Will Rittenhouse Finds a Home at Raritan, Savors Gridiron Classic After a Turbulent Senior Year
LONG BRANCH - Will Rittenhouse always dreamed of playing in an all-star football game after his senior season, just not the U.S. Army All-Shore Gridiron Classic.
For his first 3-plus years of high school, Rittenhouse played on the defensive line for East Stroudsburg North High School in Dingmans Ferry, Pa., hoping one day he would be selected to play in the McDonald's Lehigh Valley All-Star Football Classic. Instead, he found himself living in a whole new state and attending a whole new high school in the middle of his senior season.
Rittenhouse's mother, Monica, is battling a serious chronic connective tissue disease known as scleroderma, which affects about 300,000 Americans, according to the Scleroderma Foundation. Scleroderma causes a hardening of the skin and internal organs that can create life-threatening problems. Monica has had scleroderma, which has no known cure or cause, since she was a young girl, but it took a serious turn for the worse in the spring of 2014.
"Basically after years and years of having it, your organs start to harden and shrink and tighten up,'' Rittenhouse said. "She went to the hospital and wound up going into a coma for a couple days last spring.''
With no extended family in Pennsylvania, her condition necessitated a permanent move to Hazlet to live with Rittenhouse's paternal grandmother. It meant that Rittenhouse would be uprooted a month into his senior year at East Stroudsburg North and transferred to Raritan.
"It sucked having to go,'' he said. "I had to leave all my friends and start another school with kids I didn't know and a whole new school as a senior."
He immediately expressed interest in joining the football team at Raritan with the Rockets four games deep into the season. He was eligible right away because of his legitimate change of address coming from another state. Head coach Anthony Petruzzi put him in a board drill with two of the Rockets' top offensive linemen right away to see what he could do.
"We've had horror stories here of guys transferring out on us who have gone on to be D-I players,'' Petruzzi said. "We never get the guy who moves in, so I'm very hesitant to get too excited.
"But when we started doing contact and saw how he came off the ball, (assistant coaches) Chris Raitano and Matt Dempsey put him against our two best linemen in the board drill, and he was coming off the ball and sticking them. Right off the bat we were like, 'This kid can play.' There was no turning back after that. He was a guy we did not pull off the field."
Rittenhouse stepped right into the lineup at defensive tackle after only having been at the school for a week and had three sacks in his first game, a 35-14 loss to Class A Central champion St. John Vianney. More importantly, he quickly assimilated into the fabric of the team. He went from a complete stranger to "Big Ritt,'' in about two weeks. If you were looking for him away from the field, he was probably at TGI Friday's in Hazlet having a feast with fellow senior linemen Chris Vurchio, Nick Buzzo and Malcolm Daniels, who welcomed him immediately.
"It was almost unbelievable,'' Petruzzi said. "It was like he was here the whole time. I've never had a kid come in like he did and right away become one of the team's favorites. He wasn't just a a guy tagging along. Because of his personality, people want to be around him. By the end of the year, I was saying at our banquet that it felt like he was with us for four years. I made a speech about him as heartfelt as for any other senior."
"I fit in great,'' Rittenhouse said. "The first week there I was already hanging out with the D-line. They texted me and asked me if I wanted to go to Friday's and get some food, and we've been best friends since.''
Despite not playing until Raritan's fifth game, he led the team in sacks and tackles for a loss by the end of the season as the Rockets reached the state playoffs for the first time in five years.
"I've played defense my whole life, so it was somewhat easy to recognize what was going on even though it was a whole new playbook and scheme,'' Rittenhouse said.
Rittenhouse was also going through the season while his mother battled her scleroderma, looking forward to practice so he could just focus on football for awhile. Her condition has required her to have regular kidney dialysis, and he said that she recently was put on the list for a kidney transplant. She was unable to attend Rittenhouse's graduation in June, so the family made sure to shoot video of him walking to get his diploma for her to see. She also was not able to attend Thursday night's game.
"It was hard not seeing her there, but I know my family always supports me,'' he said. "I'm just happy that I've made it this far."
Rittenhouse was not on the initial roster for the Monmouth County all-stars in Thursday's U.S. Army All-Shore Gridiron Classic, but with some other linemen dropping out, Petruzzi reached out to him to see if he wanted to play.
"He jumped at the opportunity,'' Petruzzi said.
A player who didn't even live in New Jersey in September joined Rockets teammate Riley Sullivan in becoming part of the oldest high school football all-star game in the state, savoring every moment despite Monmouth's 27-7 loss to Ocean County in the 38th edition of the game.
"All I wanted for the last four years was to play in the McDonald's game (in Pennsylvania), and once I moved, I was hoping this season that I would get into this game,'' he said. "Coach Petruzzi emailed me and told me I was going to be in it, and that was the greatest feeling."
It was also Rittenhouse's final football game, as he will be attending Brookdale Community College, which does not have a football team. His family has experienced financial hardship as his mother battles her disease, but Rittenhouse's performance in the classroom at Raritan allowed him to qualify for Brookdale's Educational Opportunity Fund program, which provides financial aid to those in high academic standing.
"Knowing the adjustments and everything he has had to go through, he's just such a high-character kid,'' Petruzzi said.
Throughout a whirlwind senior year, he has shown maturity beyond his years. On Thursday, he got to just be a football player for a night and enjoy going up against the best one last time.
"I've learned through this that the people you play with are your second family,'' he said. "When something goes wrong, they're always going to be with you and help you. This is my home now."