ATHLETE OF THE WEEK

Prep’s Bullock enjoys game for the ages against rival Bergen Catholic

St. Peter’s Prep junior quarterback Tahjamell Bullock
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St. Peter’s Prep junior quarterback Tahjamell Bullock

Tahjamell Bullock said that he wasn’t just prepared to become the starting quarterback at St. Peter’s Prep in the past year or so. Now a junior, Bullock firmly believes that his preparation to be the next in line of Marauder great signal callers began when he first entered the hallowed halls at Grand and Warren a little more than three years ago.

“I was ready for the responsibility when I came here,” Bullock said. “I knew I wanted to be a part of the great lineage of quarterbacks that came from here. So it wasn’t just from the beginning of the season. I knew what I wanted when I first thought about coming to St. Peter’s.”

So Bullock was ready to bide his time and sit behind former starter Maasai Maynor, currently at the United States Naval Academy, for two years.

And when Bullock was deciding upon what school to attend, he knew that a fellow East Orange resident in Johnathan Lewis was entrenched as the Marauders’ starting quarterback. Lewis is currently sitting out the year at Rutgers University after suffering a devastating knee injury.

Before Lewis, the role was handled by Brandon Wimbush, the former Gatorade New Jersey Player of the Year who led the Marauders to the 2015 NJSIAA Non-Public Group 4 state championship before heading off to Notre Dame and eventually the University of Central Florida.

And even before that, another East Orange native in Will Hill had the role. Hill is perhaps the greatest player to ever grace the maroon and white uniform of the Marauders, before Hill went on to the University of Florida and eventually the National Football League with the New York Giants and Baltimore Ravens.

All of the aforementioned quarterbacks were two-time Hudson Reporter Offensive Player of the Year or Hudson Reporter Most Valuable Player honorees.

Bullock was well aware of all of that.

“I had the mentality of being the starter since I stepped into the school,” Bullock said confidently. “I knew I had to lock myself into that role. I knew that there’s a sense of leadership in being a quarterback, especially at St. Peter’s. You have to control everything and make sure everything runs smoothly.”

Veteran St. Peter’s head coach and athletic director Rich Hansen saw Bullock’s maturity grow and his patience level develop over the previous two seasons as Bullock watched and learned behind Maynor, the two-time Hudson Reporter Offensive Player of the Year.

“When he decided to come here, he knew it was going to take a few years to get his shot,” Hansen said. “He was going to have to wait a few years behind Maasai. I think his humility and his genuine desire to be a really top notch elite quarterback were crucial. He’s line fine wine. You cannot use him before his time. You have a chance that you may ruin them for a long time. I think Taj more than understands. He said that we could use him and develop him as we saw fit.”

There were three other aspiring quarterbacks that enrolled at St. Peter’s during that time frame. All three decided to transfer once they saw Bullock waiting in the wings.

“I don’t think they wanted to compete with him,” Hansen said. “Quarterbacks are different. Most want to go to a place and play right away. But Taj has a great mental acumen for the game. He knows how important development is. He’s not going to go out there and wing it. In order to be successful, you need patience, you need trust and you need time to have him rise to the development. Taj did everything textbook.”

Bullock said that he prepared because he was patient behind Maynor, but it also helped that his youth football coach was Lewis’ father, Vincent, who is the head coach for the famed youth football program Brick City Lions based in Newark.

“It’s funny, but they live two blocks away from me,” Bullock said of Lewis. “It just felt right talking to Coach Lewis and Coach Hansen. I knew it was going to be a great opportunity for me to play at Prep. I trusted the process and figured that I would come out even better.”

Bullock’s career as the starting quarterback at Grand and Warren has only lasted three games, but if those contests are any indication, then Bullock just might be well on his way to carving his place in the history books with the other great Prep quarterbacks.

Last week, Bullock had the game of a lifetime against state-ranked rival Bergen Catholic – and it was only Bullock’s third varsity start.

In the game, Bullock rushed 23 times for 110 yards on the ground and completed 16-of-25 passes for 225 yards and three touchdowns, the last completion being a 27-yard touchdown to Jelani Mason with just 24 seconds remaining, lifting the Marauders to a come-from-behind 33-30 victory.

It’s definitely the type of running and passing combination that Maynor, Lewis, Wimbush and Hill all enjoyed as Marauders, just none as thrilling, none as important and certainly none in just their third game.

For his efforts, Bullock has been selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week for the past week. Bullock is the first such honoree for the 2019-2020 scholastic sports season, a year that will culminate in the presentation of both the Hudson Reporter Male and Female Athletes of the Year in June/July, 2020.

Bullock’s performance was so special that he was nominated to be the national Player of the Week by USA Today.

Bullock was quite composed and certainly mature about his performance.

“It’s just another game,” Bullock said. “I didn’t look at it any differently. It honestly wasn’t too big of a deal for me. I knew a lot of people would be there, but I didn’t think of that. I just thought that my offensive line did a great job of holding them off for me and we all put on a show. It was a great team win. I just have to get ready for the rest of the season. I’m 100 percent focused on being the best Prep quarterback I can be. God willing, better things are yet to come. I’m not thinking about it.”

Hansen is pleased with his quarterback’s performance thus far.

“I like him so much as a guy and as a talent,” Hansen said. “I just wish he would smile more. He’s too serious. Football is fun. I told him, ‘Taj, it’s okay to smile.’ He maintains an even keel every play. He doesn’t get rattled. He doesn’t make the same mistake twice. He’s one of the most coachable kids I’ve ever had.”

That says a lot, considering that Hansen is in his 34th year of being the Marauders’ head coach.

“He really is,” Hansen said. “His maturity, he’s coachable, he’s patient, he comes from great parents who keep him grounded.  I think this could be the first of many big games he can have. We just have to keep him healthy.”

There is one thought. How did he acquire such a unique first name?

“I honestly don’t know,” Bullock said. “I never even asked my parents. Maybe because my mother’s name is Tasha and my aunt’s name is Janelle. Maybe that’s it. I might have to ask now.”

One thing’s for sure: No one is going to forget the name of Tahjamell Bullock in these parts anytime soon. – Jim Hague

Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com