Seems fitting that the most coveted football honor won by Mauro Altamura is named in the memory of Sam Mills.
Altamura and Mills are a lot alike. Both were unheralded linebackers coming out of high school (Altamura played at Hasbrouck Heights and Mills at Long Branch). Both developed into two of the best defenders in New Jersey Athletic Conference history.
As Altamura was selected the NJAC’s Sam Mills Defensive Player of the Year winner recently, the memory of Mills lives on.
Mills is the most revered player in Montclair State history. After starting for the champion Baltimore Stars in the USFL, the undersized linebacker played 12 seasons in the NFL, with the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers.
He was on Carolina’s coaching staff when he was diagnosed with intestinal cancer in 2003, passing away at age 45 two years later. The Panthers retired his number and recently promoted his son, Sam Mills III, to defensive line coach.
Altamura had a Mills-like season this year. The two-time all-NJAC player led the conference with 18 tackles for loss and was third in tackles, averaging 9.2 per game. He had four sacks and eight tackles or more in eight of Montclair State’s 10 games (the Red Hawks were 8-2).
Joe Koonce, an offensive lineman from Cliffside Park, was another MSU all-conference player. Rowan cornerback Travelle Curry, a senior from Paterson who played at Passaic Tech, was second team all-NJAC. The College of New Jersey quarterback Dave Jachera, a freshman from Pompton Plains who played at Pequannock, was the Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Altamura and teammate Stephen Gaffney, a junior offensive lineman from Oakland who played at Indian Hills, were further cited. Altamura was selected to the all-East Region team and Gaffney, a second team all-NJAC choice, was third team all-region.
Off the field, Altamura and Gaffney were chosen for the Google Cloud Academic All-Division team. Altamura majors in Business Administration and Gaffney, a three-time member of the Dean’s List, is a Family Science and Human Development major. Both players were also involved in Montclair’s charity initiative, the Keep Pounding Foundation.
Here’s a look at how other North Jersey athletes are faring in college:
Mark Fossati, Princeton
The former St. Joseph standout from Upper Saddle River is a first-team All-Ivy League linebacker this season. He helped the Tigers win the Ivy League title and achieve their first perfect season since 1964.
The senior linebacker was credited with 66 tackles, second best on the team. He twice won Ivy League Defensive Player of the Week honors, one after a game-clinching interception against Yale.
Kevin Wilkins, Rutgers
The redshirt senior defensive end from Mahwah is the co-winner of the David Bender Award as the Scarlet Knights’ best lineman.
The former St. Joseph star started all 48 games in his RU career before he was sidelined in the final game because of injury. He had 50 tackles, second most on the team, in his last season.
Tommy Sweeney, Boston College
The former Don Bosco star completed his career at BC by being named to the all-ACC first team.
The graduate-student tight end caught 32 passes for 348 yards and three touchdowns, upping his career totals to 99 receptions for 1,281 yards and 10 TDs.
Joe Giles-Harris, Duke
The redshirt junior linebacker from Nyack, N.Y., who played at St. Joseph, was selected to the all-ACC first team for the second consecutive season.
His 81 tackles led the Blue Devils for the third straight year. Earlier in the season, he surpassed 300 tackles for his career.
Javon Turner, Lackawanna (Pa.)
The sophomore wide receiver from East Orange, who played at Paramus Catholic, caught a 67-yard touchdown pass as Lackawanna defeated Arizona Western, 17-10, in the El Toro Bowl in Yuma, Ariz.
Lackawanna completed an 11-0 season that included seven road victories and two on neutral sites. Turner had 10 touchdowns
Nasir Hooker, Lackawanna (Pa.)
Hooker, who starred in high school at DePaul, had two touchdowns this season for his 11-0 team, including a 26-yard TD reception in the El Toro Bowl victory over Arizona Western.