Everything was in place for Bates to become the next great Hoboken running back, following in the footsteps of people like Dwayne Peterson, Ravon Anderson, Keeon Walker, Tyrell Dortch and Ira Guilford, speedsters who all earned accolades and scholarships after electrifying the fans at JFK Stadium.
There was only one problem. Soon after the impressive Union Hill debut in 2004, Bates injured an ankle in the next game against Dickinson. That led to a hip injury that never seemed to heal. Bates was totally hobbled, unable to play in some games, and when he finally returned to action, he was limited to just defensive play. Bates' chance to show his true colors as a standout running back had to wait.
"Everyone talked about him and raved about him," said first-year Hoboken head coach Lou Taglieri, who was an assistant coach with the Red Wings for 11 years before taking over the top spot for this season. "We weren't hiding him at all. He got hurt and couldn't play. It was as simple as that. He really couldn't run like we knew he could."
"First, I hurt my ankle, then I messed up my hip," Bates said. "I really couldn't run. It was real tough for me. It was very frustrating. I knew the coaches expected more from me and I couldn't do anything to help. Even when I came back for the last three games, I wasn't 100 percent. I didn't get many chances to show what I could do." So when the 2005 football season began, Bates was a year older, a year stronger and more importantly, he was 100 percent healthy.
"I definitely knew I was going to be more of a factor this year," Bates said. "Even though we all get the ball evenly, I knew that I had a good chance to play."
"There was never any doubt in anyone's mind," Taglieri said. "You have to put your best players on the field. We knew he was ready. He was going to be our fullback."
In the Delaware Wing-T offense that was first instituted at Hoboken by former coach Ed Stinson and kept in place by protégé Taglieri, the fullback is the featured back, even though there is usually an equal distribution of the football to keep the opposition on their toes. But the fullback is the one who can break the big play, take it to the house, so to speak, the way that Peterson, Walker and Dortch all did time and time again during their brilliant careers.
Taglieri had no qualms about making Bates the marquee back.
"He protects the ball well," Taglieri said. "He catches the ball well, and we're able to run screen passes with him. He's just a great athlete."
Bates always longed for the chance to be the go-to guy, especially when he was a youngster growing up in the Hoboken projects and he watched another product of the projects, Dortch, earn All-America status and New Jersey Gatorade Player of the Year honors in 1999, before Dortch headed off to Michigan State.
"I watched Tyrell play all the time and I wanted to be like him," Bates said. "I'm a little too young to remember Keeon Walker (who is now an assistant coach with the Red Wings), but I watched Dortch and thought that I would love to get a chance to run with the ball like him."
Since the beginning of the season, Bates has been a steady performer for the Red Wings, leading Hoboken to an undefeated 5-0 record and the top spot among the teams in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I power point standings.
Last week, when the Red Wings tackled Hudson Catholic, Bates had his brightest moment. He carried the ball 22 times for 198 yards and two touchdowns, leading the Red Wings to a 33-13 victory.
For his efforts, Bates has been selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week for the past week. Bates is perhaps the most versatile member of the Red Wings. Not only is he a proven running back, but he is also a terrific linebacker. He's also the team's punter and plays on special teams.
"He never comes off the field," Taglieri said. "He's also probably our best blocker as well. We use him as a lead blocker a lot of times on running plays. Knock on wood, but we pray he doesn't get hurt, because he's so valuable."
But his best talents are as a running back. Bates gives the Red Wings the true homerun threat, the breakaway capability, the team hasn't enjoyed since the graduation of Dortch six years ago.
"Here's the kid who can break it at any time," Taglieri said. "But he also has great vision. I'm amazed with his vision. He can see things and change his step on the stop of a dime. He's also a smart football player. He knows the alignments and knows where to go."
"I have to be able to hit the hole," Bates said. "I can't hesitate. I have to get in there and go. I think it's a gift, a lot of natural ability. I shoot right through it and I try to make myself smaller through the holes. Coach (Ravon) Anderson taught me that one."
Bates is such a humble teenager. He doesn't want to brag about his abilities. He doesn't own a gaudy nickname. He just wants to keep playing and make a name for himself, hopefully to get recognized like the great Hoboken running backs that preceded him.
"I just hope I can get to college," Bates said. "It would be a dream. It means a lot to me to be contributing this year. Last year was like a lost year for me. We have to keep winning to make it back to the states (finals, where the Red Wings lost a 6-0 heartbreaker to Cedar Grove last year). We should have never lost that game. Hopefully, if we keep winning, we'll get another shot."
So Bates is trying to make a name for himself, to escape the Hoboken projects like his predecessors.
"I don't think I can stay there my whole life," Bates said. "I have to get a chance to get out."
He's on his way.
"People talk about the great ones, like Keeon and Tyrell," Taglieri said. "He's right there."
That's high praise, words that Bates isn't ready to hear just yet.
"I'm trying to get there," Bates said. "I'm almost there, almost there."
Give it some time. Damien Bates just might reach similar heights by the time he's through.
- Jim Hague