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THE HARTFORD COURANT
A Winning Recipe
Santiago Making The Right Moves For Cromwell
By ROBERTO GONZALEZ, Courant Staff Writer
November 28, 2004
Jason Santiago will never forget his first high school football game. It was a freshman game and the first time he carried the ball he scored.
"Once I got into the end zone, I felt something," Santiago said. "I thought, `This is the place for me.' So I stuck with it."
And he made a key decision. He transferred from Vinal Tech-Middletown to Cromwell in the spring of his sophomore year, wanting to join a fledgling football program.
Santiago, who also plays linebacker, had to sit out the first four games in 2003 before becoming eligible. This season the senior has made a big impact, rushing for 1,105 yards and 16 touchdowns. Santiago rushed for 125 yards on 16 carries and returned an interception 50 yards for a touchdown in Cromwell's 49-12 victory over Coventry Thursday.
He's listed at 5 feet 8, 195 pounds, but compensates with intensity.
"He has been a leader on this football team," Cromwell coach Sal Morello said. "He is one of those kids who doesn't go down on the first hit. It takes a few kids to bring him down. His feet are constantly moving. He is built low to the ground and is strong."
He is also one reason Cromwell (8-2) is returning to the Class S playoffs in only its second year of varsity football. Cromwell will host Ansonia (8-2) in a semifinal at Rocky Hill Tuesday at 6:30 p.m.
Ansonia handed Cromwell its only loss last season, beating the Panthers 55-0 in the Class S championship game. Cromwell finished 12-1 and graduated talented running back Shante Wynn.
"This season has been a pleasant surprise," Morello said. "We're still a young team with only seven seniors and we've been on the road every game. We're definitely fortunate to be in this situation."
Cromwell has had to play on the road because its field is under construction.
"I know it's only high school football, but going on the road  straight games, having to get on the bus with all of our equipment and traveling every time can wear on the kids," Morello said. "To their credit, they've stayed focused. It's been really interesting to see these kids respond to the adversity and watch them bounce back from week to week."
Santiago isn't surprised. As one of the captains, he has made sure the team remains focused.
"Playing on the road really doesn't matter to me," Santiago said. "We basically decide every field we go, we're going to make it our field. That's what we've been trying to do."
One of Santiago's most memorable games was the season opener against Tolland, when he scored five touchdowns and ran for 230 yards on 18 carries in Cromwell's 40-8 victory.
"We try to be as balanced as we can on offense, so he doesn't get the 25 or 30 touches a game," Morello said. "But when he gets the ball, he makes the most of his opportunities."
Santiago first considered a career in culinary arts and decided to attend Vinal Tech. He learned to cook from his father, who is a retired chef, he said.
"I've been cooking all my life," Santiago said. "My father had been a chef in Puerto Rico for a long time and I grew up around a lot of food and cooking all the time. From Italian cuisine to Puerto Rican food, I can cook about everything."
But soon Santiago discovered he had a love of football and was developing an interest in sports medicine. The middle child of four brothers and three sisters, he also had another goal in mind. He wanted to become the first in his family to attend college.
Football at Cromwell has helped him focus on that goal, he said.
"It's helping me out with my education," said Santiago, who is an honor student. "Because it helps me be more disciplined."
The family-type atmosphere on Cromwell also has helped him. He was welcomed right away when he transferred, and sitting out the first four games last season helped him get closer to the team, he said.
"I got to know everybody better," he said. "Even though I wasn't playing, they were treating me really well."
As for his drive, it's all from the inside. When asked who inspires him as a football player, he said: "Me. A lot of people told me I couldn't do it. I just said I am going to do it and prove a lot of people wrong."
Who doubted him? Santiago would only smile, deciding to take the high road.
"Just some people," he said. "It didn't make me frustrated, it made me want to work harder."
Santiago is interested in playing at Springfield or Westfield State, though he isn't looking past Ansonia.
Santiago has a good cast around him, including junior quarterback Carmichael Gordon, who has more than 1,800 passing yards and 27 touchdowns.
"Truthfully, Ansonia doesn't faze me," Santiago said. "We're still going to come out there and do what we've got to do. That's it."