Favorite athlete: Jason Witten
Favorite team: Dallas Cowboys
Favorite memory competing in sports: Beating Pennsbury to get into the playoffs my junior year.
Most embarrassing/funniest thing that has happened while competing in sports: Mason’s long touchdown run against Abington last year when half of the offense ran through the end zone, slipped, and fell.
Music on iPod: Classic Rock
Future plans: Attend college
Words to live by: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” - Theodore Roosevelt
One goal before turning 30: Know what I want to do in life
One thing people don’t know about me: I’m obsessed with the Simpsons. I have seen nearly every episode.
By GORDON GLANTZ
Underneath the Friday night lights, Neshaminy center AJ Sanko is deep in the trenches, battling for gridiron supremacy.
Come Sundays, he returns to the same field, but it is not to visit the blood or sweat or tears he has left behind.
Win or lose on Friday, he joins with other Bucks County area athletes – some from schools considered rivals – and all walk away winners with a sense of renewed perspective.
“On Sunday mornings, AJ can be found on the football field participating in the Bucks County Challenger program,” said Neshaminy coach Steve Wilmot. “Here he teaches special needs children the ins and outs of football.”
Now a senior, Sanko got involved as a sophomore, the same year he emerged at the top of the depth chart as an undersized center in what turned out to be a retooling year.
It has become as much a part of his regular routine as lifting weights in the offseason.
“I started going during my sophomore year,” said Sanko, the Univest Featured Male Athlete of the Week. “I’ve gone to every single one that wasn’t cancelled. It’s a bunch of players from local teams – like Pennsbury and Bristol – at Neshaminy’s Field, and we spend time with the kids with special needs.”
Sanko said the kids range in age from five to the upper teens, each inspiring in their own way.
“It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “When you see a smile on their face, it just means so much. It makes you think about how lucky we are.”
The two-hour program sessions tend to break up by 12:30, meaning he has time to find a television and watch the NFL.
He spurned his father, a Giants fan, but followed the path of an uncle and instead cheers for the Cowboys.
“Yeah, I try to keep it low,” he joked. “I don’t want to be too bold with it. I want to wait until we win something.”
Eyes on the Prize
In terms of winning, it could not have gone any better for Sanko and his teammates this season, as they are 8-0 with two regular-season games – against rivals Council Rock South and Pennsbury looking for revenge from last season– still to go. Beyond that, he is looking forward to wrapping up his career with a return trip to the playoffs.
“So far, so good,” said Sanko, who is not a captain but the clear-cut leader of the offensive line, where he makes a lot of the calls in what is a diverse system. “We just have to keep focusing and getting better every week.”
“This year, his leadership and production is off the charts,” said Wilmot. “He has graded out over 95 percent in all of our games, and makes all the players around him better with his communication and understanding of the game. Although still undersized compared to the players he goes up against, he demonstrates outstanding technique and the will to succeed on every play.
“I will call him a great leader, not for what he says, but his actions on the football field.”
Soul of the Team
A dream senior season will have added meaning for Sanko to be on the field in the playoffs, as he spent the last two games of his junior year with a torn meniscus and fractured tibia.
“It was difficult, knowing you could be out there making a play that needed to be made,” he recalled. “It was tough.”
It was particularly tough because he had gone through the growing pains of the previous season.
“We had a tough year that year,” he said. “We had a lot of younger guys, and we missed the playoffs. At Neshaminy, that’s always considered a bad season.
“Last year, we had three (playoff) games, but I missed those last two.”
His injury required surgery and subsequent rebab, which is not a new hurdle to clear for him.
“It seemed normal to me,” he said, adding the “toughest part” was getting up to speed with his teammates on the summer running program. “I’m used to it, really. It wasn’t my first injury. In my freshman year, I broke my wrist.”
The broken wrist kept Sanko’s focus on football, as he gave up wrestling.
That made him ready to shoot out of the starting gate as a sophomore, when he overcame his size disadvantage – he was 5-7 and around 185 to 190 pounds at the time, depending on what he had for breakfast – to play himself onto the radar of the coaching staff.
“After my freshman year, I worked with the varsity and junior varsity over the summer,” he said. “They needed a center. I just wanted to let the coaches know I was there.”
Mission accomplished. He not only played his way onto their radar screen, but reached their hearts and minds to become the soul of the team.
“AJ Sanko's career at Neshaminy has demonstrated determination and leadership throughout the three years he has been starting,” said Wilmot. “AJ won the job as an undersized sophomore three years ago. He was too effective of a blocker not to play, despite only weighing under 190 pounds. His sophomore year, he was a real student of the game and size was not issue. He accepted coaching perhaps better than any player the last three years. Although his junior year was slightly shortened by a knee injury, he was still highly effective in the games he played in.”
Doing the Math
Because of his size – now 5-9, 210 -- and because of the injuries, Sanko is “leaning toward not playing” at the college level.
“With the injuries, I just want a break from it,” he added.
Active in Neshaminy’s Future Business Leaders of America, Sanko is eyeing a career in accounting or business, with Villanova and Delaware atop his list of schools.
He takes all AP and honors classes and carries a 3.9 GPA.
“I’ve always been a good student,” he said, explaining that both his parents have careers in education and that it was stressed at home. His mom, Sue, is a school psychologist while his dad, Andy Sr., is a principal in the Council Rock School District.
His parents, though, were supportive of their 9-year-old eldest of three when he wanted to play football.
“Growing up, I just watched football with my dad,” Sanko said. “I thought, ‘I could be doing it.’ I saw a sign-up sheet in fourth grade and they let me do it.
“My mom and dad have always been there, and listen to me when I have a bad game or something.”
This comes in an era where football is slowly taking a backseat to soccer and other sports, where the fear of head – and other – injuries is not as great.
“I think that’s part of it,” said Sanko, pointing out that his class has just 13 players on the Neshaminy roster but that the junior class has around twice as many. “A lot of people don’t want to deal with the workload and the time commitment.”
It’s their loss, he says.
“I have made long-lasting friendships,” he said. “Some of the closest friends I’ve ever had are from football.”
And if Sanko had never played the game, the loss at Neshaminy’s proud program would have been immense.
“I have had the opportunity to coach many great centers the past 22 years at Neshaminy,” said Wilmot. “AJ is the best. He is a special player that doesn't always get all the publicity in the newspapers on Saturday morning. His contribution to his team is invaluable.”
Sanko, who says he just “uses the techniques the coaches teach me,” was awed by Wilmot’s praise.
“He has been around a lot of great linemen,” he said, after a brief pause. “To be up with them, and as undersized guy, it really means a lot.”