Patrick Fowler, a 1992 graduate of North Brunswick Township High School, has been running the Raiders’ soccer alumni game for 17 years.
In the first 16 years, old Raider players just got together to have fun and catch up.
There was no cause.
But in 2018, on the day after Thanksgiving, Nov. 23, there will be a cause.
Mark Conlin, Fowler’s classmate and teammate at North Brunswick, passed away in April. Conlin left behind a son, Brady, who is a high school senior in Long Island.
For this year’s game at North Brunswick Community Park, Fowler and his fellow organizers are collecting donations and selling t-shirts, with proceeds going to Brady’s college fund. Brady will also be playing in the game with his father’s former teammates.
“The son and father were really close,” Fowler said. “Now a lot of people are reaching out and wanting to contribute. People who went to high school with Mark but didn’t even play with him are reaching out, asking for a shirt. It’s been good that way.”
Fowler estimated that the highest turnout in his 17 years running the game was between 70 and 80 people. Last year’s game drew about 40 people. The 2018 game could dwarf those numbers.
“Turnout should be a lot bigger than past years,” Fowler said. “So this will be good.”
Conlin was a defender on two of the best teams in North Brunswick boys’ soccer history, in 1990 and 1991. With Conlin anchoring the back line, the 1990 unit reached the state tournament quarterfinals and the ’91 team advanced to the state semifinals.
Conlin was such a unique defender that Raiders’ coach Stan Wilson created a position for him. It was called the “destroyer.”
He would line up ahead of the other defenders and just “destroy” opposing ball handlers.
“He’d win head balls, win everything. He’d destroy you if you had the ball, in a clean way. He wasn’t a dirty player,” Fowler said. “He’d just destroy you on the field.”
“He was very intense but very positive and upbeat. He was always excited, psyched and ready for the next thing, the next header, the next ball, the next penalty kick, the next game, everything,” said another teammate, goalkeeper Scott Szegeski. “Kids get anxiety about those things. He was just excited about it all the time.”
Unfortunately, though, Conlin lived his life the same way. All out, all the time, always looking for the next moment of action.
“You have a corner on the other side of the field. He runs up from the defensive end and tries to get a header. Then he runs back to defend on the other side of field. He did that all the time. Back and forth, back and forth,” Szegeski said. “As great as that is when it’s great, it can run 180 degrees in the opposite direction.”
Conlin, according to his friends, struggled in his adult life.
“He had some demons,” Fowler said. “They got the best of him in the end.”
“The drinking led to his death,” Szegeski said. “That’s what ultimately did it.”
But Conlin always enjoyed attending the North Brunswick alumni game. Every year, Szegeski would pick Conlin up in Asbury Park, where he lived as an adult, and the old friends would drive to North Brunswick together, reminiscing the whole way.
“We’d be in the car on the way and he’d be talking about slide tackling some young kid,” Szegeski said, laughing. “He was psyched to go and have the challenge again.”
For the first time in 17 years, Szegeski will not go and pick Conlin up on the morning of the game. But he will still attend the game, along with many of their former teammates.
“I’m sad that I’m not going to pick him up first, listening to what he’s going to do to young players on the ride over,” Szegeski said. “Funny stuff like that. Old guy stuff.”
But even though Conlin won’t be there in the flesh, he will be there in spirit. The t-shirts will have his name and number on it. Conlin’s parents will attend along with his son, and Conlin’s father will manage Brady’s college fund.
Most importantly, the Raiders will remember and honor Conlin at his best. The Conlin they always saw on the soccer field.
“He was just so into it all. It was awesome and great to be around,” Szegeski said. “He was such a positive person.”