Roman Brown, Damian Gabriel, and Ronald Holmes all dream about playing football in December.
They all know what it was like to run out of games in October.
Everybody in black and gold is excited about the success of the Neumann-Goretti football team, which is 11-0, ranked No. 5 in Southeastern Pennsylvania by The Inquirer and set to host Pope John Paul II on Friday in the Districts 1/12 Class 3A title game.
But nobody appreciates the highs of 2019 as much as three seniors who lived through the lows of 2016.
“There’s no better feeling,” said Brown, a defensive lineman from West Oak Lane. “To be able to compete for a state championship as seniors, especially after what we went through as freshman, it just goes to show what can happen when you keep working.”
Brown, Gabriel and Holmes were freshmen in 2016, when Neumann-Goretti was 0-7 and forfeited the remainder of its games because of a shortage of players. The season was over two weeks before Halloween.
“I think we were down to 19 and more than half of them were freshmen,” said Bryan Gabriel, Damian’s father, a former Neumann-Goretti player who has been an assistant coach through the program’s tumultuous last four seasons. “We would have had to run Damian out there and I think he was maybe 5-2, maybe 100 pounds.”
Now 5-9 and 150 pounds, Damian Gabriel is a reliable wide receiver for the Saints. He caught 16 passes for 266 yards and five touchdowns in the regular season and added a scoring catch in last Friday’s victory over Lansdale Catholic in the first round of the playoffs.
He said the Saints’ success this season has been extra-special because of his experiences as a freshman.
“I learned how to handle adversity and how to get up when I get knocked down," said Gabriel, who lives in South Philadelphia.
Holmes started as a freshman but moved to the second string when coach Albie Crosby arrived in 2017 and several prominent transfer players joined the program, sparking a one-season resurgence to an 11-1 record that included the Philadelphia Catholic League Blue Division title.
But the Saints slumped to 2-5 last season, cancelling two early games and struggling with consistency with a young roster that included just three seniors.
“Freshman year when we had to stop the season, that was heartbreaking to me,” said Holmes, who lives in Darby. “It teaches you patience and mental toughness.”
All three seniors says they didn’t consider leaving Neumann-Goretti despite the struggles in 2016. Gabriel said the school and the football program are part of his family, since his father and older brother both played for the Saints.
Holmes and Brown kept the faith, especially when Crosby, who had built a state power at Imhotep Charter, was hired in the spring of their freshman year.
“I didn’t want to leave,” Brown said. “I realized that eventually we were going to have something and I wanted to build my legacy here instead of anywhere else in the city.”
Crosby believes the program still is on the rise with young stars such as junior all-purpose Tysheem Johnson and sophomore linebacker Anthony Johnson (no relation).
The Saints also have key seniors who started their careers at other programs such as defensive back Ubayd Steed and running back/wide receiver Malik Griffin, among others.
Just three players have been through all the ups and downs, from the cancellation of the season in 2016, to the sudden success in 2017 to the fall back to earth in 2018 to the remarkable rise in 2019.
Just three players have their sights set firmly on playing for Neumann-Goretti’s first state championship in December because they know what it was like not to have any more games in the middle of October.
“It’s very special having been here since freshman year,” Brown said. “People didn’t think we could do it. But now I walk around the neighborhood, walk down the street, they can’t say nothing. They just look at us like, ‘Good job.’”