One is a freshman with a load of talent and a future brighter than the sun, moon and the stars combined.
The other is a senior who has been scratching at the surface of greatness for the last two years and is finally fulfilling his enormous potential.
Together, they represent Hudson County’s best performances at last Saturday’s NJSIAA Indoor Meet of Champions, both earning medals among the state’s elite track and field performers, both carving a niche for themselves in county track annals forever.
Najee Glass of St. Peter’s Prep is the freshman. He competed in the 400-meter dash at the Meet of Champions at the Bennett Center in Toms River and finished fifth overall. That’s fifth in the entire state, fifth in a sensational time of 50.34 seconds. Glass was clearly the top freshman competitor in the field of 34 runners who qualified to compete in the event.
Samard Walker-Butler is the senior. He throws the shot put for Lincoln High School and last week, he uncorked the winning throw of 53-10 in the NJSIAA Group II championships, earning a berth in the Meet of Champions.
At the M of C a week later, Walker-Butler unfurled a toss of 56-9 ¾, finishing third overall, behind state wunderkind Nicholas Vena of Morristown and Jorge Merino of Old Bridge.
The performances by Glass and Walker-Butler are definitely eye-popping and attention-grabbing, because track and field athletes from Hudson County don’t generally win medals at the Meet of Champions.
For example, Glass is only the second Prep athlete to ever capture a medal in the indoor Meet of Champions, joining James Souder more than a decade ago.
Walker-Butler is the first Lincoln and first Jersey City shot putter to ever earn a medal in the M of C.
That’s a legacy the two Hudson County track athletes have created. They’ve earned a slice of history and earned some gigantic respect throughout the entire state.
Walker-Butler said that he started to throw the shot put as a freshman, upon the encouragement of Lincoln track coach Sal Rizzo.
“I always watched the shot put as a kid, but honestly, I thought it was a waste of time,” Walker-Butler said. “I never threw it before I got to high school. Coach Rizzo told me that he thought I could be pretty good. So I tried it out, and as it turned out, I found out that I was pretty good.”
Walker-Butler said that as soon as he started to get more proficient at throwing the shot put, the more effort he put into it.
“Whatever I put my mind to, I go all the way and do it,” Walker-Butler said. “Once I got into it, I really wanted to get better.”
Glass ran track and field while attending grammar school in Woodbridge. When he arrived at St. Peter’s Prep, he knew that he wanted to play football and run track at the school, but he didn’t know how well he would do as a freshman.
“I think it was just natural for me to go out for track,” Glass said. “I started running in Junior Olympic meets when I was like 8 years old. I realized that I was actually doing something special.”
But Glass had no hopes and aspirations when he got to Grand and Warren.
“I was a little worried at first,” said Glass, who played freshman football in the fall as a wide receiver. “I didn’t know if I could keep up with the older guys when I first started. I was hoping and striving that I could make the varsity, but I didn’t know.”
Once Glass started running with the other Marauder varsity performers (most of whom are football standouts as well), he started to realize he was very fast.
“I was getting encouragement from everyone who was telling me that I was a good runner,” Glass said.
And now, as a freshman, he’s among the elite in the entire state.
Just like Walker-Butler, a senior, who made his mark with the third best throw in the entire state of New Jersey.
For their efforts, Glass and Walker-Butler have been named The Hudson Reporter Co-Athletes of the Week for the past week.
It marks the first time ever that two athletes from different schools have earned the honor in the same week.
Glass is still trying to fathom the idea that he was among the very best in New Jersey.
“It’s a very good feeling,” Glass said. “I am totally shocked I made it this far. It’s very impressive and I’m very happy with the way I’ve been running. It never crossed my mind that I could do this well as a freshman. It’s pretty amazing.”
Glass said that he plans on running outdoor track as well, competing in the 400-meter dash, the mile relay and perhaps the 200-meter dash.
“I know that this is going to make me want to get better,” Glass said. “A lot of people are going to be looking at me. There are still other runners that I have to catch.”
While Glass’ performance was a shocker, Walker-Butler’s performance was almost anticipated and expected.
“I knew that I could do it,” Walker-Butler said. “I knew the competition was fierce. But I went in with the mindset that it was my turn to take care of business and if I did that, I could come out on top. It was a great feeling to just be there, but I wanted to make sure I did my best. My goal this year indoors was 55 [feet] and I got 56 at the Meet of Champions. I kept breaking my own personal record.”
Walker-Butler will take his immense talents to the outdoor track season, where he has already set goals.
“I want to break 60 [feet],” Walker-Butler said. “I know I can do it.”
Walker-Butler has become so much of a shot putter than he has watched videos of former Bayonne great Kevin DiGiorgio, who until recently was the state record holder indoors until Vena broke the mark.
“I look up to him a lot,” Walker-Butler said. “I shook his hand once at a meet. It was great to meet him. I watch him on Youtube to see what he did. What I did was big, really big.”
Sure was. Like historic proportions. It’s good to see Jersey City schools represented among the state elite, like they once were in the 1960s and 1970s, long before standout athletes like Glass and Walker-Butler were even born.
But a new era was born last weekend, thanks to their stellar efforts. – Jim Hague