PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Does the Piscataway High School football team have an advantage over its opponents?
Head coach Dan Higgins likes to think so. And it’s not what you think. The Chiefs aren’t breaking any rules or spying on practices or anything of that nature. Sure, they’re arguably the top public program in the state historically in terms of talent, but they have an edge mentally, as well.
Piscataway’s coaching staff list is Sunday shopping long, but none might be as important as Gerry Wilson, a retired mental/behavioral health professional, who has been volunteering his time with the team for about 15-20 years.
“He helps with player development in the mental part of the game. He constantly talks to the players and the staff and he always says he prepares the players to be coached up better and it’s the truth,” Higgins said of Wilson, who is the father of former Piscataway star Kyle Wilson, who played for the NFL’s New York Jets and most recently for the New Orleans Saints in 2016.
“Teenagers have a lot on their mind and there’s a lot of confusion going on,” said Higgins. “We try to keep it simple and Coach Wilson really does a good job with the mental aspect of the challenges of kids and what and how they’re thinking. He breaks things down. He’s really needed in this day and age. Every team should have a Gerry Wilson. Colleges have them. There’re guys behind the scenes working and we’re no different. We have young teenagers trying to figure it out. He does a great job.”
Wilson addresses the team as a whole before practice and he also has one-on-one talks with the players. He establishes a connection like no other and helps them with anything.
“It’s a ‘take medication as needed’ sort of thing as we say in the medical field,” Wilson told TAPinto Piscataway during a scrimmage against Phillipsburg this past Saturday. “You try as much as possible to have everything be a teaching and learning moment. There are times when I do address them that’s general so everybody is comfortable and wouldn’t feel embarrassed. They have pride. Obviously, I feed off of the coaches. They all love the game and the kids and enjoy coaching.
“I use the four stages of group development concepts by Bruce Tuckman. It’s called forming-storming-norming-performing. Any group going through that. Folks are trying to find themselves and then there’s the fight that goes on. The norming is coming together and realizing this is what we need to do to come together as a team so we can perform. Conflict is healthy and Coach would embrace that. Don’t be afraid. They can tell me about it and we can fix those things.”
Wilson shares many words of wisdom that’s not only about football, but about life in general. He emphasizes life lessons that can be used for the rest of time. He also gathers information and helps figure out what style of coaching works for each player.
“There are so many moving parts,” said Wilson. “These kids are so unpredictable; you have to kind of tweak it all the time. You can have a big guy who is not as talented, but his size is his brains. You can have a smaller guy who is very talented, but he can’t control his emotions if he gets beat on a play. Every kid has different needs to address. That’s where I use my clinical approach to understand that and bring that to the culture.
“...Every day has become a teaching, learning, and growing moment. It’s like giving them an M&M, minimizing and maximizing. You minimize mistakes and maximize strength. Metaphorically, that’s our M&M. It’s what you do in life. We keep it real. Our coaches keep it real. We’re all on the same page. Our job is bigger than football. We want all of these kids to be successful at the end of the day. When they leave here, they are ready to man up and experience life. At the end of the day, it’s all about life lessons. We keep it real.”
When Wilson talks, everyone listens. He has a glossary of acronyms so to speak with sayings such as D.R.E.A.M. B.I.G (doing right every time, achieve maximum, believe in greatness), T.R.U.S.T. (taking responsibility and unselfishly sacrificing together), N.A.Y. (not about you), O.N.E. (opportunity never ends), W.E. (work ethic), B.O.N.D. (block all noise, deliver), and many more.
Teenagers, especially in this day and age, are focused on themselves. In team sports, particularly in football, they all must come together and act as one and understand the bigger picture.
“I’m a spontaneous thinking guy. Every day is an opportunity for me to grow as a parent, as a coach, and as a mentor and it’s the same thing with these kids. Every day is an opportunity for them to get better and become better players,” Wilson said. “They are not perfect and I make sure they know I am not perfect or the coaches. As long as you can embrace your imperfections, you can learn more. It’s about all of us in it together. We continue learning and growing.
“When they ingest it and digest it and apply it daily, that’s what I like. It’s all about taking it in, breaking it down, and you see it based upon how they embrace their role, playing for each other and the team. There’s no one way. The process and development are ongoing. That’s what you help them with. How are they going to finish when football is over? We as coaches, we don’t look for ‘thank yous’. We just give. I could have been in private practice or whatever, but I’m okay with being chopped liver. I just want to see them grow. That’s the satisfaction I get.”
Wilson mentioned he metaphorically ‘crushes the pill’ so a high potency of information, knowledge, wisdom, and assistance gets through to the players.
“That is what I apply,” Wilson said. “It’s all fundamentals. I still continue to relate to fundamentals in terms of values. It’s about building. When you have a solid foundation, you can go up and build. We’re all about foundation and building. We all need reminders and that’s something we talk about a lot. We all age differently. The kids forget. They get so distracted. It is what it is. Some of them don’t have a perfect situation. We’re all imperfect, but we’re all in this together. It all comes down to that.”
At practice, Wilson jots down notes in a tiny brown pad. He then goes over to the players during that said practice or game if it’s needed, or he waits until afterwards. He also has many conversations with Higgins and the coaching staff about the kids.
“My IQ is my eyes. I don’t miss anything,” Wilson said. “My meetings with Dan, stuff just comes out. He can tell you that it’s bigger than the x’s and o’s. Each one of these kids has a certain special need inside that if you don’t reach that, you’re not going to coach it or coach them up. When I see something or know something, I say something and I do something. Dan and I are always about the ‘do’’.
Marcel Walker, a senior defensive end and tight end for Piscataway, greatly appreciates having Wilson around.
“He means a lot to me,” said Walker. “He keeps me down to Earth. He keeps me grounded. He makes sure I don’t get too big-headed. He’s a very good mentor. That’s the one thing that probably a lot of schools are lacking - that motivator or that mentor in life. If I’m down, I talk to him.”
Higgins owns a 148-35 career coaching record since taking over the Chiefs in 2003. His team went 13-0 in 2018 en route to a North Jersey, Section 2, Group 5 sectional tournament win and an overall North Group 5 championship.
It’s not always about raw talent and football skills, and Wilson has shown what he does and how he helps with the mental aspect works.
“Absolutely. There’s no doubt,” Higgins said. “He has so many private conversations that are priceless. That could be during the game, between practices, at the practice. He knows the kids inside and out and that really helps. The kids trust him and then he’ll talk to me and the other coaches about it. He feeds off of what we’re telling him.
“He plays an important role and it’s priceless to have a guy like that. We’re really lucky.”
Wilson has worked at UMDNJ APS as a Mental Health Clinician and Certified Mental Screener and at the State Division of Mental Health and Hospitals for 27 years. He was also at Bayonne Medical Center as a Psychiatric Emergency Services Clinical/Administrative Coordinator for 10 years, at Meadowview Involuntary Hospital in Secaucus as an Administrator for two years, and at Hudson County Correctional Center as a Mental Health Coordinator for 10 years. He held a private practice part time for 10 years and has earned multiple degrees for social work and mental health.
Follow Chris Nalwasky on Twitter @ChrisWasky.
TAPintoPiscataway.net is an online newspaper serving the Township of Piscataway.
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