We meet on the football field at Northern Valley Regional High School, where as a team captain, U.S. Rep. Cory Booker led the Golden Knights to the state championship in 1985. It’s Super Bowl Sunday and before he heads to a Super Bowl party and reunion with his teammates, Booker (D-NJ) talks about how his experience on the gridiron informed the rest of his life.
“Some of the best memories and life lessons were learned on this field,” Booker said. “I was forged on a football field. Those days of my life, everything, my first leadership position was as captain of the football team. My leadership positions, the first ones were here, so I owe so much to this school and frankly to a great football team.”
Booker gives credit to the rest of the team for making him seem like a better player, but he was All State and a High School All American along with several other high schoolers who went on to play in the NFL. Booker actually had his choice of schools, and his pick had less to do with football and more to do with other concerns.
“That year, it (Stanford) was the number one academic school in the nation above Harvard and Yale, and I felt if you got a full scholarship to a Top 10, Division I football, at the best academic school, this is going to be a great combination for the future,” he said. “I wanted to make sure that I had the best foundation possible to do other things in life.”
Booker’s had an unremarkable career at Stanford, a role player on a powerhouse team that featured future NFL pros. After four years of eligibility, his collegiate football career was over.
“I had a fifth year of eligibility and he didn’t invite me back to the team. It shocked me and a lot of people, but it ended up being one of the best things that could have ever happened to me. I don’t think I would have been a Rhodes scholar if it wasn’t for that,” Booker said. “I had this incredible professor who said to me ‘This is a great opportunity for you. Get your Master’s degree, apply for a Rhodes scholarship.’ And I suddenly found myself like a civilian. I’m like, wait a minute, this is a sport that took 50, 60 hours a week and now I had all this free time. It was an incredible intellectual period for me because I got more reading and studying done and then had the freedom to apply for a Rhodes scholarship, which gave me this incredible journey to Oxford University.”
Tougher than expected
His political rise in Newark may have seemed meteoric, but it took years before he developed his national profile. His record was mostly positive although, coming into office during an economic downturn made the job harder than he expected. Still, it helped him become one of the best-known elected officials in the country and led him to the U.S. Senate; all the while though, he maintained his connection to his old community, and his teammates and coaches, who gathered to watch the big game and celebrate their captain.
“I knew early on when he was a sophomore that first year that he is something special. Because I would listen to him interact with his teammates, interact with his coaches and he was wise beyond his years. He was mature beyond his years. He was respectful beyond his years,” said Bert Ammerman, head football coach. “Whatever this kid decides, he’s going to be a success.”
“We go to school, we’d walk the halls, and the truth is that every time we walked the halls, the teachers in the middle of their classes would stop and they’d walk outside, they’d say ‘hi’ to Cory. He’d come and talk to the students and that was from freshman year to senior year. That was just the type of person he was, and is,” said high school team mate Jim Donofrio.
“We’d be at the awards dinners and he’d get up and speak and Cory would take the whole room over and was eloquent at that age. My dad used to say to me, ‘He’s going to be big one day,’ and I’m like, ‘Dad what about me,’” said John English, a high school teammate of Booker’s.
It could be some time before these old friends are together again. Booker is embarking on a mission that will take him away from Jersey for weeks at a time. Many hope the next time they see him, he’ll be the Democratic nominee for president, but add that to them he’s always just going to be Cory.