Father Tom Vala, pastor of St. Clement Parish, Matawan, prays with the St. John Vianney football team for senior player Aaron Van Trease who was injured during the Sept. 23 home game against Manasquan.  Photo from Twitter
Father Tom Vala, pastor of St. Clement Parish, Matawan, prays with the St. John Vianney football team for senior player Aaron Van Trease who was injured during the Sept. 23 home game against Manasquan. Photo from Twitter
In true Catholic spirit, the St. John Vianney football team and the wider school community have embraced prayer and faith to support injured Lancers' football player Aaron Van Trease. Their example, and Aaron’s story have inspired expressions of support from well beyond the local community, most recently in a video montage created some of the greatest players in recent NFL history.

The Holmdel-based high school has been rocked by the news that their senior quarterback suffered a serious injury during the Lancers’ Sept. 23 game at Manasquan. A State Police helicopter medivaced Aaron to Robert Wood Johnson University Medical Center in New Brunswick, where he has been recovering following the spinal cord injury he sustained.

“Aaron is doing very well,” his mother Debra told Channel 2 News in New York. “Each day he’s taken little steps forward to get himself to rehab and to regain strength in his legs.”

“He fractured his T-6 vertebrae, he’ll definitely walk,” his father, Rich, told Channel 2 interviewer Christine Sloan.  

No sooner had the word gotten out, that a group of former football greats who are now announcers made a video to lift Aaron’s spirits. Posted on YouTube, the three minute long video includes shout-outs from numerous ex-star players:

Rob Gronkowski, four-time Super Bowl champion: “On behalf of myself and the entire Gronkowski family, we are hoping and praying for you and your family and wishing you a speedy recovery. Hang in there and keep the courageous fight going. You’re the best, and never forget it.”

Tiki Barber, New York Giants all-time rushing leader: “You’re a football player. You know what it means to go through adversity and fight through it. You’re gonna be on your feet in no time. All of us are gonna be cheering for you when you do it.”  

Chad Brown, former Pro Bowl linebacker: “Football is perhaps the greatest teacher of lessons I’ve ever been around because the lessons are real, they’re visceral. You get knocked down, you get back up, whether literally or figuratively . . . All these lessons the game teaches us can actually be beneficial for someone in your exact situation. Lean on those lessons in these difficult times.”

Brian Baldinger, former lineman and highly regarded analyst for the NFL Network: “We’re all concerned. Myself, everybody in the football world is concerned, Aaron. We’re all thinking about you.” Baldinger went on to promise Van Trease that if he received any video on the player, he would make a highlight film “that will let the whole world know what kind of quarterback and safety you are.”

The video was sent out to area media by SJV coach Jeff Papcun, who received it from Rich Van Trease.  

“His dad said they just all reached out once they heard about his story,” Papcun said. “Aaron was in very high spirits when he saw the video. He also had (Rutgers) coach (Greg) Schiano stop in yesterday to visit him.”

And while the national support bolsters Van Trease’s attitude, so does the backing he gets from those he is closest with.

“We’ve been, some might say, best friends,” Verriest said. “I’ve known him since fourth grade. We’ve been throwing the ball together since then. He’s always asking me to throw it around.”

On the night of Aaron’s injury, rather than wilt under the duress of his friend’s condition, Verriest and his teammates took the opposite approach en route to a 32-0 victory.

“I definitely used it to rally me,” the Wall resident said. “He would do the same exact thing. He was putting everybody above him. He would want us to go out and forget about him and just win the game. It’s like he said (when leaving the field), ‘Forget about me, go win the game.’”

Since that night, an outpouring of support has come from all the schools and towns in the Shore Conference. A GoFundMe page has been started to help with medical costs, and apparel with the logo “AVT 18” (he was number 18) are being sold with proceeds going to the family.

SJV Assistant Athletic Director Pat Smith, who heads the school’s Catholic Athletes for Christ club, noted that three straight days were devoted to spiritual backing for Aaron.  

“On Monday (Sept. 26) we had a Catholic Athletes football team Mass with Father Garry Koch,” Smith said. “On Tuesday (Sept. 27) we had our CAC Leadership Summit with the other high schools and (Diocese of Trenton Bishop David M. O’Connell), and we also had representatives of the football team there.”

On Sept. 28, the Annual Commissioning Day was held for the Class of 2023.

“It wasn’t planned that way but it just happened perfectly,” Smith said. “It was for Aaron’s class, the Mass was scheduled anyway (so) we had a special Mass in his honor with all his classmates there.”  

The support continued Oct. 2. Prior to SJV’s game at Marlboro, Verriest and Jack Farah carried Van Trease’s No. 18 jersey onto the field and held it at midfield during the coin toss. After taking a 28-14 victory, the Lancers delivered the game ball to Van Trease’s uncle, Chris Colaner, and cousin, Chloe Colaner, in the bleachers for them to take to the injured player.

Aside from such public gestures, there is also a lot of praying being done in private.

“My faith helps me a lot,” Verriest, who attends St. Denis Parish in Manasquan, said. “I pray every day, every night, every morning. I just pray for Aaron.”  

According to Smith, faith was something that has always been stirring within Van Trease.

“I have to walk through the weight room to get to my office and Aaron would be in there before school, after school,” Smith remarked. “He’d be the only kid in there, and we would talk. The things he would bring up, it wasn’t normal teenager talk about the Giants or about this or that.

“He talked about retreats, he talked about speakers we brought in, things that touched him deeply.”

It is that kind of attitude that helps keep Van Trease so grounded, Smith observed. He added, “I’m not just saying it because he’s injured, but he is absolutely the most humble and kind kid in our entire football program, if not the school.”