No one seemed to know why Joe Judge suddenly left St. Joseph’s High School just as his freshman season was beginning and he harbored dreams of following in his big brother’s footsteps to play for legendary coach Gil Brooks.
It was during summer practice up on the Belmont Plateau overlooking the Philadelphia skyline where Judge quickly befriended his teammates, including the quarterback he was competing against: Kevin Stefanski.
"I was a fullback and immediately befriended Joe," JP Mantey said in recalling their brief time together. "After being the big fish in a small pond in eighth grade, we’re now in this bigger pond sizing everyone up. The quarterback position looked strong, because Joe had a rocket right arm and was already taller in stature than most quarterbacks. Kevin had an accurate, strong arm and was an all-around, incredibly agile athlete."
But just a few weeks into practice, Judge didn’t show up.
"There was a bit of heartbreak on the team," Mantey said, "because we had already built bonds and we thought highly of him. He made a pivot."
There was talk that Judge was unhappy because it was clear that the coaches had settled on Stefanski as the freshman team quarterback.
That wasn’t it.
"That’s not the reason I transferred schools," Judge told Newsday in an interview Wednesday. "My mom would kill me if I wanted to transfer because of athletics. That would have never happened. Me leaving school had nothing to do with athletics."
Joe kept the secret to himself and his immediate family, and still doesn’t talk much about it.
"It was an expensive school, and my father had gotten disabled, lost his job," Judge said of his father, Joseph Sr., who had worked as a salesman in the beverage distribution business. He died in 2017 after a battle with cancer. "My brother (Jim) was a junior at the time, so we made the decision that he would stay in school and I would go to the local school."
It was a heartbreaking time for Judge, but one that would eventually serve as a transformative experience for him. As a football player and as a man.
"I was very reluctant to leave the Prep," he said. "It was a great place, and I was happy to be there."
What he didn’t realize was how richly rewarding his time at Lansdale Catholic would turn out to be.
"My experience there, I wouldn’t trade it for the world," said Judge, who played under renowned coach Jim Algeo. "I had a tremendous opportunity for a legendary coach, and I made a lot of lifelong friends. My brother graduated from the Prep. He had his experiences, and I’ve had mine. You carve your own path, and you do your own thing with it."
Judge’s path now leads to Sunday night’s game against the quarterback he once competed against on that freshman team. Stefanski, who went on to star for St. Joseph’s and later at the University of Pennsylvania, will match wits against his former high school teammate when the Browns visit the Giants at MetLife Stadium.
The two first-year coaches have done well early on, with Judge instituting what appears to be a meaningful culture change and helping the Giants, now 5-8 after their four-game losing streak ended, contend for the NFC East championship, while Stefanski has turned around a habitually failing franchise. The Browns are 9-4 and in contention for a playoff berth.
Both teams are coming off difficult losses on Sunday, with the Giants falling to Arizona, 26-7, to fall a game out of first place in the division and the Browns losing an epic game against the AFC North rival Ravens. In what may go down as one of the greatest regular season games in NFL history, the Browns lost to the Ravens, 47-42, as Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson recovered from severe cramps to lead the team to an epic win.
"I’m so proud of both these guys and what they’ve done with their careers," Brooks said. "I’m tickled by the fact that both are doing so well. I have nothing but love for the Judge family, known them a long time, and I’m glad Joe is having success. The Giants have got it pointed in the right direction."
Brooks remains in regular contact with Stefanski and has been struck by how well the first-year coach has done in turning around a team known more for failure since the Browns’ restart in Cleveland in 1999.
"He had some talent there and they were dysfunctional, but I think they want to play for him," Brooks said. "Kevin relates, he’s young and he has the right blend of leadership skills with the organization. Everybody’s buying in."
Years after they competed against each other for the St. Joe’s freshman quarterback job, and before Judge had to leave the school prematurely, Judge and Stefanski are eager to face one another. And highly respectful of what they’ve already accomplished.
"Kevin does a tremendous job tying together all three phases and playing complementary football," Judge said. "Obviously, the offense goes through Kevin. You see a lot of his influence from previous stops in Minnesota and different coaches he’s worked under. I think he’s doing a really good job right now mixing it up, keeping defenses on their toes, establishing the running game, making big chunk plays down the field off the play action passes. Then obviously, he’s really putting Baker (Mayfield) in a situation that he can go ahead and be an athlete and be explosive making plays down the field, either with his arm or his legs."
Stefanski called it "very cool" to see Judge’s growth as a coach. "To see what he was able to do in college and in New England – won three Super Bowls up there – it is just outstanding," the coach said. "He is a good man. I know his family, a solid, solid family. Just solid people so not surprised with where Joe is today."
A little over two decades removed from their brief time together atop the Belmont Plateau, their football relationship will be rekindled on the national stage Sunday night.
Judge vs. Stefanski, with so much on the line for both coaches.