German Decena always fit the role as an underdog very well.
Decena was an undersized linebacker during his football playing days at Emerson High School in Union City, graduating in 2006.
After graduation, Decena decided to attend a technical school and got a good job working in the electronics department for Circuit City.
Decena remained there for three years, then received a piece of news that gave him the motivation to go back to college. Circuit City closed its doors in 2009 due to bankruptcy.
“I just lost my job,” Decena said. “I was 20 and just about to turn 21. I needed to do something.”
So Decena decided to enroll full-time at William Paterson University.
“Getting back into the classroom frame of mind was a little difficult,” Decena said.
Decena also decided he wanted to get back into football.
“That was one of the main reasons why I came to William Paterson,” Decena said. “I wanted to be part of a winning program. I was away from football and it was a little difficult to get back on the field.”
As it turned out, Decena didn’t even have a spot on the Pioneers’ roster.
“I had to do all the things in the spring, like team meetings, practices, workouts and lifting,” Decena said. “And I wasn’t even guaranteed anything.”
But it didn’t take long for Decena to impress the Pioneers’ coaching staff. His grit and determination won him a spot on the roster.
“There was a little bit of an adjustment for me, being the oldest guy on a team with younger guys,” Decena said. “As soon I showed up, the other plays had a good attitude with me. They welcomed me with open arms. I think it was easier for me to focus on what I had to do, with schoolwork, with football, because I was more mature and I wasn’t easily influenced by any outside interference.”
Decena worked his way up the Pioneers’ depth chart.
“My first year, I began with special teams,” Decena said. “But then I worked my way up to starting free safety.”
Last fall, Decena started every game in the William Paterson 3-3-5 defensive set.
“I was one of the strong safeties, but it was basically like an outside linebacker,” Decena said.
Decena thrived at the new bandit position. He earned All-New Jersey Athletic Conference First Team after leading the Pioneers with 78 tackles (almost eight per game). He had a 70-yard interception return for a touchdown in the Pioneers’ 21-14 win over Maritime Academy last Sept. 29.
During his four-year career, Decena had 196 tackles, five interceptions, 10 pass breakups and two fumble recoveries.
However, Decena’s achievements off the field are far more impressive.
For one, Decena graduated magna cum laude from William Paterson last January with a degree in sociology and a minor in criminal justice, maintaining a grade point average of 3.74.
On six different occasions, Decena was named to the school’s Dean’s List. He has also been honored by the NJAC as a top scholar/athlete and earned Academic All-District from the College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA).
“I took my schoolwork very seriously,” Decena said.
Decena was also extremely active in school-related activities and charities, like Toys For Tots, the Cans Across the Conference food drive, Habitat for Humanity, and William Paterson’s Breast Cancer Awareness Walk.
“When I was in high school, I got involved with Peer Leadership, where I would mentor freshmen and give them advice as they transitioned into high school,” Decena said. “That really inspired me to get more involved in college. There were more activities to get involved with in college. I did some of the work with my team, but I also volunteered on my own.”
Needless to say, it gave Decena a very busy schedule.
“It was tough to a point,” Decena said. “There were some times that I didn’t even have time to put the television on. If I wasn’t in the classroom, then I was on the field. If I wasn’t playing football, then I was studying for class or studying the football playbook. I was very busy, but I like to hustle and be on the go.”
Decena’s hard work has paid off, as he has been named as one of the top 10 finalists nationwide for the 2013 Arthur Ashe Jr. Memorial Sports Scholar Award, given to the student/athlete who best personifies and exemplifies the standards set by the late legendary tennis great.
The finalists were chosen from more than 500 outstanding minority student-athletes throughout the country. Decena is the lone finalist who attended an NCAA Division III institution.
The organization Diverse Issues in Higher Education is sponsoring the award.
To earn nomination for the honor, the candidate has to maintain academic excellence (3.2 grade point average or better) as well as having a strong involvement in the community.
Past honorees include Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk, current Orlando Magic head coach Jacque Vaughn and ESPN basketball analyst Kara Lawson.
“I’m very proud of it,” Decena said. “I was aware of the honor and I vaguely knew about Arthur Ashe. I then looked him up and I learned more about him and I was more impressed. I was very honored just to be listed among the finalists. When you consider that all the big schools usually get this kind of recognition, it’s even more impressive. I’m proud to represent William Paterson just by being considered.”
Decena was also impressed with some of the prior honorees.
“It’s very flattering to be considered with people like RG3 and Marshall Faulk,” Decena said. “To think that a kid from Union City could have a connection with them is amazing.”
The winner of the award will be announced this weekend.
“It’s all beginning to kick in now,” Decena said.
Decena also holds another distinction. It’s been five years now that Emerson High School became a part of history, when the merger of Union Hill and Emerson took place to form Union City High School. There aren’t many chances now that an Emerson High School graduate, a true Bulldog, earns positive recognition. But Decena gets to keep Emerson alive with this honor.
“I am representing Emerson as well,” Decena said. “I was pretty upset when I learned that there wasn’t going to be an Emerson High School anymore. It’s hard to look back and say I graduated from a school that doesn’t exist. But I’m proud to bring it back a little. I still represent that school and the name. It means a lot to me.”
Decena is hopeful that he can earn a spot as a police officer in the future.
“I’m applying all over,” Decena said. “It’s a tough field to get into. I’m hoping I can get a job.”
Being a finalist for the Arthur Ashe Scholar/Athlete award isn’t a bad thing to add to one’s resume.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.