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This is a story about John Lista, but the Rumson-Fair Haven senior might not even read it.  

For a player of his caliber, there are many highlights to his credit and countless accolades he has earned during his time as a menacing linebacker for the Bulldogs. The attention he gets for his play on the field has got to be his least-favorite part, however. 

“We’ll show a great play he made during film and he almost gets embarrassed by it,” said RFH defensive coordinator Jeremy Schulte. “He actually doesn’t like the spotlight. He’s very humble in that regard. He has always viewed team success over individual success.” 

But when you play football like Lista does, the spotlight is hard to avoid.  

The 2021 Shore Sports Network Defensive Player of the Year, Lista had an outstanding senior season to close out a fantastic career for the Bulldogs. His 136 tackles were the third-most in the Shore and his 10 sacks tied for the second-most in the conference. He was a sideline-to-sideline force who also had 11 tackles, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, and an interception return for a touchdown. He spearheaded a Bulldogs’ defense that allowed just 6.8 points per game, recorded four shutouts, and held nine of 11 opponents to seven points or less. Rumson finished the season 9-2, won the American Division title, reached its eighth straight sectional final, and finished No. 3 in the SSN Top 10. 

John Lista Defensive Player of the Year

Lista is the third Rumson linebacker to earn SSN Defensive Player of the Year honors in the last six years, joining Mike Ruane (2016) and Keegan Woods (2018).  

When Lista debuted as a sophomore it was quickly apparent to the coaches that he had the potential to be great. The way he processed information combined with his athleticism and physicality was impossible to overlook.  

“It’s his instincts that stand out,” Schulte said. “We knew as a sophomore he was going to be a very good player. Sometimes you have a really good player as a sophomore and they rest on that, but he didn’t. He consistently got better.” 

Schulte recalled a 2020 game against Colts Neck where Lista made a play that defined his greatness. In the box score it was just one of the nine tackles he made that afternoon, but it was the perfect example of his unique ability. 

“We called a blitz and he blitzed ‘A’ gap and he was able to stop in the middle, redirect, and shoot out to the flat to tackle the running back on a swing pass,” Schulte said. “'Wow', was all we could say. You don’t see kids do that stuff very often. It was a high-level college play he made. He truly sees things on the field differently than everybody else. And when he goes there, he gets there with a purpose.” 

Lista averaged 12.4 tackles per game and made double-digit stops in 10 of 11 games, the other being nine tackles in a win over Middletown South. He stood out in the biggest games of the season, as well, with 12 tackles and two tackles for loss in a 35-0 season-opening win over Wall, 12 tackles and one sack in a 14-0 win over Donovan Catholic, 14 tackles, 1 sack, 2 tackles for loss, and a forced fumble vs. Red Bank Catholic, and a career-high 20 tackles with two sacks vs. Woodrow Wilson in the Central Jersey Group 3 championship game. 

“It’s as cliché as it gets, but it really is the old line of big-time players make big-time plays in big games,” Schulte said. “You can go back to his sophomore year vs. Timber Creek in the playoffs when he came up with a strip-sack to end the game. And then this year vs. RBC when he had the chase-down tackle from behind to force a fumble when we really needed something. That’s what makes guys like him great, that they can make those plays in those situations when the pressure is the highest.” 

Off the field, Lista is an elite student and such a mild-mannered person that many of his teachers are shocked to learn he’s a terror on the football field. When it’s game time, Lista flips the proverbial switch. 

“He is a great kid who treats everybody the way he wants to be treated, and he also doesn’t take himself too seriously,” Schulte said. “He’s a fun kid to be around. But the second that whistle blows he’s the most serious one out there, and the rest of the kids see that.” 

Lista finished his career as a three-year starter and a two-time First Team All-Shore selection. He recorded 296 tackles, 15 sacks, 7 forced fumbles, 5 fumble recoveries, and 3 interceptions. His next stop will be the Ivy League where he will play football for the University of Pennsylvania. The spotlight will surely follow him there even if he prefers to go about his business with little fanfare. Such is the case when your legacy stands as one of the greatest football players in school history.  


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