Anthony Sacca refused to get in the car. He didn’t want to hear any more. He’s had enough. Every night when his Pop Warner football practice ended, 11-year-old Anthony would walk home alone, sniffling, tears of dirt down his cheeks and dragging his helmet. He would slip into his house, just five minutes away, look up at his mother with his bloodshot eyes, and go to his bedroom, still curled up in his bed in his grass-stained soccer jersey.
And every time Tony Sacca came home, Anthony’s mother, Michelle Otto, would blame him you-gave-Anthony-hell-in-training Look again. But Tony, the former Delran and Penn State star quarterback and Anthony’s Pop Warner coach, knew better and saw more. What frustrated the son was why his father was being so hard on him.
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Fast forward to August, a stuffy afternoon in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. and Anthony are having another rough time. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound sophomore safety for St. Joseph’s Prep was just pulled over twice for touchdowns against the nationally-ranked St. Thomas Aquinas. Maybe Anthony wasn’t worth the hype he received towards the end of his freshman year? Maybe this sulking 11-year-old is still curled up on his bed in his muddy uniform?
By the end of the Aquinas game, Anthony Sacca was arguably the best player in a field full of elite national talent. The son has exceeded his father’s vision – as a two-year starter in one of the most prestigious high school programs in the country.
Anthony has 18 college offers from everywhere from his father’s alma mater, Penn State, to Georgia, Tennessee, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Michigan. And there will definitely be 20 more. It’s not set in stone that Anthony will follow his father to Penn State, nor is it something Tony puts pressure on Anthony.
The Aquinas game was a microcosm of his skills. What started poorly for Anthony ended strong as he accumulated five tackles, two for losses, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and an interception. Anthony — and Prep quarterback Samaj Jones — nearly led Prep to a comeback after falling 21-7 in the first quarter.
It’s the only setback so far this season for the Hawks, who will face Garnet Valley (14-0) in a repeat of last year’s PIAA Class 6A semifinals this Saturday at 1 p.m. at Northeast High School. Prep (11-1) is on an 11-game winning streak and is looking for his seventh straight trip to the PIAA Class 6A State Finals.
The back end of the prep defense will be commanded by Anthony, who has made over 40 tackles this year.
“I knew Anthony would be good, I just didn’t think it would come this early and I don’t think he did either,” admitted Tony, 52, a four-year starter at Penn State (1988-91) and currently a high school teacher of health and physical education. “Like all parents, we tell him about his grades, but none of us saw that at 16. And I’m very proud of who Anthony is as a young man.
“I’m his toughest critic, but I’m also his biggest fan. He knows I care and love him. After every game, I’ll still tell him what I think he did wrong, but I’ll also tell him what he did right. I don’t do it so much as a father telling his son, but as someone who knows football. He’s taking it a lot better than he did when he was 11 playing Pop Warner. He got so mad at him after practice that he didn’t even get in the car to drive me home. He’s so, so, so much better than me, light years better than I was when I was 16. He’s bigger, he’s faster, he’s stronger and he knows as much about the game as someone five his senior.
“I knew that when he was younger. I was tough on him and I think it made him better in the long run. I couldn’t be happier that he is Not a quarterback. Watching him defend is a lot different than watching my dad watch me play quarterback. It’s a lot more fun.”
The acumen and greatness of football stem from Tony. Anthony’s great feet and good looks, his mother jokes, are hers. Otto, 47, was a soccer star at Delran who went to West Virginia as a member of the Mountaineers’ first women’s soccer team. She and Tony have been together for over 20 years.
Otto didn’t make it easy for her son either. Every night after Anthony came home from practice, she approached Tony to deal with Anthony before then getting in touch with Anthony. She would tell her son to get his head out of his butt, take off that uniform and stop feeling sorry for himself.
“Who do you play for at the end of the day besides your parents?” said Otto. “Tony may joke with Anthony about how much better he was when he was at Delran, but Tony knows the truth. Tony knows Anthony is a lot better than he was when he was playing in high school. He can’t tell Anthony that (laughs). I support anything that makes Anthony happy. I’m a nervous wreck when I see him play. Anthony can always tell if he had a bad game or not because he will ask if I spent the game in my car or not. I was on my way to the car in Florida earlier this year.”
Anthony has always been obsessed with football. In kindergarten he designed plays. He now falls asleep with his phone in hand and loops through a movie. When the Hawks in Ft. Lauderdale in August, Michelle caught Anthony over dinner drawing plays.
The interesting dilemma Anthony faces is that he’s constantly growing. He will most likely grow out of safety and play as an outside linebacker through his junior year in prep and college. He’s grown an inch and has gained 30 pounds since last year.
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“I wouldn’t be where I am if my dad didn’t hit me up when I was younger,” said Anthony, who is also a talented left-handed pitcher who pitched in the ’80s. “When I was younger I always thought my dad would hit on me just to get under my skin. I needed that. Now I’m older and harder on myself than my father. Since I quit playing quarterback, that’s changed too. I was always a quarterback since I was five until I was preparing my freshman year. Playing defense was the quickest way for me to get on the field — and I didn’t need to hear my dad play quarterback (laughs).
“I love it. I get to fly all over the field. … The Aquinas game was an eye-opener. I wasn’t happy with the way I played. I had three quarters left to make up for my mistakes. I missed two tackles and was determined not to miss another one.”
Anthony still gets weird looks when he tells people he’s a sophomore. Nobody believes he’s 16. If he could go through a time portal, what would he say to that crying kid walking home from practice alone? “I would tell that kid that everything will work out in the end and my dad had a plan. I used to think he was hitting on me to piss me off and trying to make my day worse when he was really trying to make me a better football player. I guess so.”