Players on the North Jersey Spartans football team gather during practice. Coach Kevin Moss started the team to encourage players to stay in school. (Dave Grunebaum/OAG)

Players on the North Jersey Spartans football team gather during practice. Coach Kevin Moss started the team to encourage players to stay in school. (Dave Grunebaum/OAG)

When the North Jersey Spartans huddle up in practice, they look like a lot of college football teams. But the Spartans are a club team made up of players who attend various colleges.  The team was created to get players to go to school instead of working dead-end jobs or joining street gangs.

The Spartans practice at a county park without a locker room, yard markers or even goal posts. And the story behind the players off the field is even more unusual.

Justin Sessoms, a 20-year-old defensive lineman, is 6-foot-2, 275 pounds. He has a 1-year-old daughter, Jasmine.

“My daughter means the world to me.”

Sessoms lives with his mother and 8-year-old cousin in a small apartment above a hair salon in the town of Irvington.

“There’s a lot of gang violence in this community.”

In fact, Sessoms almost got initiated into the Bloods street gang just a few months ago.

“I was testing the waters to see what it was about and basically doing the wrong things like smoking, drinking, fighting and all that other stuff.”

But then his old high school football coach, Kevin Moss, came around.

Justin Sessoms, left, stands with coach Kevin Moss during a practice. (Dave Grunebaum/OAG)

Justin Sessoms, left, stands with coach Kevin Moss during a practice. (Dave Grunebaum/OAG)

“Well he was basically telling me that being in the gang will lead to one of two things: death, life in prison.”

Since his freshman year in high school, Sessoms has looked up to Moss. The coach became an even bigger mentor after Sessoms’ father died four years ago.

“Any time I needed to have a conversation with anybody or anything he was always the one there for me as a male.”

With Sessoms on the verge of becoming a “Blood,” Moss had a conversation with him. Over cheeseburgers, Moss talked about a new collegiate football club he was starting: the North Jersey Spartans.

“He actually did save my life because if it wasn’t for him sitting down and having a conversation with me and telling me about the football and trying to get me back in school, I probably at this moment right now—I probably would’ve been in the gang,” Sessoms said.

Instead, he enrolled as a student at Essex County College in Newark with plans to become an accountant.

Coach Kevin Moss, 29, works as a graphic designer. Moss’s mother, a pre-school teacher, encouraged him to go to college. Moss graduated, but he knew from growing up in Irvington that many kids in this community and neighboring ones did not get that same push.

“They have a job at McDonald’s or Burger King or something like that. They don’t have the actual tools or skills set to actually take them further in life.”

And far worse, Moss said, five high school players he used to coach ended up dead from gang violence. Moss felt he could make a difference by convincing young men to stay off the street.

“We say, ‘Hey, look, if we put football out there as that carrot for these kids, you know, will that drive them to go back to school.’”

Moss was passionate enough about this goal to pitch in $7,000 to get the team going this fall. The Spartans have 35 players from several different colleges in northern New Jersey. They compete against other collegiate club teams, including Clarkson and East Connecticut State.

Wide receiver Reggie West is 20 years old and lives in Irvington with his mother, older brother, 18-year-old sister and her 1–year-old son. West works as a security guard at an apartment complex five nights a week on an eight-hour shift that starts at midnight.

“I have to work the overnight job because I got to make money to feed me and my family.”

West had not decided if he was going to enroll in Essex County College until a conversation with coach Moss closed the deal, because returning to school meant he could return to the football field.

“Makes a big difference. Football is a motivation to keep me in school, keep me pushing in life,” West said.

“I will know that this team was a success when I see these men raising their families, having careers, not jobs at the corner store and things like that, but they’ll be educators,” Moss said. “They’ll be police officers you know. They’ll be judges, lawyers, things like that.”

West and Sessoms plan on hitting the books hard in the off-season and hitting the field next fall.