Since coming into existence in 1918, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association has regulated the competitive interests of the state’s student-athletes.
The NJSIAA is committed to that mission more than ever. And in recent years, it has also looked to extend its role of serving young people beyond the field of play.
The latest event in that pursuit took place on Oct. 7, when the second NJSIAA Senior Leadership Summit took place at the Westin Hotel in Princeton.
Every NJSIAA-member school was invited to send a senior representative to attend the four-hour program that featured five guest speakers, four of whom grew up playing sports in different parts of New Jersey.
The speakers were:
Joetta Clark Diggs, four-time Olympian who was named state Female Track Athlete of the 20th Century by the Star-Ledger after a legendary career at Columbia High School, where she graduated in 1980. She’s put her vast athletic lessons to use by branching into business, media and more.
Tyrone Johnson, a Shabazz High School product who worked for 25 years as a decorated firefighter in Newark, where he became a training specialist for candidates in the profession throughout the state. During those years, he also coached track and field in his home city while additionally working as a NJSIAA track and football official.
Deb Hult, a New Hampshire-based nationally-recognized speaker and trainer in relational and motivational leadership who engaged the students in a series of interactive exercises designed to both instruct and bring out and enhance their interpersonal and leadership skills.
Senator Paul Sarlo, the Deputy Majority Leader of the New Jersey Senate, the mayor of Wood-Ridge and construction company executive. He was also a three-sport Hall of Fame athlete at Wood-Ridge High School and All-American and Hall of Fame baseball player at NJIT.
Bob Hurley, Sr., the winningest basketball coach in New Jersey history, with 1,187 wins, 28 Non-Public state championships and 13 Tournament of Champions titles at St. Anthony in Jersey City, and one of three high school coaches inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
The keynote speaker was Clark Diggs, who among other things reminded the students that they all have talents, but that there are also no shortcuts to success. To achieve success, there will also be setbacks that require perserverence, patience and other life skills.
The South Orange native, who traveled the globe as an elite athlete, also gave the more than 100 attending students one other reminder.
“Being from New Jersey,” she said, “If you can compete here, you can compete anywhere.”
As someone who speaks often to corporate-type groups, Clark relished the chance to address young student-athletes from her home state.
“It was very special, because I was once them,” she said after her presentation. “The NJSIAA is doing so much more now than it did back then, and it’s very special. The most important thing is that the kids may see not see the bigger picture yet, but something is going to resonate with them and they’ll take that they’ll take with them, and that what it’s all about.”
Johnson conveyed a similar message of how he used his experiences as a student and also an athlete to pass both the written and physical tests near the top of his class to become a firefighter, which is something he wanted to do ever since his grandmother’s home burned when he was 13. He explained how he has continued to apply those athletic and leadership lessons throughout his distinguished career.
Senator Sarlo spoke of how impactful the lessons of discipline and teamwork he learned playing football, basketball and baseball have helped him achieve success in his endeavors, and Hurley conveyed a series of stories from throughout his career that related to leadership, many of which shared a common theme - the importance of preparation.
Hult came to New Jersey on the recommendation of Jillian Ryan of South Brunswick and Sean Furlong of Midland Park, the two NJSIAA Student Ambassadors who attended the NFHS Student Leadership Summit in Indianapolis in July. Hult was one of their favorite presenters at that event.
In her session, Hult took the students through a series of excercises that brought out their communication skills, creativity and leadership traits. As a result, the students could help themselves and also help them boost their support of peers back at their respective schools.
The students thoroughly enjoyed the entire program.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect,” said Max Pernetti, a basketball player from Ramapo. “But I learned a lot about leadership as everyone spoke. All of the stories from the speakers were very moving. It was great to be here and listen to everyone. It was awesome.”
His points were echoed by Taylor Phillips of Irvington, a volleyball and softball player who drew plenty from Hult’s breakout session.
“There were a lot leadership skills to catch on to,” she said. “I learned that people go through things, even outside sports. I was nervous at first and it was awkward because it was a different environment and I was around people I wasn’t familiar with. By the time it was over, I felt really comfortable.”
Jett Tinik plays soccer, basketball and baseball at Neptune, so there was plenty for him to take out of the day.
“I got a sense of who I really am in the school, and the impact I can have on others,” he said. “It’s tough to balance academics and sports, but it was good to meet people who are in a similar spot, and to hear from the different speakers.”