Football: Brick’s Simon Bingelis Journeys from Lithuania to Villanova
Simon Bingelis was being drenched by sheets of rain while riding his bike down Drum Point Road in Brick on a fall day in 2012 when a simple encounter with football coach Rob Dahl altered the trajectory of his life.
Bingelis, who was born in Lithuania and emigrated to Brick with his family when he was five years old, had come out for the football team as a sophomore. He had played soccer in middle school but decided he didn't want to be the odd-man out among his friends in football-mad Brick, so he gave it a shot. However, after his first taste of the sport, he decided to quit the team. In Lithuania, the most popular sport is basketball, and since Bingelis had good height, he figured he should just focus on hoops and track.
"I just thought, 'Maybe this isn't for me,''' Bingelis said.
Dahl saw Bingelis riding on the side of the road as the driving rain came down. He pulled alongside him in his pick-up truck and asked him if he needed a short ride home to escape the downpour. Bingelis threw his bike in the back and hopped in.
"We ended up sitting in front of his house for an hour having a conversation,'' Dahl said. "I told him that he's tall enough, he's big enough, and he's fast enough that if he sticks with football, maybe one day he'll get some money to play in college."
"He said that (football) is a good experience, and I'll be learning discipline and character,'' Bingelis said. "Coach Dahl has been one of my No. 1 idols to look up to. He talked me into it, and I haven't looked back since."
One of the more unlikely journeys to National Signing Day of any player in the Shore Conference belongs to Bingelis, a tight end for the Green Dragons who will sign his National Letter of Intent with one of the top FCS programs in the country, Villanova, on Wednesday.
"I've been thinking about this day for a long time,'' Bingelis said.
Bingelis and fellow senior Ja'Quez Johnson, a defensive back committed to Assumption College, headline Signing Day at Brick on the heels of a nine-win season that included a Class A South title. It's the latest stop on a journey that began when Bingelis' family decided to come to the United States from Kaunas, the second-largest city in Lithuania and a place with a rich cultural history. The majority of his extended family still lives in Kaunas with the exception of a cousin whose family also lives in Brick.
Before Bingelis' junior season in 2013, he was in a tricky spot because his family had planned a trip back to Lithuania to see their relatives for the first time in five years, but it was right at the beginning of the season in September. In addition, Brick was in the midst of installing a whole new offense under new coordinator Chip LaBarca Jr. that would be directed by his nephew, standout quarterback Carmen Sclafani, who had transferred to Brick from Toms River North.
"(Bingelis) told me that he had no clue when he would be back in Lithuania again so he really wanted to be able to make the trip,'' Dahl said. "He missed a couple games, and he came back and had to pick up a whole new offense."
"I was worried coach Dahl wouldn't let me play,'' Bingelis said. "I just figured with college coming up soon and everything being so hectic, it could be a long time before I was able to go back (to Lithuania). When I came back, I made sure to work hard so that I wasn't a step behind."
Bingelis grew into more of a weapon in the passing game as the season progressed. He only had five catches for 79 yards in six games, but one of them was a 20-yard grab in Brick's 26-15 win over Colts Neck in the Central Jersey Group IV final that gave the Green Dragons their first NJSIAA championship since 1994.
"Towards the middle of junior year, I really started to enjoy the tight end position,'' Bingelis said. "You get to be so versatile with it - going out for passes and blocking is the best of both worlds. Once we started winning games by a good margin and won a state title, I started thinking (getting a scholarship to play in college) was a possibility."
After hinting at his potential, Bingelis took his newfound confidence from his junior season and began to progress in only his third year of organized football. His older brother, Tadas, 26, took him to four camps at Ivy League schools as well as camps at Fordham University and the University of Pittsburgh. He also pushed Bingelis in the weight room to help build a frame that is now 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds.
"This year he was much more confident in the 7-on-7s in the summer,'' Dahl said. "He was a big key in us beating Jackson (Memorial) the first time."
Bingelis finished with 10 catches for 248 yards and three touchdowns as a senior, including three catches for 71 yards and a touchdown in a 30-24 overtime win over Jackson Memorial in the regular season for the Jaguars' only loss. While his numbers weren't overwhelming, his combination of size, speed and potential resulted in offers from Villanova, Fordham and Bucknell as well as a preferred walk-on spot at Stanford.
Also an outstanding student, his SATs were just short of qualifying him for Yale, which wanted him to play one season at a prep school, but he felt Villanova was the best fit. Also a track standout who anchored school-record relay teams in the 4x100 and 4x200 last spring, Bingelis used his speed to set himself apart in the recruiting process.
"I think he's one of the faster tight ends in the Northeast,'' Dahl said. "He's a legit 4.6 40, which is really hard to find in kids who are 6-foot-5. They like how he can catch the ball, and coaches used to come in and say, 'Put your hands on the table.' They saw how gigantic his hands are, and he still hasn't grown into them. A lot of coaches think that he's raw but that his upside is unlimited."
Bingelis joins a Villanova team that includes another former star tight end from the Shore Conference, Barnegat graduate Ryan Morris, who transferred to the Wildcats from Purdue before this past season. Villanova, which finished ranked No. 7 in FCS in the final coaches' poll, runs a high-octane attack behind All-American quarterback John Robertson, a former Paramus High School star who threw 35 touchdown passes and also ran for 1,078 yards and 11 touchdowns in the fall.
Before Bingelis starts catching passes from Robertson, he gets to enjoy a proud day on Wednesday, and his family in Lithuania will know all about it.
"They're on top of it,'' he said. "My mom is always posting all the stuff on Facebook. Sometimes they don't grasp the concept of all of it, but they are happy for me. I don't think my friends know how big a deal it is because it's such an abstract thing to them. To them, it's like getting into Harvard is something because they've heard of it, but they all still congratulate me and are happy for me."
Without a chance encounter on a simple bike ride home in the rain more than two years ago, who knows if this day ever comes to fruition for Bingelis.
"I always say everything happens for a reason,'' Bingelis said. "You never know how fast things can change."