: “Ali represented all things fair in high school sports. He loved the game. He loved his teammates and coaches and was a credit to Rahway High School.

Yeah, it wasn’t easy.

“I was a little close to crying,” said Rahway senior defensive end Jalen Barnes, “but you know, I had to toughen up for Ali. I have a game to play. We won this for Ali. We all came as a team. We prayed for Ali and we did it.

If they didn’t play?

“It was good to get back on the court because I feel like if we would have postponed it,” Barnes said, “I would have felt, like, very alone.”

No, it’s good to cry together and that’s one of the beauties of team sports – a built-in support system. In this case, soften the shared pain.

Russo noted that since the players wanted to go, his staff thought dressing up was the best thing. He had no further details about the death, just that it was a surprise.

“Everyone was devastated,” Russo said. “No one knows how to handle such a situation. Obviously, we didn’t train. We just thought it best to get the team together, just talk to them. Everyone cries in a different way.

They had a team dinner Thursday night at the District’s Alternative Education Center. Barnes said it was “a sad dinner”.

“We were all in shock,” Barnes said. “We are like what, he was just in training on Wednesday. Everything was good. He was not sick. No nothing. All heartbroken at school. We left school early. The coach, the principal, everyone knows how much Ali meant to us. So we left school early. We went to the field. We all just sat in the locker room for about 30 minutes, just sat there crying. Think of him. I miss him. We all decided we were going to play along. Play one for him.

Rahway football players pay tribute to his late teammate Ali Muhammad by raising his number 52 after the match on September 9, 2022

Barnes was asked what Muhammad’s personality was?

“Ali, he looked a lot like himself, but everyone loved him,” he said. “He was cleaning the locker room for no reason.”

Barnes laughed at the memory and continued, “But we all loved it, man. He always helped the team.

The AP announcer was right, Muhammad represented the best of high school sports. He wasn’t a star, just a hardworking teenager who loved being part of the team and did everything he could to uplift his friends. The 5-foot-8, 240-pound was the second-team center and would surely have seen college action. But the stats didn’t really matter.

“He always trained 100% to make me better,” Barnes said. “Ali was a hard worker. Even if he was not a beginner, he came to train every day. He showed 100% on and off the pitch. He was just a great person, man. It sucks to see him not being here with us enjoying this wonderful time right now.

Rahway junior Jaylen Thermitus on the sidelines with a shirt that honors Ali Muhammad during the football match against Lincolon on September 9, 2022

This type of children’s program is often the lifeblood of a team. Russo said he represented “everything you want in a player. Do whatever we asked him to do.

“I did everything right all the time,” he said. “You know, it’s just very, very sad to lose him.”

During the game, Barnes excelled on defense and senior Kyle Hall scored four touchdowns, including a 68-yard fumble after just three minutes of play. His teammates screamed on the sidelines and it was as if they had all expired together: “Everything will be fine tonight.

That’s the important thing – they competed.

When it was over, shortly after the players chanted “Ali”, Russo choked up as he addressed the guys in the semi-circle, his voice hitting a waterfall and declaring it’s more than a team, but a program and he is proud of everyone and how the coaches will do anything for everyone – just like Ali gave his all.

Rahway's football coach Brian Russo addresses the team after the win over Lincoln on September 9, 2022

“We talk about football like it’s a game of life and death, but it’s not,” Russo said later. “We tell them, no matter what, win or lose, we just ask for best effort, that’s all. We asked to give all they had. Fortunately, fortunately, we were able to get out of it tonight. It’s a big win, but if it wasn’t, we’d love them the same, man. We realize it’s not life or death.

Barnes added: “It was tough. It was hard. I’m not going to lie. Ali is supposed to be in this field with us, but we still have duplicates for him. For him. For him.”