The Thorp Award

The Thorp Award, which goes to the outstanding high school football player in Nassau County, is presented annually by Newsday in memory of Tom Thorp of Rockville Centre, who played football at Columbia University and Manhattan College and later coached at Stevens Tech, Manhattan, Fordham, Virginia and New York University.

Thorp, who was the first president of the Nassau County Football League, was one of the country's leading football officials. He died in 1942.

Amos Zereoue, Mepham class of 1995 received the award in 1993.

Mepham's Kevin McElroy, left,
saw greatness in Amos Zereoue

Zereoue's Sight To Behold

By Mike Candel, Staff Writer
Newsday, December 2, 1993

This is going to sound too melodramatic. The old "... the first time I saw him" routine.

It isn’t. Kevin McElroy swears it’s true.

The first time McElroy saw Amos Zereoue carry a football, he knew he was witnessing something special.

It was two years ago when Zereoue, then a freshman, was playing his first JV game. McElroy, Mepham’s varsity coach, watched from the sideline as Zereoue took his first handoff, broke through the line for 15 yards, was hit so hard by four tacklers that his helmet flew off, yet dragged them another five yards.

McElroy couldn’t control himself. "I went right up to our JV coaches and said, ‘Enjoy this game with him, because he won’t be with you again.’ " Zereoue was headed straight to the varsity.

That was the beginning of what has become a magnificent career. And it’s not over yet. For the first time in 40 years, a junior has been named as the recipient of Newsday’s Tom Thorp Award, presented to the outstanding football player in Nassau County.

Only two other juniors have won the Thorp: Mepham’s Bill Sandie in 1953 and Billy Wilson of Lawrence in 1943. Zereoue was chosen over two finalists- Garden City quarterback Matt Fischer; and Bethpage running back/line-backer Brian Herbert.

After more than three hours of watching film, the 13-man Thorp committee, consisting of public and private school coaches, officials and sportswriters, was led to an overwhelming conclusion: it had to be Zereoue.

"For a junior to win the Thorp, it has to be clear-cut," Section VIII football coordinator Bill Piner said. "He has to be out of sight." .

Zereoue was out of reach more than out of sight this season.

Rushing for 100 yards in a game is the standard of excellence for a running back. Two hundred yards? Maybe, if a back gets lucky, he can reach that plateau once in a career. Zereoue did it seven times in 10 games this season. Seven times!

Week after week, the powerfully built 5-9, 185-pounder shredded defenses specifically designed to stop him. "They were waiting for him," McElroy said.

"It got tougher as the season went on," Zereoue said. "I had to run a lot harder."

Coach Jay Iaquinta spent a full week repeating one theme as Hewlett prepared for Mepham. "I kept telling our kids to key on No. 4 [Zereoue]... watch him wherever h˘_goes,” he said.

On the first play from scrimmage, Zereoue took a handoff from quarterback Dave Lohman, angled left, turned the corner and went 80 yards for a touchdown. Hewlett watched him, all right. "We knew what he was going to do and he did it anyway," Iaquinta said.

Zereoue did so much, so often that his own coaches occasionally lost their perspective. In Game Five against a Garden City defense that hadn’t allowed a point all season, Mepham lost, 31-16. "Afterward, we felt they had stopped Amos," McElroy admitted.

This is what constituted "stopping him" — Zereoue carried 16 times for 130 yards (8.1 yards per carry), returned a kickoff 80 yards for one touchdown, ran 75 yards on a fake punt for another touchdown, booted a 22-yard field goal and an extra point.

"Ridiculous, isn’t it?" McElroy said. "Most coaches would be thrilled if a kid had a game like that and we felt he had an off-day. It makes me laugh."

Zereoue did enough to impress Garden City coach Tom Flatley, a man rarely given to superlatives. "Amos is the most exciting high school back I’ve seen in 30 years of coaching," Flatley said. "He reminds me of a guy who played for Manhasset?

That would be the great Jim Brown, but not even Brown had one year in high school to match Zereoue this year. Zereoue rushed for 2,111 yards, a Long Island record; scored 29 touchdowns, a Nassau record; scored 198 points, another Nassau record. In fact, there have been only five 2,000·yard rushing seasons in the history of scholastic football in the state. He ran the football; threw it (two TDs); caught it (one TD); kicked it (three field goals, 15 extra points); and returned punts and kickoffs (two TDs). Most important, he carried a good but not great Mepham team to an 8-2 record and within minutes of a Conference II title.

"If there’s no hole, Amos gets you four yards," Lohman said. "If there’s a hole, he gets you 80."

And who would dispute that?

Surely not Herricks, against whom Zereoue rushed for 265 yards and two touchdowns; or MacArthur, against whom he gained 222 yards in the conference semifinals — 106 in just 7:10 of the first quarter.

Zereoue’s favorite run didn’t even count. "It was a punt return [80 yards] against Hewlett that was called back," he said. On that one, he broke three tackles and cut back against the grain three times — literally spinning around the last defender.

Running behind an offensive line including tackles Steve Quinn and Pat Coughlin; guards Joe Olle and Kirk Hennenberger; center Rob McDermott and tight end Chris D’Auria, Zereoue could power straight ahead or burst outside. His ability to break tackles and keep his balance was a sight to behold.

