SCOREBOARD Lincoln grid squad creates a slice of history Qualify for the NJSIAA state playoffs for the first time since 1987
by Jim Hague
Nov 11, 2008 | 2130 views | 0 0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The year was 1987. The New York Giants had just won their first Super Bowl title. President Ronald Reagan was embroiled in the middle of the Iran-Contra controversy. Evangelist Jim Bakker admitted having an affair with secretary Jessica Hahn. Jackie Gleason, Rita Hayworth, Danny Kaye and Liberace all died. Current NHL superstar Sidney Crosby and pop sensation Hillary Duff were born. The remake of "La Bamba" by Los Lobos was the No. 1 pop hit of the year.

And Robert Hampton was working on Wall Street for E.F. Hutton on the trading floor.

"I was trying to be a Wall Street hero," said Hampton, currently the head football coach at Lincoln High School in Jersey City.

None of his current players were even born at that time. After all, it was 21 years ago. For the Lincoln High School football program, it has been 21 long years, 21 very lean years, two decades of disappointment and despair.

It was in 1987 that the Lincoln Lions qualified for the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group III state playoffs, a team coached by Jeff Weiner and led by players like Shelly Archie and Latoro Yates.

And it was the last time that the Lions made a trip to the post-season.

"I remember that team well," said Hampton, who left his job in the business world a few years ago to go back into teaching and coaching, eventually taking the head football coaching position at his alma mater four years ago. "That was a very good team. I never thought that it would take 21 years for another Lincoln team to go to the state playoffs."

But after defeating Snyder, 54-12, last Saturday, the Lions have virtually clinched a spot in the North Jersey Section 2, Group II playoffs. If they win this weekend against Newark East Side, then the Lions could actually host a playoff game in Jersey City in two weeks.

Can you imagine? The Lions actually playing host to an NJSIAA state playoff game? The idea once seemed totally unimaginable. Well, it's very real now.

Hampton is certain that the Lions have already secured a place in the post-season.

"We made it clear and told the kids after beating Snyder that we had made history," said Hampton, whose 4-3 team has 25 power points, good for third place in the Group II bracket. "We told them that it had been a very long time and how truly special it is to make the state playoffs."

Hampton said that many of the members of the 1987 Lincoln team returned to the school recently to address the current team and talk about how fortunate they were to get a chance to play in the state playoffs.

"They were telling the kids that they had an opportunity to do something special, that it doesn't happen every day," Hampton said.

Sure thing, like every 21 years.

"The kids really didn't realize how long it had been," Hampton said. "They honestly didn't know much about it. We never talked about it and we really didn't make a big deal of it."

But it is something for the Lions to be proud of, getting to a place that they hadn't visited in ages. Some schools, like North Bergen, could book a passage to the state playoffs every year - before this year. St. Peter's Prep includes the state playoffs as part of its annual scheduling when the schedule is released in preseason. Hoboken usually ends its season in the playoffs.

But at Lincoln, the state playoffs had become a distant memory, a complete novelty.

Until now. Actually, once the Lions defeated Marist two weeks ago, Hampton put the state playoff idea into his players' minds.

"I pulled the state playoff rabbit out of my hat," Hampton said. "I just told them that we had a shot, but we had to keep focused and keep playing well. That's all I said."

Apparently, it worked. The Lions have won two straight and have clinched their fate for a meaningful game in November.

It's been a solid season for the Lions, utilizing three quarterbacks in Lamar McKnight, Kenneth Brandon and Ronald Butler.

It was a different approach, putting three different players under center. It might have been a situation that produced confusion, but that hasn't been the case at all.

"We don't have a starting quarterback," Hampton said. "We have three. I'm comfortable with all three. They all bring something special to the table."

Brandon has been the better runner of the three and can put the ball on his hip and fly. Butler, only a sophomore, has been a sensational thrower, clicking for five touchdown passes in the last two wins.

"Having the three of them enabled me to move some people around," Hampton said.

One of those players is fleet receiver Tyquion Miller, who was the starting point guard on the Lincoln basketball team that won the Group II state championship last March. Miller has scored five touchdowns in a variety of fashions, including two on TD receptions and one via a punt return.

"He's averaging 39 yards per catch," Hampton said. "He's doing a nice job. He's just a great athlete. That's all I can say."

The defense has also been solid in recent weeks. Strong safety Terrance Thomas has become a pleasant surprise and has emerged as the Lions' leading tackler. Defensive end David Wallace and cornerback Daryl McKnight, Lamar's brother, have also played well.

Hampton said that he set a goal when he took the job at his alma mater.

"I told the principal [Dr. Michael Winds] that I set a time frame when I took the job," Hampton said. "I hoped to be .500 within four years. We've done some good things, but that was the goal. Well, now we have a chance to be exactly where I hoped to be four years ago. I'm extremely happy to be in this spot."

However, Hampton really didn't place the state playoffs as a goal in the eyes of the Lions in the preseason.

"Our No. 1 goal was unseating Ferris as the Jersey City champion," Hampton said. "That didn't happen. But that was the ultimate goal. We fell short."

Ferris defeated Lincoln, 18-0, on Oct. 11, securing its place as the best public school program in Jersey City for another year.

However, Ferris will need a miracle win over St. Peter's Prep this weekend to qualify for the Group III state playoffs, while Lincoln is already secured of a playoff fate.

"We're trying not to make a big deal of it," Hampton said. "We still have a problem with staying focused. We're still struggling with the mental part."

But Hampton can't deny that he's proud that he's headed where no Lincoln team has gone since 1987.

"It's a special time for us," Hampton said. "I can't lie. We just have to keep everyone focused. I think everyone knows how truly fortunate we are. We just want to get some credibility statewide and continue the progression."

Hampton was asked if the players now realize how special of a chance it is, getting a state playoff berth.

"They do now," Hampton said.

As well they should. Twenty-one years is nothing to sneeze at.
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