By: Michael A. Chase Jr.
They’re plenty of talented football players to be found across the country. As has been seen over the past few years some of the most productive professional players have been the lesser known and scouted. This corresponds with the steady trend of smaller school athletes making it to the professional level. Within several instances these players developing into key contributors and stars for their respective teams. Players like David Johnson, Dak Prescott, Richard Sherman, Tarik Cohen, and Antonio Brown are just some of the NFL stars that have displayed their undervalued talent to the people who doubted them. This then gives a young man like John Distefano plenty to be hopeful for in terms of his pursuit of a pro career. It will just take an organization to identify the talent and give him an opportunity. Thus as I learned during my recent interview with him, his talent is unquestioned and confidence is high and rightfully so.
John Distefano is 24 years old born originally in Stanton Island, New York. At the age of 4 he moved to Lincroft, New Jersey and it is here his promising football career began. Distefano described he has been playing football since he was 6 years playing flag football. As he stated, “football was always one of the most enjoyable things for me to do.” Distefano’s athletic career then began to take off when he began playing High School sports.
His career took place at Red Banked Catholic High School where he was a multi-sport athlete, specifically during his freshman and sophomore years. During these years he played basketball, football, and track respectively. In football he played the positions of running back and kick returner and excelled at these positions. Thus due to his success with football Distefano turned his focus specifically towards the sport in his junior and senior years. Distefano then gave a very insightful take on his experience with High School athletics. As he depicted,” I found out the more sports you play the more people you get to meet, but then you have to get serious and choose one sport to pursue.” Thus Distefano while finding much to gain from participating in multiple sports, he discovered it is key to figure out the one you love to play and will grow successfully in. As we continued our conversation I asked about some of his fondest memories from his High School career. The main memory he recalled came during his senior season when his team won the school’s first playoff game in 12 to 15 years.
This event as I found was quite a night for him individually as well. Distefano depicted how in this game he rushed for 280 yards and 4 touchdowns to help aid his team’s victory. As Distefano described,” I did not even know I put up those types of stats until the end of the game.” Continuing,” I even managed to compile those numbers in 3 quarters, because I was pulled due to it being a blowout.” Distefano told me the score ended up around 60 to 10, so they certainly began their playoff run with a statement win. This moment from his High School career was memorable due to both team and individual success in the end. While it provided Distefano with a signature performance to highlight his quality High School career.
After a strong High School career the next step in Distefano’s football journey was taking on the challenge of College Football. His college career actually as I learned did not occur right away. As Distefano stated he went to prep school to play football right after High School. He attended Mifrod Academy for 5 months, a school considered a football powerhouse among prep schools. Distefano told described,” I went there to further improve my football skills, plus I learned 60% of the kids that have played there have gone onto high D1 schools.” Thus Distefano clearly saw this as a great opportunity to improve his chance to get a D1 scholarship. This move was successful as he got a scholarship to play at Wagner College, a D1 AA school. At Wagner he played mostly special teams as a kickoff coverage player and kick return blocker. Though after his freshman season at Wagner Distefano decided to transfer schools. As Distefano said, “the school was just not for me in the end.” Thus he ended up taking his talents to Montclair State College for his sophomore through senior year. At Montclair Distefano told me that he again started out on special teams and had to earn his way up the running back depth chart. As Distefano stated,” I played a lot of special teams early, but then I finally got a chance to get touches at running back one game and had a huge day.” Continuing,” that is when it really started for me in terms of College career.” Distefano went on to have a very good College career at Montclair State including a historical day to highlight his collegiate career. As Distefano described this performance he had in a game his senior season was one for history and to store in the memory bank. It was during a key game in his senior season that he broke Montclair State’s school record for all-purpose yards in a game. Recording 305 total yards and winning a spot on College Football’s Team of the Week. An honor given to the top performers across college football each week at each position. Overall Distefano certainly had to earn his opportunities to show off his talents, but once he got them he took full advantage.
“Honestly one thing football has taught me, is to always believe in yourself no matter what anyone else says. One should never quit or give up on their goals.”
I went on to ask John based on the success he had through both his High School and College careers what he believes are his best skills. As Distefano told me he believes his vision and balance that are his best tools as a running back. Distefano stated,” Everyone is fast, strong, and great players, but I had to figure out what do I do well to separate myself and that is use my balance and vision.” As far as him as a kick returner he said the patience he utilizes to let his blockers block and open creases is what makes him effective. Thus clearly he has worked hard to sharpen tools that many others may not always have right away which certainly helps make him an even more intriguing prospect.
