By Saesha Bhat ('24)
SBHS is home to many football stars including Justin Shorter and Mohamed Sanu. Another one to make the list is SBHS alumni Jai Patel, who was picked to be the first-team placekicker for the Rutgers football team in early August. Patel played for the SBHS football team where he achieved significant goals such as 22 successful field goals and a perfect 78-78 on extra point attempts. These achievements earned him a name in the 2020 first team of the USA Today All-New Jersey team, dedicated to the best of the best in New Jersey’s high schools.
But how did this all start for Patel? In a recent interview with The Daily Targum, Patel revealed that his interest in football dates back to elementary school where he played football and soccer. But when a kicker was needed for his football team, Patel left his soccer team to play as a full-time placekicker. With his family support and love for football, his success translated into his high-school football and college career, allowing him to be named Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week this September.
“I got into football after watching it every Sunday with my dad growing up. My main inspiration has been Justin Tucker. It means the world to me. It is a big part of my life, and I can’t imagine not having the opportunity to play it every day,” Patel said in an exclusive interview.
Athletic Director for South Brunswick Middle and High Schools Mr. CJ Hendricks followed Patel throughout his football career, watching him transform from a mighty little football player into a professional.
“I was able to see Jai at his middle school age…I just remembered being on the sideline, working an afterschool event, and this kid just kicking these bomb field goals and I was like, ‘Is this a high school kid that’s here?’ From talking with Coach [Raymond Bruce] Boehm and Coach [Jake] Rodriguez, they said, ‘Oh no, this is our kicker for the middle school team.’ And I got his name and said, ‘I’m gonna remember this kid.’ If he’s kicking thirty, forty-yard field goals in middle school, he’s gonna be pretty good for us when he gets to high school…He was a great kid and he comes from a great family. He was an awesome student-athlete and always with a smile on his face…So it always intrigued me to get to know him better,” he said.
Though Mr. Hendricks has seen Patel play in the past at Rutgers’ SHI stadium in Piscataway, during a birthday trip to a University of Michigan football game this September, he got to see Patel play as a kicker against his favorite football team. To Hendricks, this experience was indescribable as he got to see Patel play in such a professional setting and in an environment that was always a “bucket-list” place for him to visit. He was able to arrange a meeting with Patel’s family after the game and took pictures with Patel to commemorate the moment.
Hendricks mentioned, “It was also a little weird because when he kicked, I was rooting for him, but I’m all dressed in Michigan attire, so the people I was with were like ‘What’s up with this guy?”’
But as Hendricks was representing the South Brunswick community along with UMich attire in the stands, Patel was representing his South Brunswick community in his Rutgers uniform as well. For many, his accomplishments are the community’s accomplishments, and that pressure can be intense. But for Patel, the representation feels like an honor, something that is well-deserved after years of hard work.
“I am proud of the accolades I have received, but also the friendships and relationships I have formed along the way. All of my coaches and teammates played such an important role in my success, but especially my best friends Joey, Brian, and Omar, as well as Coach [Joseph] Goerge's , Coach [James] Noebels, and Coach [John] Viotto. It feels amazing to represent my community and town, being at my local university. The pressure feels similar, even though I am playing at a much bigger stage now,” he said.
Reaching a professional level like Patel’s does not come without dedication in high school and even college. It includes going to school and maintaining good grades, going to practice and games after school with intense energy, staying in shape and maintaining a healthy lifestyle and dealing with any personal issues that students face in high school and college. Patel recognizes the craziness of playing at the Big 10 level with the intense schedules and pressure-ridden games. While being an athlete opens opportunities to meet other people and dive deeper into a sport one is passionate about, it poses many challenges, mentally and physically, that can be too severe to experience at such a young age. However, community is the most important thing for student-athletes to experience within their teams and school environments as it not only brings comfort but can also remind them that they will always have somewhere where they can come back.
Mr. Hendricks said, “We’ve had success. We’ve won championships. We’ve been in big tournaments, but I love that our coaches do a great job in making the kids feel connected to our school community. That Viking pride, that ‘Forever Vikings’ mentality that we are really trying to preach to help kids understand that even after their four years is done here, they can continue to be a part of this community, be a part of this athletic program…That is really our focus: to make the experience of our kids more enjoyable, the connections they make with their teammates and coaches are lifelong and not just for these four years that they are with us."