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St. Joe's Ordille set example from the sidelines

Rocco Ordille's senior football season at St. Joseph High School went right according to plan, except for one minor detail.

Rocco Ordille's senior football season at St. Joseph High School went right according to plan, except for one minor detail.

The Wildcats went 11-0. They dominated play in the Cape-Atlantic League American Division. They won their sixth consecutive state title and 24th overall.

It was pretty much exactly what Ordille and his classmates envisioned during all sessions in the weight room of the St. Joseph's football field house, during all those practices on that scruffy swatch of sandlot off Peach Street in the heart of Hammonton.

The sad twist was that Ordille wasn't on the field for most of the Wildcats' run to glory.

He was on the sideline.

He was a spectator in the biggest games of his senior season after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in an Oct. 10 game in Steubenville, Ohio.

"It was tough at first to accept," Ordille said the other night at the 70th annual Brooks-Irvine Memorial Football Club banquet. "I was kind of like, 'Why me?' I went through all four years and for this to happen was tough to accept."

Ordille was honored as one of the organization's scholar-athletes, along with Shawnee lineman Eric Hawkinson, West Deptford fullback/linebacker Kevin DeCaesar, and Holy Cross linemen Tim Wagner.

But those other three scholar-athletes and all the members of the all-South Jersey team that were seated along the lower dais in the ballroom at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Cherry Hill were fortunate enough to play a full season in 2014.

Ordille never got that opportunity.

But in his speech to the large crowd, Ordille said his injury helped him realize, more than ever, the importance of his schoolwork as well as the fleeting, fickle nature of an athletic career.

Ordille knows he is lucky. Bucknell University honored its commitment to offer him a football scholarship and he is expected to sign with the Bisons on national signing day Feb. 4.

But his injury served as a sobering reminder to him that his sports career could end in a heartbeat.

"I heard it pop, but I didn't know that meant a torn ACL," Ordille said of the injury, which occurred when he was returning a kickoff against the Ohio state power before around 10,000 spectators in a stadium known to locals as "Death Valley."

St. Joseph rallied to win that game, 25-23, and the Wildcats weren't challenged the rest of the season.

Ordille learned after an MRI exam Oct. 12 that his scholastic football career was over. He underwent reconstructive surgery Nov. 11 and still hopes to be able to compete in track and field in the spring.

Ordille went to football practice every day, sat in a chair with his leg elevated on the sidelines during games, and even participated in some weightlifting exercises with his teammates.

"I knew I had to snap out of it fast," Ordille said. "Eventually I learned there was different roles I could play. My team was supportive of me, worrying about me getting better.

"I still went to practice and I would lift with them when I could. They made it a lot easier, the coaches and players, they were so supportive of me."

Like many of his classmates, Ordille was a four-year member of one of South Jersey's most demanding programs in any sport. He joked in the summer that he had spent more time in high school at the football complex than he had at his home in Hammonton.

He was off to a great start as a senior, too. He ran for 319 yards on just 31 carries (10.3-yard average) with seven touchdowns in St. Joseph's first four games.

He was coming off a big game Oct. 3 against Vineland - seven carries, 105 yards, two touchdowns, plus a 50-yard reception for another score - when he took the field in Steubenville.

The next day, he was on the bus for the eight-hour ride home, his leg propped across the seat, his high school football career finished just as the Wildcats were about to begin their push for another state title.

"I still felt included," Ordille said. "I was there the whole offseason. I still felt like I had a good season. I still felt part of it."

Ordille watched St. Joseph win its final six games in emphatic fashion. He was on the sideline Dec. 6 at Kean University as the Wildcats captured another state title with a 55-0 victory over St. Anthony.

"I was proud," Ordille said. "It was exciting to watch the team go out there and dominate like they did."

It was just as Ordille had envisioned: St. Joseph finishing his senior season with a perfect record and the team's top players lifting another state championship trophy above their heads.

He didn't play the role he imagined he would. But he still set an example for his teammates and for athletes in every sport.