"We were playing two-hand touch [football] on First Street [in Union City] with a bunch of guys and Steve was there," said Lopez, who finished his football playing days at Emerson High School last fall. "When I found out he played for Union Hill, we started talking trash a little and became pretty competitive."
"I knew who he was," said Natal, who was a wide receiver and defensive back for Union Hill. "I try to get along with everybody. I thought he was a good guy. It was more of 'Hi' and 'Bye' coming off the field. We practice on the same field. It was only natural that I should see him."
Still, Lopez was from Emerson. Natal's a Hiller through and through.
And as everyone knows, Emerson and Union Hill are Union City's version of the Hatfields and the McCoys. It's a rivalry second to none in Hudson County, perhaps even all of New Jersey. It's now the second longest standing Thanksgiving Day rivalry in the Garden State, only trailing the perennial showdown between Millville and Vineland in South Jersey.
Participants in such a heated rivalry aren't supposed to get along. Sure, everyone in Union City knows each other, especially in the closely-knit sports fields, especially since the two schools have to share Roosevelt Stadium equally for practice during the grid season. But the dislike is there. Make no bones about it. The Bulldogs are the Bulldogs and the Hillers are the Hillers, and never shall the two ever meet.
However, Lopez and Natal were sort of brought together with a special bond, a common denominator that is located some five hours north in the wonderful Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
American International College in Springfield, Mass. has done a fine job in recruiting Hudson County football players over the years. The current roster includes Jason Lopez and Parnell Reynolds of Dickinson, Ali Williams of Hudson Catholic and Hoboken grads Alvaro Hasani and Ralph Pedragon.
So when the coaching staff paid visits to the local schools, they came away impressed with two Union City kids - Natal and Lopez, who will be converted to a defensive back from linebacker in college.
"I wanted to play in college and I thought I had a shot," said Natal, who missed several games last year with a bad hamstring injury, an injury that was thought to have cost him a shot at getting a college scholarship offer. "I didn't know how good I was until the coaches came to school. They visited me, took me out of class and invited me to visit the school. I had other offers [Utica, Monmouth and Springfield College, among others], but I knew I wanted to go to AIC."
Sure enough, the recruiting process carried cross-town to include Lopez.
"At that point, I didn't have many offers," Lopez said. "I knew I wanted to go to play football in college. AIC was the first school to come visit. I really liked it. I went to visit the campus and I liked the people, the staff, the program. I also met the players. I was impressed."
When the time came for Natal to make a decision about college, he immediately thought of AIC. The same for Lopez.
"Ludwin visited AIC the week before I did," Natal said. "I wanted to know what he thought of it."
"When I had to make a decision, I called him and asked him if he was going," Lopez said. "I didn't want to go up there by myself."
So the one-time rivals became instant teammates. Both Union City kids accepted grant-in-aid packages to play football at American International. So much for the rivalry for now. They're no longer Bulldogs or Hillers. They're Yellow Jackets now.
And since they decided to go to the same school, the two have become inseparable. They're working out together on a daily basis, getting themselves prepared for the challenge of becoming college football players.
"We're all the same now," Natal said. "There's no animosity between us. We go to the weight room every day, lift together, run together."
But it goes further than a workout partner. The two will be roommates at AIC beginning next week, when they report for preseason training camp.
"We're talking about what things we need to get for our room, what we're going to do when we get there," Natal said. "We're going to go together, come home together. We're living together and I know I can trust him."
"It's good that I'm going there with someone I know," Lopez said. "We've become very close friends."
The competitive side of both athletes has helped them to get ready for collegiate life.
"We're pushing each other every day," Natal said. "He comes every day to work and I come every day. He's making me better and I hope I'm helping him. We've definitely grew a lot closer over this summer, working together."
The closeness between the former rivals has really touched Union Hill grid coach Joe Rotondi, who has worked with both young men throughout the summer.
"It all just happened by accident," Rotondi said. "They both just happened to get recruited by the same school and when they decided to go to the same school, they decided to work out together to get ready. They even share their workout booklets. It's really a nice thing to see, two Union City kids getting together like this. They were never enemies, just rivals. And now they're friends. They're both good kids. They were both well-liked in their respective schools. Both kids will do well. It's only going to help them to have someone from home along side of each other. They're like a pair now. Seeing them together is fun to see. It just shows that a Union City kid is a Union City kid."
That is, until Turkey Day.
"When we come home for Thanksgiving, we're going to stand on opposite sidelines," Natal said. "Right now, we're both AIC. But I'm always going to go for my school."
"I'm rooting for Emerson," Lopez said. "That's my school. What can I say? I have to stay loyal. I want the trophy to stay in Emerson."
But there is something good that has come from all of this.
"We're good friends now," Lopez said. "No doubt."