Jason Gwaltney, the former high school football star who pleaded not guilty to burglary and weapons charges Wednesday, was such a dominant player that longtime coaches say only one Long Island running back was better: the legendary Jim Brown.
"Growing up, Jimmy Brown was all we heard of," longtime East Islip coach Sal Ciampi said. "The impact that Brown had on me growing up is the same that Jason Gwaltney had on me as a coach. We couldn't stop Gwaltney, just like I always heard Jimmy Brown couldn't be stopped, too."
Gwaltney rewrote Long Island's record books in his four years at North Babylon, finishing with more rushing yards (7,800), touchdowns (135) and points (828) than anyone. A four-year varsity player from 2001-04, he was a three-time All-LI selection and the only two-time Hansen Award winner as Suffolk's best player.
Gwaltney, 25, admitted to police he "drove the car to the house" in Huntington that a group of men burglarized at gunpoint early Tuesday, according to the criminal complaint.
"When you saw how good he was as a freshman, you couldn't even imagine what he was going to become," Ciampi said. "He had the speed, he had the power and he just broke tackles. You'd have two people waiting for him and he'd still get through them."
Brown scored 20 touchdowns in only seven games as a senior at Manhasset while leading the team to an undefeated season. He won the Thorp Award as Nassau's best player in 1952. Brown went on to star at Syracuse and played nine seasons for the Cleveland Browns in the NFL. He led the league in rushing eight times, won three MVP awards and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971.
Longtime Garden City coach Tom Flatley said he was an eighth grader in 1952 when he saw Brown play football during his senior year at Manhasset. He said in his 48 years of coaching football he never compared another player to Jim Brown -- until he saw Gwaltney play.
"Gwaltney just had a tremendous ability to run the ball," Flatley said.
Added former Newfield coach Ted Tsirigotis, "He had speed, strength and agility that was far beyond the high school kids he was facing. Nobody one-on-one could bring him down."Gwaltney, considered one of the nation's top college football recruits his senior year, was chased by many of the big-time college football programs. Gwaltney told Newsday that year that then-USC coach Pete Carroll, who now coaches the Seattle Seahawks, called him an hour after his team won the national championship.
Gwaltney chose to attend West Virginia, but his collegiate career sputtered during his freshman year because of injury and academic issues. He wound up attending Nassau CC and Division II LIU Post before finishing his collegiate career at Division III Kean (N.J.) in 2010.
That wasn't the football future opposing coaches on Long Island foresaw for Gwaltney.
"He was like a man among boys," said Pete Blieberg, who was the athletic director at East Islip during Gwaltney's years at North Babylon. "He was just awesome. The power and strength, his ability, low to the ground running, turning ordinary plays into long touchdown runs."
Former Bellport coach Joe Cipp Jr. added, "He was big, he had tremendous balance, he was able to run with a body lean that enabled him to break tackles and get into that second level and with speed he was able to run away from people."Added Ciampi, "Obviously he had some problems where he couldn't stay in college. You just wish things would have worked out for him because we would have been watching him play on Sundays."
With Steven Marcus