DANVERS — On the track, in community service or in the classroom, Peabody High senior T.J. D'Amato has a tendency to put others before himself.
Yesterday, it was the judges of the 50th Salem News Student-Athlete Award that decided it was his turn to come first.
D'Amato was named the 2012 Salem News Student-Athlete Award winner at the banquet held at the CoCo Key Resort in Danvers last night, topping a field of 14 phenomenal high school seniors from across the North Shore.
"I looked at the paper and I saw a bunch of studs. I wasn't sure I had a chance," said D'Amato. "I feel extremely honored."
A three-season track captain for the Tanners, D'Amato ranks No. 9 in Peabody Veterans Memorial High's senior class and embodied the qualities the judges were looking for.
"T.J. combined everything perfectly," said Salem News sports editor Phil Stacey, one of six judges. "He's an outstanding student who sets high goals for himself, an outstanding and dedicated runner and a three-season captain with a passion for his community and for helping others."
The judges — Essex County District Attorney Jon Blodgett, attorney Tom Alexander, Dr. Suzanne Graves, Brian Shea of People's United Bank of Danvers and longtime Salem News Editorial Page Editor Nelson Benton — interviewed the 14 nominees yesterday.
The student-athletes, who are nominated by their schools, collectively were one of the best groups in recent memory, according to the judges.
"Honestly it was a very tough year," said Benton, who will have the $1,000 scholarship awarded to the winner named in his honor beginning next year. "This year really was one of the best groups we can remember."
D'Amato, whose father Tom is a Peabody Hall of Famer and has inspired T.J throughout his athletic and academic career, impressed the judges with his maturity and humility.
The Northeastern Conference indoor mile champion recalled being the victim of a hit-and-run at the age of 11, and the take-away even at a young and impressionable age for him was to live every day to its fullest.
"In the end, he was the last man standing in an outstanding field," said Stacey.
A four-time Salem News all-star in various seasons of track, D'Amato has won an NEC 2-mile title and says he's most proud of his team's 11 Northeastern Conference championships and of his teammates achievements.
"I love rooting on the other guys, whether its my classmates like Nick Christensen at nationals or the younger guys at the dual meets," said D'Amato. "One of the big points for the Peabody track team is that when someone has a good race, they credit their training partners. We're one."
That selflessness typifies D'Amato, a National Honor Society member who will run at Bates next year. He told the judges that as a freshman, he learned from some outstanding leaders.
"They say don't be a follower, but I wanted to be so I could learn what it took to be a good leader," he said.
D'Amato, a history buff with an encyclopedic knowledge of Tanners sports lore, became the sixth Peabody student-athlete to win the award and the second in four years after Greg Doonan won it in 2009. Masconomet has the most winners with seven and each of the 14 schools has won the award at least once.
The trophy will be engraved with D'Amato's name and be displayed at Peabody High for the next year.
"It's crazy. I'm really humbled," said D'Amato, who also thanked his mom, Donna, dad, Tom, and siblings Jamie and Matt.
"I've been reading the paper since I was a little kid and I always looked up to the student-athletes. It's such a great honor just to be included in this group."
SCHOLARSHIP TO BE NAMED FOR BENTON
For 50 years the Salem News Student-Athlete Award has been a fixture on the North Shore. For much of that time, one of the driving forces of the award has been Salem News Editorial Page Editor Nelson Benton.
Even as Benton, a decorated, longtime journalist, gets set to retire after 40 year with the News, he'll always be a part of the Student-Athlete Award.
The $1,000 scholarship awarded to the winner will be named in Benton's honor beginning next year, Salem News Publisher Karen Andreas announced last night.
"He always wanted to make sure this award was something that would last forever and never leave the newspaper," said Andreas. "Over the years, he's been relentless in his planning, he takes care of every detail. This award wouldn't happen without him."