The Giants May Have Another Victor Cruz on Their Hands
By Rich Bauer
The first time I met Andrew Turzilli, the New York Giants recent wide receiver free agent signee, was in the fall of 2003. We met at the St. Anthony’s Parish Center in Butler, NJ. I was the CYO Coordinator and basketball coach and “A.T.” was there to sign up and tryout for the middle school basketball team.
He was with his mom who asked to speak with me. As I said hello I noticed–as any good hoops coach would–that Andrew was almost as tall as his mom who was pushing six feet. Not bad for a 6th grader. She explained how important basketball was to her son and that he would only sign up if he played on a team I coached. The family had moved to Butler from Brooklyn to be closer to her brother and I had coached her nephew who spoke highly of me. I explained to her that it didn’t work that way but let’s have your son tryout and take it from there.
A.T. stepped on the court and within minutes I could see he was a player. There was no question he was good enough to play on my team or any other team in the area and I was not about to let that happen. He had talent beyond his years. I knew he was going to elevate our program which over the years had earned a solid reputation of always playing hard, playing the correct way and winning more games than we lost. Never did I expect the story that was to follow over the next 14 years.
His completed his first season with me but unfortunately not the next two. You see, as good as he was in basketball he found a new sport he never played before and he began excelling in that as well. Football.
Halfway through our second season, after winning a very competitive Christmas Tournament that we had never advanced past the quarterfinals previously, he came to me and said he was burned out out from playing football and that he was tired and was not having any fun playing basketball. His mom and I decided it was best to give him a week off figuring he would miss his friends and the game. Well we were wrong, he never came back.
The following season, his 8th grade year, he and his mom promised me he was committed to playing basketball and was going to see the season through no matter what. I added our team to an additional league and signed us up for a couple of more tournaments than usual to expose the team to better competition.
As I had hoped the team did well against the better competition, actually much better than I expected. Shortly into the season I started to see basketball and football coaches from DePaul Catholic, St Joseph Regional and Don Bosco Prep showing up at our games. Not every game but often enough. They would occasionally say hello to me and strike up a conversation that centered around A.T. and always would pay homage to his mom. To their credit they were not overbearing in their approaches to him but they did always make it a point to let him know when they were in the gym.
In 23 years of coaching basketball in the Morris-Sussex area Andrew was my only player who I can honestly say was recruited out of 8th grade. I did have a player who was an extremely talented lacrosse player, same grade, who I felt was being recruited indirectly by the Delbarton School. That player did choose to attend and, subsequently, he received a full scholarship to Cornell four years later.
A.T. and his mom had a dilemma on their hands. They had to choose a high school by the end of January which is right around playoff time. They chose DePaul since it was the closest to home and they welcomed the idea of him playing both sports. I understood the other two schools preference was for him to concentrate on one sport. I was happy for the family until we had another family meeting and was told he was leaving our team to concentrate on football. The high school football coaches wanted him to participate in an after school program that included weightlifting and speed and agility classes.
To my team’s credit they showed no bitterness toward Turzilli, in fact, they were happy for him. We made some adjustments to playing without him and we did very well finishing up the year.
By the way, basketball staff from the local high school, Butler, never attended one of our games that season. When I asked them why not, their response was that “they assumed they had no shot, A.T. was going private”.
Andrew ran into some turbulence at his new school. Trying to play two sports was not easy for him. He was good but not good enough to be thrown into varsity action as soon as he was, time management with both sports took away from his academics and he missed his friends who, to their credit, are a great support mechanism for him to this day.
In 2007, during his sophomore year, he transferred back home to Butler HS where, under much less pressure, he excelled at both sports. Thanks to a very good coaching staff on the football side and very weak staff on the basketball side, Turzilli became more refined and explosive in football. By the end of his senior year he earned All-Conference, All Area and State honors and had a number of mid-size Division One colleges interested. He stood 6’4, weighed 185 lbs, ran a 4.6 40 yard dash and could catch in traffic.
The Butler head coach at the time was a gentleman by the name of Jim Matsakis and he had connections with the University of Kansas. Once they came knocking, A.T. was going. He later told me he wanted to go to a school that played in the best conference. Well Big 12 football is as good as anywhere in the county so off he went.
Honestly I scratched my head when I heard the decision. My thinking was he didn’t have that support system, that he knew no one. Going from Group One football in New Jersey to the national stage of the Big 12 is a big jump. Small town kid in a big college town. Going to be tough to say the least.
He redshirted his freshman year and adjusted very nicely to being a Jayhawk on and off the field. For the next three years he suited up for every game except for a few due to injury. His career stats of 27 receptions, 491 yards, and 2 touchdowns are not worthy of All-American status but they are stats that many people never thought he would ever achieve. And let’s not overlook being named to the league’s all-academic team twice.
Home on winter break of his senior year he stopped by the St Anthony’s gym when he saw the lights on figuring who else would be in the gym on a Thursday night. I introduced him to my team and he told them he was in their shoes not too long ago. He told them that St. Anthony’s hoops taught him so much. His problem was he didn’t realize it and did not apply it until later in his life. It was not long before he was engaged in practice, barking out encouragement, demonstrating and coaching. As he left he told me two things, one, he was coming home to Rutgers to play one more year and two, thanks for being my first real coach.
At Rutgers in 2014, despite injuries that led to shortened season for Turzilli , he did very well. He had four TDs out of a total of only 10 catches good for 347 yards. He caught the eyes of a few NFL scouts and even though he went undrafted he signed with the Tennessee Titans days after the draft. He played a full year with them splitting time between the active roster and the practice team.
I was in awe that December day watching him make a 20 yard catch against the Jets at the Meadowlands. I could not believe it. A kid I coached was on the field making plays on a Sunday afternoon where they pay you to play.
Roads to success are never easy and Andrew’s has been trying to say the least. He will tell you that many of the bumps he brought on himself but he will also tell you he would not have wanted it any other way.
The Giants have given him another chance to come home and prove to people that he plays his best football here in NJ. This is a dream come true for him, playing for the Giants, the team he loved as a kid back in middle school when we first met.
To Giants GM Jerry Reese and Coach Ben McAdoo I say, just give him a chance, you may have another Victor Cruz on your hands.