Long about mid-November, when the trees are bare and the chilling late-afternoon wind sweeps across the practice field, McElroy plays a cute little game with his team. "I ask one trivia question," he said. "If they get it wrong, they run sprints. If they get it right, we go home early."

One day last year, when Zereoue was a sophomore, McElroy asked: "Who was the last junior to win the Thorp Award?" Not one player knew it was Mepham’s Sandie. So they ran. "I never heard of Bill Sandie until that day," Zereoue said.

Now, four decades later, Zereoue and Sandie have been joined by a bridge of excellence. "Amos is a once-in-a-lifetime player," McElroy said. "I don’t expect to see another one like him again."

Well, not until next season, anyway.

His Life Turned Around

John Valenti
Newsday, December 2, 1993

Jail. That was all Amos Zereoue could think of. Here he was, 15 years old and in the back of a police car headed for the local station house and, no doubt, he thought, jail. Wasn’t this what his father had warned him about? Wasn’t this what all those lectures had been about? Why hadn’t he listened to good advice, instead of the bad? Why had he been a follower, not his own man?

He thought he had known better than them all. He knew what he wanted and it was not hard work or dedication, it was not school or homework or the future. It was good times, fast times, running the streets. Now, in the back of that police car, as he and his friends began to sober up, he also began to understand.

It had been one of those nights in Hempstead. Amos and the crew had been out getting drunk. One thing led to another and before they knew it there was a disturbance. The police came. Some one wise off, which the police didn’t appreciate; thenmit was off to the station house, having to call home and explain.

Scared?" Zereoue said of the incident. "Yeah, I was scared. All I kept thinking was, ‘I’m going to jail, man. I’m too young to go to jail.’ My father had kept telling me, ‘Get in the house. Stay in the house.’ But I didn’t listen. I was having too much fun. I started to think, ‘What if I had just listened to my father? What if I had just stayed in the house? What if, what if, what if?’ "

That’s the strange thing about life. Had Amos Zereoue listened back then, had he not been hit square in the face by a mean dose of reality, chances are he would not be what he is today — a young man with a future. Certainly, he would not be out of Hempstead, living with six other teenagers in a home for troubled youth just off Jerusalem Avenue in Bellmore. He would not be a student at Mepham High School. He would not be only the third junior in history —— and the first since Bill Sandie of Mepham in 1953 — to win Newsday’s Thorp Award, presented annually to the premier football player in Nassau County.

Certainly, his life would be much different.

"I came to understand something," he said. "I realized what I was doing to myself. I started to see what was happening to my friends. Some of them are in jail now. Some of them, I don’t know what happened to them. It made me realize if I had kept doing what I had been doing that I might not have survived."

Luckily for Zereoue, that was not the case. Not only was he fortunate to not be convicted of a crime, but his father, Jean Claude, encouraged a family court judge to assign Amos to a group home so he could straighten out his life. Amos also was smart enough to understand the warning signs and turn his life around. It wasn’t easy. A chronic truant, he had to attend school. A poor student, he had to do homework. An irresponsible, rebellious teenager, he had to learn to listen to advice and make good on it. He did.

"Everybody grows," said David Hegarty, the executive director of Hope for Youth, the organization that runs the home where Zereoue lives. "Amos has grown a lot. He is handling his responsibilities at school. His dedication to the football team speaks for itself. He worked over the summer, worked fulltime. He is very motivated. He follows rules. Amos is focused. Amos takes care of business."

Said Mepham coach Kevin McElroy, "He came into a situation where he knew no one, where he had things he had to do——and he has done them. In three years, his growth is extraordinary."

That much is apparent. Not only is Zereoue a polite, introspective young man, much more so than most 17 year olds, but it is obvious that his hat size has remained the same -— that he is not the type of kid to let success go to his head. Sure, he rushed for 2,111 yards this season, a Long Island record and one of the four highest totals ever in New York state. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t abide by the imposed curfew at the group home — it is usually 10 p.m. on weekdays, 11 p.m. or midnight on weekends — or doesn’t do what needs to be done, no matter what it is.

His job during the summer was as a custodian, something not many kids today would do. His required chore at the group home is in stark contrast to his new role as a Thorp Award winner. Amos Zereoue cleans the bathroom: sinks, shower, floor and the toilet. He does it every night.

"When people hear that you live in a group home for boys," he said, "they expect that you did something really bad. But most of us are just here to get ourselves straight. It is hard. It is still hard. I’m doing well in scho0l."

He has a 70 average, attends on a regular basis. "I’m doing well on the football field," he said. "I’m doing well in this place. I know what I’m expected to do; I’m doing it. I’m doing homework, something I never took part in before." He laughed at that. "I’m even going to the library a lot. A11 of this is not easy. But I found out it’s not exactly hard, either.

"What all this has done is make me grow up. A lot. What it is about is taking the responsibility to come straight home when you’re supposed to come straight home, about doing your work without anyone telling you to do your work. I had to learn to do that on my own. That’s the way it is going to be out there in the world. No one is going to be telling me to get up to go to work. I’1l have to do it on my own. I’ve learned how to be responsible."

So Amos Zereoue is not now a kid fallen by the wayside, is not youth wasted, is not a statistic.

"What do I see when I look in the mirror?" he said. "I see a whole new person, a whole new attitude, a whole new life. Strong stuff."

Strong stuff, indeed.