Football Season Kicks Off With Rivalry–And Suicide Awareness

By on August 30, 2018

The Verona and Caldwell football teams will be wearing decals on their helmets in the colors of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Back in the day, the football rivalry between Verona High School and James Caldwell High School was the biggest thing in Essex County high school sports. On Friday evening, September 7, the two teams will come together again to kick off the football season–and raise awareness for suicide prevention.

September is suicide awareness month. In New Jersey, suicide is the third leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 24, and the fourth leading cause for those 25 to 54. Nearly twice as many New Jerseyans die by suicide every year as die by homicide. Verona lost two young men to suicide in the last two years, and began a process of reflection that has lead to new approaches to suicide prevention and mental health in our public schools, community education efforts, and the hosting of the second-largest walk in New Jersey for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which raised $116,000 last year. Another walk will be held in Verona Park on Sunday, October 14.

“The rivalry between Verona and Caldwell dates back many years, so to be able to partner with them to support suicide awareness was a no-brainer for us,” says Bob Merkler, director of athletics and special programs for Verona Public Schools. “Our goal is to reach our young students to let them know they are not alone and we are there to help them. Being a teenager in today’s world is not the easiest thing, so if we can do just a small part by raising awareness and providing outlets for our kids, our two towns can be better places for them. We look forward to this night along with the entire month of September as our teams will all be pitching in to participate.”

Dan Romano, director of athletics at James Caldwell High School, agrees.”When we were approached by Bob to participate in this game and at the same time bring awareness to suicide prevention, we were all in. At James Caldwell High School we take pride in giving back. If this night of awareness can reach one young adult, then our mission is complete. When putting this in perspective, football, as well as all sports, are just games to enjoy. We underestimate the pressures that our students are faced with day in and day out. Bringing awareness to these young people, that there are alternatives and there are so many ways to reach out for help–that’s what this is all about.”

The t-shirt for Team Vanya’s Voice for the October 14 AFSP walk in Verona Park was created by the Verona business Academy Apparel.

“While healthy competition is an important aspect of our high school athletic program, the fostering of positive social/emotional growth in our students is the key objective,” says Dr. James Heinegg, superintendent of the Caldwell-West Caldwell School District. “In that respect, we are all ultimately on the same team. We therefore view this event as an excellent opportunity for our entire school community to join with Verona to help raise awareness of this critical issue. Promoting the mental health of our young people is of vital importance to all of us.”

Kevin Batty, Verona’s new football coach, knows all too well the impact of a death by suicide. “I had a colleague who was more like a brother and he ended up taking his own life,” Batty says. “I remember the day. To lose somebody like that, it shakes you.” Batty’s commitment to raising awareness won’t end with the September 7 game. The VHS football players and their coaches will be walking as a team in the October 14 AFSP walk in Verona Park, and they are inviting team parents, boosters and alumni to join them. “If we can save one life,” Batty says, “it is worth everything we are doing.”

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Rosemary Gabbe, who chairs the AFSP walk in Verona Park and serves on the board for AFSP’s New Jersey chapter, is grateful for the support from the two football programs and their communities. “We can all help prevent suicide,” she says. Gabbe notes that the funds raised by events like the football game and the AFSP walks go a long way. “Part of those funds go toward education programs in our communities and advocacy at the state and national level. Part of those advocacy efforts are helping to implement a national three-digit lifeline number, which will save many lives.”

“AFSP has funded $4 million in research grants towards understanding a better way to prevent suicide,” Gabbe adds. “AFSP also brings hope to those affected by suicide through outreach.”

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The Verona-Caldwell football game kicks off at 7 p.m. on Sellitto Field, the upper field at VHS. The Verona volleyball team will close out suicide awareness month with an awareness-raising match against Leonia on Thursday, September 27  at 6 p.m. The AFSP Verona Park walk will be on Sunday, October 14, with registration opening at 1:30 p.m. Anyone interested in the walk can register as an individual through the walk website or join one of the many teams, including Danny’s Dugout, Vanya’s Voice and the LGBT+ Pride team lead by Rev. Jerry Racioppi, rector of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit in Verona.

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