Gridiron Classic: Asbury Park’s Alston, Brick’s Newcomb Carry on the Sam Mills Legacy
Sam Mills made a name for himself in the NFL well before either Darian Newcomb and Knasir Alston were born, so it’s understandable neither of the two participants in Wednesday’s All-Shore Gridiron Classic were all that familiar with Mills prior to being given an award named after him.
With players like Newcomb and Alston earning the Sam Mills Award year after year, that legacy will continue to shine in the Shore Conference and each class of players will take the time to learn about him, if they don’t already know.
Although this year’s two award-winners admitted they did not know much about Mills, both were eager to do some quick research on Google to learn about the man whose name is on each of their trophies.
“I have to do some research on that,” said Alston, who just completed his four years at Asbury Park. “I know he’s like a legend.”
“I have been to a few All-Shore games when I was younger, so I know it’s a great honor,” said Newcomb, a four-year starter at Brick. “I actually had him on a Madden Pack, so I had definitely heard of him.”
Even if Newcomb and Alston did not know much about the Long Branch native who went on to author a hall-of-fame career in the NFL via Montclair State university, their coaches know all about Mills – especially Monmouth County All-Star and Middletown South head coach Steve Antonucci.
“I was fortunate enough to go to Montclair State, so I know the legacy of Sam Mills,” Antonucci said. “I don’t know if these guys playing now really understand just how important that award really is because of the man it stands for.”
For Antonucci and his staff, the choice for the Sam Mills Award – awarded to the player that best exemplifies the hard work habits at practice upon which Mills built his career – was an easy one.
“What an honor and it was unanimous for us,” Antonucci said. “We knew right away it was going to be (Alston).
“He is just a kid who has overcome a lot. He came to practice and worked hard. We got him back and forth (from Asbury Park), he was willing to be here and that was important to us. It showed the game matters to him. He made an effort to get here and make the most of the opportunity, despite all the other stuff he has going on in his life.”
Alston was a standout running back for a young Asbury Park team that went 5-5 in 2021 and made the shift to wide receiver for Monmouth’s 14-7 win over Ocean on Wednesday night at Brick High School. Alston hauled in one pass for nine yards.
“His character really stands out,” Antonucci said. “We moved him from running back to receiver and he was more than willing to do it. We wanted to make him a big part of the ball game and he was willing to embrace that.”
“It was unexpected, but it was great,” Alston said. “I feel blessed to be able to get an award like this. It was a challenge to adjust playing with new players, learning new plays, but we got it down pat. We had good tempo, good rhythm and we came out here and got the W.”
Newcomb, meanwhile, is the type of person who makes a strong first impression with his enthusiasm, according to his high-school head coach, Len Zdanowicz.
“He started as a freshman on a state (sectional) finalist team and he came in there like he belonged,” Zdanowicz said. “From that point on, he’s just been our emotional leader. He’s that kid. Everybody loves him. Everybody respects him. He’s a him. He’s a humble, hard-worker.”
“I think it’s a great award,” Newcomb said. “I worked my ass off the last four days to get my starting spot. I really enjoyed it there. (Ocean County and Central Regional Head) Coach (Jarrett Pigeon) was really nice and I just went to practice every day with a good demeanor and tried to kick some ass.”
While some players had to learn different positions for Wednesday’s game, Newcomb had to learn to be an entirely different player. Since the end of the season, he has shed 85 pounds as he prepares to ship off to Paris Island in late September for his training as a hopeful member of the United States Marine Corps.
“It’s a big difference,” Newcomb said of his physical transformation. “I really started eating right and working out. The first few practices, it was weird, because I wasn’t really used to being this fast. My body kind of settled in and I just tried to use my speed today.”
“He tries to do some of the same things, but he’s not the power guy he was in the fall,” Zdanowicz said. “He’s a speed guy now. I went and watched him practice and he had some good moves, but when he tries to bull-rush, he doesn’t have it anymore. He goes to it, because it’s natural, but then he realizes, ‘Oh that’s not happening right now.’”
Newcomb is following in his footsteps of his uncle and grandfather in joining the Marines and hopes to one day use his training to become a police officer.
“It’s the brotherhood,” Newcomb said. “I’m going to miss that aspect of it. Having a close family, someone always has your back. I feel like the best way to get that is to go to the military.”