INDEPENDENCE - For Independence, the prep football season opener bore little resemblance to its winless 2016 campaign.
Even in defeat, a clear message was sent that there are brighter days ahead for the Mustangs.
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A few hours after the Iowa Hawkeyes football team has played Rutgers Saturday afternoon in Piscataway, N.J., the New Jersey Hawkeyes will begin play about 11 miles from Rutgers’ stadium.
Those Hawkeyes call Vince Lombardi Memorial Stadium in Palisades Park their home. That’s almost in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge, about 40 miles from Piscataway. But Saturday, they will be the visiting team as they take on the New Jersey Bravehearts in Edison.
It’s a game in a league called Major League Football, but it involves two members of a 24-team minor league that has most of its teams in New Jersey and New York.
The Hawkeyes are 6-0 in their first season, and have outscored their opposition 181-28. They own two wins over the New Jersey Vikings, and single triumphs against the New Jersey Longhorns, the Naugatuck River Dawgs, the Trenton Capitals, and the New Jersey Black Devils.
The Bravehearts have a four-game winning streak of their own, so Iowa-Rutgers won’t be the only spirited football tussle Saturday in Middlesex County.
So, why are the New Jersey Hawkeyes the Hawkeyes?
“I wanted an effective name, I wanted something impactful,” said Hawkeyes founder/owner Luis M. Matos. “No one here had ever used that name.
“I respect what the Iowa team did this past season coming where they were in the Big Ten. So I said ‘That’s it!’ It was like an epiphany. God was knocking on my head. ‘Hello, that’s your name right there.’ … I just felt it.”
Matos’ Hawkeyes share Iowa’s colors. “Black and athletic gold,” he calls it. But his franchise has its own variation of a fierce-looking hawk in its logo. So, University of Iowa, you have no lawsuit potential there.
Not that there’s any real money in what Matos is doing, anyway. His team is not-for-profit organization. Ticket prices are low. Players play because they want to keep playing. There’s no leaping from Major League Football to the real major leagues of football, even though Palisades Park is less than a 10-mile drive from East Rutherford’s MetLife Stadium, the home of the NFL’s Giants and Jets.
Matos’ Hawkeyes are almost all New Jersey natives, lots of players from Jersey City and Newark and East Orange and Bayonne.
“We have a few former Division I stars,” Matos said. “We have a wide receiver who came out of Utah State. We have guys who played college football. We have everything across the board. We have a Division II All-American lineman.
“We also took in a few guys who haven’t played since Pop Warner, never played in high school, but are working so hard.”
Matos said he has assembled his franchise because “I coached for parts of four seasons in South Plainfield (with the Central Jersey Vikings). I felt like I needed to pursue my dream and start my own organization. I did it so players I knew had a home team that was closer to their home.”
Oh, Matos also is a dialysis patient.
“That hasn’t stopped me from doing this,” he said. “I just keep trying to push the envelope while following what the doctors say. I’m hoping to create a little success, open some doors, open some eyes.”
The Hawkeyes and the Bravehearts duking it out in Edison. New Jersey is an interesting place.