Coffey: Sayreville football coach George Najjar gets his say

Sayreville War Memorial High School is now nationally known for the hazing scandal that rocks its football team, which sees the remainder of its season cancelled.

Against a backdrop of nasty threats, vexing questions and enough vitriol to fill a million dumpsters, a football coach with a Hall of Fame pedigree and a deeply damaged reputation will meet with school district officials Thursday morning at the Jesse Selover School in South Amboy, N.J., where he is expected to delve into the particulars of an alleged locker room hazing and sexual abuse scandal that has made Sayreville War Memorial High School famous for all the wrong reasons.

The embattled coach, George Najjar, 62, a physical education teacher at the school who was suspended with pay last month, would neither confirm the meeting nor offer any comment, but a source close to him said the district leaders should not expect to encounter a man ready to head off meekly into retirement.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen George more determined, about anything,” said the source, who asked not to be identified. “He feels his name has been dragged through the mud, and everything he has stood for in his career is on the line.

“Listen, this is a guy who has devoted his whole life to teaching kids about commitment and knowing right from wrong. He doesn’t know what happened in that locker room and I don’t think anybody outside of the kids involved does, either. If this stuff turns out to be true, and kids were truly harmed and violated, there isn’t anybody who would feel worse than George Najjar. But for right now, he’s ready to do whatever he has to do to defend his name and reputation.”

The ongoing wreckage in the sordid Sayreville football affair is wider than Raritan Bay. It is a case that has not only resulted in a canceled season, a suspended and/or fired coaching staff and seven arrested football players, who are facing charges ranging from aggravated sexual assault to conspiracy to hazing and rioting. It is also a case that has left a residue of anger, accusations and acrimony that still hangs over the community like a toxic haze.

For almost six weeks now, the central question hovering over this Central Jersey town — and it remains by far the most important question — has been:

What exactly happened in the football locker room on those four occasions between Sept. 19 and Sept. 29, when the Middlesex County prosecutor’s office says four freshman boys were horribly violated and victimized?

But as Najjar prepares to meet with superintendent Dr. Richard Labbe and assistant superintendent Tamika Reese, other questions are calling for increased scrutiny, as are certain aspects of the district’s handling of the case:

– Who is threatening supporters of Najjar, and why?

No doubt emotions in Sayreville have been running hot, but the rancor is reaching new heights, with sources saying that at least two Najjar supporters have been threatened by letter, phone and in one instance, even in person.

“They don’t want to go to the cops because they just want it to go away,” said a friend of the people being threatened, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

– Did Labbe and board member John Walsh want a new football coach?

Walsh, who was elected to the school board last year, and Labbe, were once Sayreville assistant football coaches. Labbe was on the staff of Najjar’s predecessor, Sal Mistretta, and Walsh was let go by Najjar several years ago; Walsh’s father, Pat Walsh Sr., the town council’s liaison to the school board, was also on Najjar’s staff before leaving over differences in coaching philosophy.

While the investigation in the case was launched by the Middlesex County prosecutor’s office, three sources close to the team said that Labbe and John Walsh made no secret that they were not members of the Najjar fan club before any of this happened. In fact, according to one of the sources, not long after Labbe took over as superintendent last summer, a high-ranking district official said “don’t be surprised if Najjar and (principal Jim) Brown are not around much longer.” The district official later claimed to be misunderstood, the source said.

– Why were assistant coaches told they would not be returning before an investigation took place?

Several assistant coaches who do not work in the district were questioned by the board about the alleged incidents and told almost immediately that their services were no longer needed. One former volunteer assistant, Bobby Berardi, said at a school board meeting last month that moments before his meeting with district officials (he said they didn’t know he was waiting outside) he heard the officials celebrating the ouster of the coaches.

A source close to the district said it didn’t happen.

Why was the locker room apparently unsupervised? And why weren’t all football staff members trained or briefed on harassment, intimidation and bullying procedures and prevention, as mandated by state law?

“I never heard one word about it, one assistant coach said.

It’s not likely that all of these questions will be on the table Thursday, when George Najjar has his meeting with district officials, and fights for his name. It will be much longer still before the most important question of all — What happened in the locker room? – gets answered, and all of this goes away. 

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