All-Star honors have been piling up for UMass senior fullback Chris Zardas. The fullback was named to the Colonial Athletic Association First Team all-stars and now has been selected to the New England Football Writers team.
The former St. John's Prep star running back from Wakefield also has attracted a lot of attention from NFL scouts and agents during his outstanding season.
"I was lucky that agents and scouts came to a lot of our games to see offensive tackle Vladimir Ducasse, who will probably be a second round draft pick," said Zardas. "It was a good way for me to get exposure, and a lot of them liked what they saw.
"Our team had a tough year (5-6 record). When our defense played well the offense didn't, and when our offense was going well the defense didn't come through. We turned the ball over a lot and didn't put four solid quarters together in many games."
Zardas did an outstanding job blocking for tailbacks Tony Nelson and Jonathan Hernandez. He played in all 11 games for UMass and versatility was a big part of his success, rushing 43 times for 164 yards and three touchdowns along with hauling in seven catches for 46 yards.
He was plagued with illness and injuries his first two years in college and could have applied for a waiver to get another year of eligibility, but decided to move on.
"Coming back was in my mind for quite a while, but after I got the accolades and a lot of interest I thought it was best for me to move on," said Zardas.
"Right now I'm in the process of trying to pick an agent. I did a couple of interviews last week and it feels like the college recruiting process all over again. I talked to a lot of pro scouts and they liked me as a good free agent prospect. After I select my agent, they'll tell me where they want me to go to train. I'll go to the UMass and Boston College pro days after that."
Right now Zardas is busy finishing up his college courses, and after this semester ends he will only be five credits short of his diploma.
"I'm realistic about my (NFL) chances, and if it doesn't work out I have to be prepared," he said.
Two other local Minuteman players also received postseason honors. Kyle Harrington of Salem, a senior nose tackle, who was named to the CAA Third Team last fall as a junior, but moved up to Second Team status this season, while kicker Armando Cuko of Beverly was chosen for the Third Team.
The stunning news that both Northeastern and Hofstra have decided to drop their football programs came as a shock to so many current and former players in the CAA.
Zardas said UMass and other CAA teams will have to scramble to fill those spots on their schedule. He figures that is going to mean more trips down South for teams like the Minutemen.
Former Prep standouts Josh Belko and Mike Pitt played for coach Rocky Hager at Northeastern. Belko, an offensive lineman, said nobody had any inclination about the move.
"A few years ago the Northeastern News wrote an article that the program might be dropped," said Belko. "That caused an uproar, and a lot of alumni got involved in making sure it didn't happen. The athletic director, Peter Roby, said football was safe for five more years and wasn't going to go away. We were expecting more investment in the team and a facility on campus that they had been promising us for the last 10 years.
"Right before I came to Northeastern they had three winning seasons under coach Don Brown (now at UMass) and were ranked No. 1 in the country in preseason my freshman year. There's a rich tradition that goes back a long way, and we've had some great players come out of the school."
But since Hager took over the helm, the Huskies haven't had a winning season (going 20-47 in his six seasons).
Belko feels bad for all the current players who now have to transfer if they want to keep playing.
"I heard there was a lot of crying going on in that locker room (after the news was announced)," said Belko. "They were just off the bus from a win at Rhode Island. I guess Hager himself felt he was gone, but he never expected the program to end.
"Rocky was a good guy, and he was nice to me, but this was not the right fit for him. We had some good players, but couldn't put a winning season together. Northeastern tuition is now $50,000, and while the program may lose money because big television revenue isn't there for IAA, football promotes the school. Now I'm thinking they kept Rocky around to have an excuse to drop the program.
"Even though I'm not playing anymore it would be nice to say I played for Northeastern without having to add there is no program there any longer (after 74 years). After Hofstra, a school with quite a few players in the NFL, followed suite right after Northeastern I wonder what the CAA will do. They'll have to do something to fill the void. It's a real shame for everybody."
Jean DePlacido is a part-time writer and columnist for The Salem News. Contact her at email@example.com.