As far as taking his talents and trying to take it to a pro level he was very clear on his intentions, as well with furthering his football career. Distefano depicted,” I will go anywhere to play, while I grew up watching the New York Giants who are my favorite team I am willing to play for whoever wants me.” Though one amazing thing he did tell me was how he actually got an opportunity to work out for the Giants. This came shortly after his time at Montclair State when he said he was called by a random scout to workout at the team’s facility. Distefano described how he got to work-out on the New York Giants actual practice field and did so with 4 other running back prospects. He talked on how great an experience it was on the field and the confidence he felt in doing drills. Stating,” it was just great to be noticed, and feels good to know at least someone sees my potential talent.” Distefano really cherished this opportunity as I found out for him and only helped further assure himself he can make it to the professional level.
I then began to touch on with him about his time most recently in the Spring Football League. The spring league he took part in was located in Austin, Texas the same league Johnny Manziel had been recently playing in. Distefano described how the league consisted of 2 games, while they had 10 to 12 days of practice, along with 3 days of watching film. He also depicted how a majority of players participating had just been on NFL roster but gotten cut.
Distefano detailed,” there were 14 running backs present alone. 4 of which I remember got drafted, and about 12 of them were on an NFL preseason roster.” Distefano even told me how Quenton Nelson who is a projected first round pick in the NFL draft tweeted about his individual performance, saying it got crazy views which surprised him. Distefano explained,” Quenton Nelson was one of my boys from back home because he lived 15 mins away from me. It was cool he even mentioned me on his Twitter but I was stunned how many people viewed the posts.” Continuing,” I have come to learn in sports like a lot of other jobs it is always about knowing somebody to get an opportunity. Now I know even in sports it is all about connections you make.” Distefano clearly learned a major lesson on how to grow his brand effectively in his sport and now will look to put this new knowledge to good use.
When our conversation shifted back to the spring league I asked about what moment he remembered most about his experience in this league. He referenced an occurrence during one of the team’s scrimmages during practice. He described how he had one run during the scrimmage where he had a nice cutback and scored a 35 yard touchdown. Though the reason why he remembered this moment was the reaction of the others around him. Distefano stated,” the whole team was jumping and celebrated, it was a great feeling.” Continuing,” I usually toss the ball to the ref after I score which I did here. But then everyone was jumping on me and by the end of it all, I was more out of breath from people jumping on me then actually scoring.” Distefano even told me that this moment showed to him the great comradery the team had which he says helped them go 2 and 0 in there season. Distefano even stated,” the best players come from the teams that are a tight knit group.” So Distefano clearly realized the value of team chemistry and how key it is for individual, as well as, team success.
Our conversation then moved to what steps he is looking to take in terms of advancing his football career. I first discovered that he actually participated in Beyond Sports Network National Scouting Combine in May last year. Distefano spoke on how great of an experience it was, but especially talked how BSN owner and Combine director Jimmy Kibble really looked out for him. Saying,” he introduced me to some CFL scouts which was awesome. I think he saw himself in me and my Dad.” Continuing,” it only takes that one person that really believes I can play at the professional level for me to get a shot.” I then asked if he would be up to do anymore BSN events in the future. He stated,” it comes down to if I need it, but definitely if the situation allows. Though with my experience in the spring league I showed I can play with the professionals.” Distefano went on to speak on how he is at a point in his career where getting a workout with a team is more important than doing another combine. While saying,” I am not really a Combine player but I can play at a high level.” Continuing,” I cannot stand out how I would like at a Combine. But any questions about my skills get answered in live action playing against good competition.” He even concluded by saying he and most of the other smaller school kids out performed the big names from big schools who participated in the Combine he did. Thus Distefano clearly understands and is confident in his skills being able to transfer to the professional level and is just awaiting his chance to shine.
Finally our conversation concluded with what he has learned from all his experiences in football, along with how he will apply these lessons to the rest of his football journey. Distefano described, “honestly one thing football has taught me, is to always believe in yourself no matter what anyone else says. One should never quit or give up on their goals.” Also saying,” it teaches you how to work with a group and form a family with people. Football just contains all kinds of life lessons in my opinion.” Distefano even told me of the quote he lives by and it comes from Vince Lombardi. It says,” It is not whether you get knocked down, it is whether you get back up.” Not a bad lesson to live by and it certainly fits the determined personality of Distefano as an athlete.
Distefano when I asked him about where he ultimately saw his career a few years from now he spoke on how he hopes to be on a professional team. Stating,” I am trying to stay positive. But I want to play professionally and make it a lifestyle as long as I can.” He spoke about how he continues to work hard with not much coming in terms of opportunity yet. Though as Distefano made clear,” once I get my one opportunity I will be ready for it.” Thus John Distefano understands the work ethic it takes combined with his talent to get noticed by people on the next level and will make the most of his chance. Now it is just up to one organization to give this high character and quite talented young man a shot to show why he could be yet another, “from small school player to professional star.”