He was the first big get of Greg Schiano’s second tenure at Rutgers.
But before that, Chris Long was the first big get of Stephen Everett’s tenure at Willingboro.
Six years ago, Everett signed on to a program hemorrhaging talented athletes to private schools and neighboring public schools.
The town of Willingboro, and its high school, were mired in bad press.
And it wasn’t just that the football team was losing — it seemed the program was crumbling.
Everett set out to change that.
Long shared his vision.
“Willingboro is home, why would I go anywhere else?” said Long, this year’s Inquirer player of the year in South Jersey football. “We wanted to build it back up — put Willingboro back on the map.”
Long ended up doing just that and a lot more.
His list of accomplishments in his senior season included catching five passes for 172 yards and three touchdowns in Willingboro’s 50-14 win over Penns Grove in the Group 1 regional championship game — helping to avenge a loss to Penns Grove in last year’s regional title game.
In that game, Long broke the South Jersey record for receiving yards in a season. He finished with 1,619 and 20 touchdowns.
The 6-foot, 160-pound speedster also had seven interceptions.
He helped lead the Chimeras to a 12-1 record — most wins in school history — and a second straight sectional championship — the first time Willingboro had ever won back-to-back sectional titles.
“This was just a special season. The whole team came together,” Long said. “Before I got here, Willingboro was 1-8, now we’re 12-1 and a state champion.
“It’s my last year — my last season with my guys. I wanted to accomplish a lot. I set high standards for myself. And to be the South Jersey record-holder and No. 1 receiver in the state — it’s something I worked hard for.”
In the end, Willingboro football isn’t just built back up — it’s arguably stronger than it has ever been.
“When [Long] came to Willingboro, it let everybody know that we had something good going,” Everett said. “And Chris and this group never shied away from that spotlight — ever. They embraced it. They played with a chip on their shoulder. And I think our community feeds off of that. And you could feel that energy when you came into our stadium.”
Long’s reputation preceded him when he went to Willingboro four years ago. He was something of a youth football prodigy. And he wasn’t the only one in town. Kids such as quarterback Au-Shaun Davis — who Long says is like a brother — receiver Demie Sumo, running back Zaire Clements, and lineman Oliver Lilly had been playing football together most of their lives.
They knew that if they stayed together they could be special in high school. Everett, who coaches that youth program, helped foster that message.
And, together, the group embraced the opportunity to have an impact beyond just football.
“I always wanted to be a role model — it’s something I still pray about,” Long said. “It’s a blessing to have these [kids] looking up to me … to have them hitting me up, asking me to help them work on their game, wanting to be like me, asking questions. It’s just a blessing.
“And I want them to stay in Willingboro and become role models themselves.”
Now a different, broader, spotlight is shining on Long.
Earlier this week he announced that he was decomitting from Temple and committing to play football at Rutgers — the first marquee name to commit to the school since Schiano accepted the head coaching position earlier this month.
It made national news — something that made Long shake his head.
“It was crazy,” he said. “It just put more fuel on my fire.”
When he talks about his decision to go to Rutgers, Long first talks about Fran Brown.
Brown, an old family friend and mentor, left his assistant coaching position at Temple last week to become the secondary coach at Rutgers.
Long, who plans to be a defensive back in college, said Brown played a big role in his decision.
But it’s more than that.
“Staying in New Jersey, representing your home state, it’s a big thing. Florida boys, they stay in Florida. Texas boys stay in Texas. Cali boys stay in Cali. We can’t have Jersey guys leaving Jersey,” Long said. “So I look forward to helping to turn that around.”
It’s a familiar mission: Long is taking on an uphill battle, fighting for something bigger than himself. He wants to leave his mark. He wants to be a role model.
All things that defined Long’s time at Willingboro are now facing him a Rutgers.
“I’ve been through it before, and I have high hopes,” Long said. “And I know for a fact that we’re going to turn it around.”