ABSECON – Joe Callahan returned to his roots on Thursday – bigger, stronger and wiser than in his days playing for the Absecon Blue Devils youth football program.
But there was a child-like playfulness in his eyes as he threw pass after pass to eager youngsters from the same team on the same field in which he starred 10 years ago.
Most of the throws were on the mark, even if some of the receivers broke off from their routes to “go long” – clearly delighted to be targeted by the Green Bay Packer quarterback.
“They put me to work a little bit today,” Callahan said after participating in passing drills with the Blue Devils summer skills camp. “I got a couple extra throws in. But it’s all about giving back to the younger kids and helping them grow.”
“It was great. One of the best things I could do,” said 9-year-old Ty Costabile, a student at Absecon Marsh School. “Because he’s throwing the ball to you, and he’s in the NFL. He gets to meet Odell Beckham Jr. and Tom Brady and all those other people.”
Callahan, a 2011 Holy Spirit High School graduate, is back living with his parents in Absecon and working out at both the Holy Spirit and Blue Devils facilities until he returns to training camp with the Packers in Wisconsin later this month.
Thursday’s camp offered the opportunity to re-connect with the program where it all began. He played in the Blue Devils program from second through eighth grades.
“It’s pretty cool. I remember being back here practicing myself, and there’s a lot of stories between me and my friends about playing for the Blue Devils all the time,” he said. “It’s cool to see the younger guys out here practicing, too.
“Some of the younger kids probably don’t know who I am. For some of the older kids it’s probably pretty neat.”
Brandon Landicini, 9, wearing a Packers jersey with the name “Callahan” across the back, is certainly well aware of Callahan’s accomplishments.
“I wear it a lot, because he’s one of my favorite players,” said Landicini, who also received some useful quarterbacking tips from Callahan. “It was cool. I learned that when you drop back, you only do one big step.”
Callahan was a record-breaking passer at NCAA Division III Wesley College in Delaware, where he won the Gagliardi Award as a senior, Division III’s equivalent of the Heisman Trophy.
He signed with the Packers as an undrafted free agent and made the team coming out of preseason, but he bounced from the Packers to Cleveland to New Orleans before returning to Green Bay just before the playoffs. He has yet to appear in an NFL regular season or playoff game, but will compete with two others to back up Aaron Rodgers this fall.
He shared some memories of dramatic moments playing for the Blue Devils, especially a game in which he completed a long fourth-down touchdown pass to his friend Andrew Spadaro to cap a comeback win.
“It was a cold night, and he had snow mittens on with the fingers cut off. He caught the pass with his mom’s snow mittens on. That’s one of our funny stories that we talk about all the time.”
Don Adams, president of the Blue Devils, coached Callahan during his seventh- and eighth-grade seasons. He saw the raw talent and leadership abilities at a young age.
“It was the first winning season we had probably in 10-12 years,” Adams said. “He threw the ball so well. He’s just so unpretentious.”
The Blue Devils are members of the Atlantic County Junior Football League, one of the oldest independent youth football leagues in the East. Adams said Callahan’s presence at Thursday’s camp is a testament to the vitality and tradition of the Blue Devils program.
“This is phenomenal,” he said. “We always had number problems, but we started this summer camp about six years ago and it’s been great. The camaraderie, the teamwork … the kids really like it. The first week of August we’ll start practicing with the pads. But for now, this is just fun.”