By TIM KELLY
Call it the Riley Gunnels effect.
Longtime Ocean City resident Gunnels was a starting defensive tackle on the 1960 Philadelphia Eagles NFL championship team. As any formerly long-suffering Birds fan will tell you, that was the last time a Philadelphia squad laid claim to pro football’s ultimate prize – until backup quarterback Nick Foles and company snapped the drought by winning Super Bowl LII some 58 years later.
In the intervening years, Gunnels, now 82, and his wife of 55 years, Kay, produced a championship pipeline to the Red Raiders that is now in its second generation.
Their son, John Riley Gunnels III, who goes by John, was the starting quarterback on Ocean City’s 1984 South Jersey Group III title team. John engineered a thrilling 22-21 defeat of Willingboro to take the crown on the Chimeras home field.
And now John Riley Gunnels IV is a promising freshman QB for the Raiders, the only freshman on the varsity, which attempts to improve its record to 3-0 Friday night at Bridgeton.
“The interesting part is, I don’t really like quarterbacks very much,” the elder Gunnels chuckled, “but I have two pretty good ones in my family.”
A pass rusher par excellence, the University of Georgia grad had a seven-year career with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Eagles.
His career highlight was being on the Franklin Field gridiron in Philly on December 26, 1960, when the Birds handed a 17-13 loss to the Green Bay Packers for a pre-Super Bowl era NFL crown, the only playoff loss suffered by the Pack’s legendary former coach Vince Lombardi.
“That was a great time in my life,” said Gunnels. “Of all the teams I played on over the years, that one had the best comradery.”
His grandson, who also uses Riley as his first name, was 4-for-5 passing, including TD passes of 50 and 74 yards, in his first jayvee game, a 14-12 win over Lower Cape May. He made his varsity debut last week in the second half of the Raiders’ home opener, as one of the sub QBs (with soph Charley Cossabone) seeing action in a 49-0 shellacking of Egg Harbor Township.
Riley IV steered an offense consisting mostly of backups for a series that produced a first down and two completions totaling 19 yards. According to Tom Williams of Oceancitysports.com, Gunnels already owns a school record with the most passing yardage ever recorded by a frosh QB in the 100-plus-year history of the program.
“I was a little bit nervous before my first high school game, but that didn’t last long,” said young Riley, 14, who is listed on the roster as 6-2 and 180 pounds. “The coaches and (starting QB) Joe Repetti have been great working with me and making me feel welcome.”
A “school choice” student who resides in Galloway Township, there was no doubt where young Riley wanted to play his high school ball, his dad said.
“He wants to play for the Georgia Bulldogs and the Eagles because of his Pop-Pop, and he wanted to play at Ocean City because of me and his uncle and his cousin,” John Gunnels said.
In addition to the three generations of football-playing Riley Gunnels, the legacy also includes John’s brother and former teammate, the 6-4, 290-pound Chris Gunnels, a 1986 Ocean City grad and All-South Jersey performer who went on to play at the University of Maryland. Another grandson, offensive lineman Joe “Chugger” LaCasse (Class of 2003), was another outstanding player for the Raiders.
“Like most of his family, (young Riley) is a big, strong kid,” Red Raiders’ Head Coach Kevin Smith said. “His physical tools are beyond (most players his age). He can make any throw we would ask of any of our quarterbacks.”
None of this is to suggest it’s been very easy.
Attending high school for the first time can be daunting for any student, and the situation could’ve been tougher for young Riley, who was from out of town and not from one of the traditional sending districts.
The daily commute can be difficult for both student and parents. John Gunnels and wife Bobbi are also parents to 17-year-old Abby and Ella, 8. Abby is a basketball and softball star and cheerleader at Cedar Creek High School.
“Thank goodness Ocean City doesn’t play Cedar Creek this year,” John Gunnels said.
Moreover, most of the students Riley knew were upper-class teammates, his dad said.
Any trepidation was short-lived. When Riley walked into the cafeteria for his first lunch period, which is integrated with members of every class, senior co-captain Chris Armstrong showed his leadership.
“I was a little nervous at first and there was (Armstrong) yelling ‘Gunnels! Over here,’ and he made sure there was a place at the lunch table for me.”
In the days after that, Riley said he has become more comfortable in his classes and around school.
On the field, Repetti, a junior in his first year as the starting quarterback, has been instrumental in helping Gunnels “learning my progressions, reading defenses and terminology and things like that,” he said.
The bottom line: easing into Ocean City High School proved to be a natural thing for the youngest varsity Raider. After all, he’s a Gunnels.