NANTICOKE -- Before they arrived at Nanticoke High School, Will Johnson had never participated in a charity basketball game while Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie played in plenty.
But whether it was the first time or they do this all the time, those NFL players found something extra special about Saturday’s Clifton R. Lewis Good Life Foundation Celebrity Basketball Game.
“This is actually my first time,” said Johnson, who joined the Pittsburgh Steelers as an undrafted free agent and became their starting fullback as a rookie last season. “I thought it would be good to support something like this. It’s all for a good cause.”
The Good Life Foundation helps people afflicted with muscular distrophy -- including former long-time Nanticoke baseball coach John Kashatus and Nick Mattey of Kingston -- live “the good life” by providing assistance.
Much of that help comes in the former of increased mobility (by donations of motorized scooters and easily-accessible transportation) and for some children afflicted with MD, a chance to meet players and attend games of their dreams.
“It’s just giving back to the community,” said Rodgers-Cromartie, who left the Philadelphia Eagles secondary during the offseason to sign as a free agent with the Denver Broncos. “And when I heard what it was about, you have to say yes.”
Rodgers-Cromartie knows all about struggles and dashed dreams in a professional sense.
He played as a cornerback in the nickel package as a rookie first-round draft choice of Arizona in 2008, helping the Cardinals upend the Eagles in the NFC championship game to reach the Super Bowl that season. But Arizona suffered a heartbreaking, last-minute loss to the Steelers, and never made it as far during the following years.
Over the 2011 offseason, Rodgers-Cromartie was traded to the Eagles.
That was the start of an offseason blitz by Philadelphia during a strike-shortened offseason, when the Eagles added free agent Pro Bowlers Vince Young (as a backup quarterback), cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and defensive linemen Jason Babin and Cullen Jenkins - along with running back Ronnie Brown and wide receiver Steve Smith.
They called it the “Dream Team” destined to win the Super Bowl. But it turned into a nightmare as the Eagles started 4-8 that season and missed the playoffs with an 8-8 record. It got worse last season, as the Eagles finished 4-12 - after a 3-1 start - while coaches were fired during the season and head coach Andy Reid lost his job afterwards.
“We had a lot of new pieces,” Rodgers-Cromartie said. “Expectations were so high. There was a lot of excitement around that ‘Dream Team.’ You say something like that, it puts a lot of pressure on you, and teams coming in, they played harder against our team.
“We just didn’t jell.”
Now he’s off to a new “Dream Team” in Denver - where Peyton Manning came aboard to lead the Broncos to the AFC’s best regular season record before the Baltimore Ravens upended them with a winning last-minute touchdown bomb. So the Broncos brought in some big guns, adding Rodgers-Cromartie, defensive tackle Terrance Knighton from Jacksonville, ex-Eagles linebacker Stewart Bradley and offensive guard Louis Vasquez to fortify their Super Bowl hopes this season.
“You have to be careful when you say ‘Dream Team,’ ” Rodgers-Cr0martie said he’s learned.
Still, he can’t wait to try to turn this dream into reality.
“I’m very excited,” he said. “They have a great team. What they have over there is just a blessing and an honor to be part of. I’m looking forward to it.”
Johnson fully expects his Steelers to be standing in the way.
The fierce blocker believes this weekend’s NFL Draft should help the Steelers rebound from last year’s 8-8 finish and get them back to their perennial position of postseason contenders. Especially after Pittsburgh picked up more offensive weapons by selecting running back Le’Veon Bell and wide receivers Markus Wheaton and Justin Brown along with their first pick - linebacker Jarvis Jones.
“I’m very impressed with our draft choices,” Johnson said. “I’m excited for what this season brings.”
For one night at the Nanticoke Area gym, though, Johnson and Rodgers-Cromartie seemed delighted to bring joy to those less fortunate.
“It’s all about giving back,” Rodgers-Cromartie said, “and remembering where you came from.”