Dan DePalma held up the black portable blocking pad that separated the tackler from the ball carrier.
“Don’t let him cross my line,’’ he said to the eager tackler. “Stay on your feet.’’
Then he moved the pad away as the running back came close and the seventh graders on the Hopatcong Warriors proceeded to show the NFL-caliber athlete what they were all about. Sometimes the collision resulted in a touchdown and other times a score-saving tackle but in all instances the kids put in 100 percent effort. It brought DePalma back to a time, not so long ago, when he was in their cleats.
“I’m glad to do it,’’ said the wide receiver who has suited up for both the New York Jets and rival Giants. “I have some time off unfortunately, but it allowed me to come up here and show my support.’’
DePalma is so close to Hopatcong Warriors coach Tom Vicedomini that they consider each other blood relatives rather than family friends. After a busy year in which DePalma couldn't find the time, he was finally able to attend a practice of the Hopatcong seventh grade team at the Hilltop Sports Complex on Thursday. The 23-year-old athlete did more than talk and sign autographs. By the time practice finished, the Verona resident, who was cut by the Giants at the end of August, seemed to fit right in with the rest of the Hopatcong coaches.
“He has stayed level headed and calm during the entire process of all the good things that have happened,’’ Vicedomini said. “He’s a very modest kid. He doesn’t crave the attention. He feels like he has things to prove. He wants to get on somebody’s roster and make some noise.’’
When he makes a team, DePalma uses his skills and versatility to the best of his ability. He played on two Verona varsity high school teams that competed in sectional title games at Giants Stadium. He moved on to West Chester University for three successful campaigns. In his senior season he had 50 catches for 962 yards and nine TDs for the Division II school. He would have been just another face in a crowd of NFL hopefuls last season but he was thrust into the spotlight during the lockout. He struck up a friendship with former Giants tight end Kevin Boss and was invited to catch Eli Manning’s passes during an informal workout at Hoboken High School that drew major media attention.
“The lockout was going on,’’ DePalma said. “No one was hearing anything and I was out there with the Giants. I got my name out in the paper and everybody saw that I was working and I was trying to get to that next level. I got a shot. What you do with that shot is up to you. I think I took full advantage of it and I want to continue that trend.’’
It eventually landed him a chance with the New York Jets. Even though he was released in the preseason, the Giants remembered him and picked him up later on for their practice squad. He spent most of last season catching passes against some of the top defenders in the NFL.
“It helped me out tremendously,’’ DePalma said. “I was going against the Super Bowl champion defense every snap in practice. I had a great guy throwing me the ball. David Carr was a No. 1 draft pick coming out of college. I got all the experience of being on a professional football team. I got all the reps. As a player you take what you learn here and there. … I have to use what I learned to keep getting better.’’
DePalma even got a Super Bowl ring from the Giants (that he showed to the kids) for his efforts. However, the advice he gave to the Warriors might have been more important for them to remember. After practice he told the athletes that he was the smallest player on his youth football teams growing up but he didn’t let that stop him from his goal of playing in the NFL, an achievement that may be just a phone call away.
“Normally when I throw a ball I’m flat footed, and he told me to stay on my tip toes,'' Anthony Mastroeni, a Warriors 12-year-old quarterback, said. “It feels great to have someone who plays at such a high level show you the right things.’’
Mastroeni and his 12-year-old teammate Craig Swanson had the thrill of throwing passes to a professional NFL wide receiver when DePalma demonstrated some routes.
“I was worried that I was going to mess it up,’’ Swanson said. “Before practice my dad told me to put on a full uniform and I had no idea he was coming. It was a really cool surprise to have an NFL player practicing with me.’’
Both players did fine and afterwards nearly all the members of the seventh grade team swarmed DePalma with souvenirs that he happily signed. DePalma does expect to be busy again. He is on the short list of several teams that will be looking for help at wide receiver if injuries occur in the coming weeks. DePalma continues to train hard and stay ready for the call.
“It’s my goal, it’s my dream, so I’m going to keep going after it,’’ DePalma said. “It’s a numbers game. That’s the way it is for every position. (When I was let go) they said it was nothing I did wrong. If somebody goes down, I could get a call tomorrow. You never know. I just have to stay ready.’’