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Football-centric town of Sayreville divided by lewd hazing allegations

SAYREVILLE, N.J. -- The lights were off in the locker room. What happened next has both consumed and divided this town. It is the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation and the reason the Sayreville High School Bombers will not play football again this season.

Investigators and school administrators have been mum on specifics, but this much is clear: there was a hazing incident, and according to SI sources, the acts went beyond any reasonable definition of harmless and fun. By Oct. 2, investigators revealed enough information to school administrators that a game against South Brunswick was cancelled just hours before kickoff, citing “very strong allegations that we’re investigating about inappropriate conduct by players.” On Monday night, Superintendent Richard Labbe announced the remaining five games for the Bombers -- who have won sectional titles in three of the last four seasons, with 20-straight playoff appearances -- would not be played.

According to SI sources, including one close to the investigation, the allegations are lewd: Investigators are looking into whether upperclassmen on the Sayreville football team digitally penetrated underclassmen on the team. That could explain why one parent told the Newark Star-Ledger that underclassmen players would “stampede” to the locker room to get dressed and exit quickly.

"There was enough evidence that there were incidents of harassment, of intimidation and bullying that took place on a pervasive level, on a wide-scale level and at a level at which the players knew, tolerated and generally accepted," Labbe told reporters Monday night. "Based upon what has been substantiated to have occurred, we have canceled the remainder of the football season."

Middlesex County Prosecutor Spokesman Jim O’Neill said the investigation is ongoing, adding there is no timeline for its completion.

A football-centric community, a culture of bullying, alleged crimes featuring sexual overtones: Sayreville’s scandal has enough ingredients to stew into a national obsession. It’s a news story that transcends football, a textured saga that could unravel a community and expose dirty truths about high school athletics.

By the time school got out on Tuesday afternoon, a handful of TV trucks hovered by the student parking lot and two police officers helped direct traffic. According to students, nearly half of the football team didn’t show up to school on Tuesday. Players who attended classes wore their uniforms.

This was supposed to be spirit week, culminating with Friday’s Homecoming game against Monroe. “But how are we supposed to have spirit if we don’t have a football team?” freshman Yasmine Gomez lamented.

Members of the cheerleading team felt like collateral damage. There will be no Homecoming, no Senior Night, and no ceremonial last lap around the football field. The cheerleaders held a meeting Tuesday night to discuss their next move. “Football runs this school,” says William Simmons, a 17-year-old in the school band. “That’s all everyone cares about. Football, football football.”

Some students said their teachers were told not to talk about the allegations. Others said the topic dominated class discussion. The Facebook page “Support Coach [George] Najjar & The Sayreville Bomber Football Program” garnered 565 likes within 24 hours.

“Things have been blown out of proportion,” said Gomez, the freshman. “We know the players, and hazing, to them, they didn’t mean it in that way. It was more like being friends.”

“People who see the news, they don’t know exactly what’s going on,” says Alex Martinez, a senior, who said he was one of many students who heard of the lewd nature of the acts. “So it’s just ‘hazing.’ But this changes it.”

Just 35 miles southwest of Manhattan but geographically light-years apart, Sayreville is a middle-class town of 42,000, nestled along the Raritan River, sitting at the tip of New Jersey’s Pine Barrens. Lawns are dotted with election signs for the heated Borough Council race; there are an unusually high number of Halloween decorations.  The windy roads are marked by strip malls, which usually feature a family-run deli, a nail salon and either a Quick Check or a Krauser's.

Adjacent to one strip mall, in an overgrown gravelly lot off Main Street, stands a 30-foot blue billboard with the high school football team’s schedule.

Sept. 12 away vs J.P. Stevens – 42-7 win.

Sept. 19 home vs North Brunswick – 48-12 win.

Sept. 27 –away vs Manapalan- 64-28 loss.

There are six more game on the schedule. The scores are, and will be, left blank.

In front of the billboard is a hot-dog stand with drive-by service -- a popular lunch destination for the football team. On Tuesday afternoon, a 2012 Sayreville graduate was among a handful of men loitering by it. He had buzzed hair, a linebacker’s build and wore his leather varsity jacket. He became tense when approached by a reporter.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” the former Bomber said. “Nobody wants to talk about it.  I’m sorry. We all are waiting for it to go away.”