It only took one play in the preseason for Jackson Gallagher to show that Rumson-Fair Haven had finally found the position to best take advantage of his athleticism.

The 6-foot-3, 225-pound senior spent his sophomore year as an All-Division punter, and then served as the backup quarterback as a junior before moving to tight end this season. The only passes he had ever caught in a non-backyard football game were in practice before the Bulldogs' first scrimmage this season.

“We’re scrimmaging Central and he took a flat route, lowered his shoulder and laid the wood on a kid,” Rumson-Fair Haven head coach Jeremy Schulte said. “We were like, ‘That's a different level play.’”

“In that moment, I think that everyone was just like ‘Whoa,’” junior quarterback Owen O’Toole said. “When you see a guy as fast and big as he is just truck over somebody, you know he's going to have a special season.”

Gallagher has delivered on that initial promise with 19 catches for a team-high 398 yards and a team-high 7 touchdowns for the Bulldogs' balanced offense heading into Friday’s showdown against Haddonfield in the NJSIAA South Jersey Group 2 championship game.

“Honestly, I didn't even really pick my position,” Gallagher said. “I just wanted to get on the field any way I could. That scrimmage let me know that I was able to do it.”

In his first and only season as a tight end, he has shown playmaking ability against high-level competition and gotten better as the season has gone on. He had 3 catches for 100 yards and a touchdown against defending Group 5 champion Toms River North in the regular season, and he has had back-to-back 100-yard receiving games in the state playoffs.

He burned Delaware Valley for 4 catches for 100 yards and two touchdowns in the quarterfinals, then had three catches for 116 yards and 2 touchdowns against Haddon Heights in the semifinals. He has a combined six touchdowns in Rumson's last three games.

Senior Jackson Gallagher has emerged as a playmaker at tight end for Rumson-Fair Haven. (Photo by Ray Rich Photography)

Gallagher is not a lumbering, move-the-chains tight end, either. He averages 20.9 yards per catch.

“If you look at him, he looks the part,” O’Toole said. “He's an absolute stud in the weight room. He's always been an athlete since we were little. Everyone knew he would be good. We just didn't know where.”

Against Toms River North’s defense, which includes some of the fastest players in the Shore Conference, he took a short pass and outraced the Mariners 92 yards for a touchdown. He also has the versatility to line up at tight end or split wide.

The reasons it took a while for him to emerge are two-fold. The first is because he was initially playing quarterback on a team that features O’Toole, who led the Shore Conference in passing yards last season and has another 1,600-plus this year. The other is because Gallagher always saw his future as more of a left-handed pitcher on a baseball diamond.

“It's been a weird journey, especially because I was mainly focusing on baseball, but in the last year I’ve really focused on a love for football,” Gallagher said.

He was throwing in the high 80s and being recruited for baseball, but said he suffered a bicep tendon injury and cartilage damage to his throwing shoulder in April that derailed his season.

“It was difficult at the time, especially because junior year is a big year for getting recruited,” Gallagher said. “After that, I decided I was going to put my foot down for football.”

Gallagher, who was moved to tight end in the final week of practice last year, spent the offseason working with O’Toole and the other receivers to refine his routes and develop chemistry. He also worked with Rumson strength and conditioning coach Rob Orrok to add size without sacrificing speed.

His emergence has been particularly important because Rumson’s deep and talented receiving corps has suffered injuries to returning starters Nick Rigby and Sean Trinder at different points of the season. Gallagher has become an important safety valve for O’Toole when the lineup has been in flux, and he has the perspective of a former quarterback.

“I think my favorite thing about Jackson is every game, he understands you get a foggy read,” O’Toole said. “He says, ‘If you get a foggy read, just throw it to me.’ When you get him the ball, he shows you what he can do.”

The Bulldogs will have their full lineup for the first time all season when they face Haddonfield at Borden Stadium in search of their eighth sectional title in the last 13 years. Rumson-Fair Haven is out to finish the job after reaching the inaugural Group 2 championship game last season and falling just short against unbeaten Caldwell.

“Half our team, if you look at the screensavers on our phones, it’s a picture of Caldwell holding up that Group championship trophy,” O’Toole said. “This is a very hungry team. We're a very scary team when it comes to November. We've been through it all – the comebacks, the blowouts, the tough losses, the big wins.”

They’ve also seen Gallagher flash his potential in his one and only shot to show what he can do on a football field. He has garnered interest from Marist and Monmouth University, but right now his focus is on only one thing.

“We’ve been to 10 straight (sectional finals), but we want to build our own legacy,” Gallagher said. “I’m excited for Friday.”




More From Shore Sports Network