By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
On the surface, it may not seem as if a U.S. Marine on a tour of duty in Iraq, a police officer from a small Jersey Shore town and a high school football player have much in common.
In fact, they have two things in common. One, Brendan Gheen has been all three, and two, they all know the importance and value of teamwork.
Gheen, a 1997 graduate of Ocean City High School, learned during his teen years how far a team working toward a common goal can carry an individual. He and his teammates put together one of the most successful football seasons in school history in 1996, as the Red Raiders went 11-0 and won the state championship, with Gheen a key member of the offensive line.
The importance of teamwork stayed with Gheen after graduation, as he went on to serve in the Middle East as a member of the Marines before beginning a career with the Ocean City Police Department, where the 34-year-old has been a patrolman for the last eight years.
“Having a good work ethic and working hard does lead to success,” Gheen said. “It definitely started with my parents, but it was reiterated by teammates and coaches. The ’96 football team, we had some stars, but we were very team-oriented. We’d all meet at the gym (before the season) and push each other and it paid off.”
Gheen said the values he learned while pursuing that state title are not all that different than the ones police officers must have to do their job effectively.
“In police work, even though you’re riding around a lot in a car by yourself, there’s still a lot of teamwork that goes on with it,” Gheen said. “Within your squad and within your department … you’re working together to come to a common goal. It’s basically the same thing you learn in sports.”
Gheen was a Marine mortarman who was stationed in the combat zone near Nasiriyah, Iraq, in 2003 during the battle in which Army Private Jessica Lynch was taken a prisoner of war. Gheen said he and his fellow soldiers sometimes would talk about their high school athletic careers, and it sunk in while living under the harsh desert sun in the middle of a war zone that those carefree high school days were over. Like many former high school athletes, he came to terms with the end of his athletic career and moved on to the next phase of his life. He still thinks about those days when he was a high school football and wrestling star from time to time, however.
“I came home one time on leave in ’99 and watched a football game and I was like, well, these days are gone. They were great, but it’s time to be an adult now,” Gheen said.
He’s able to relive those moments, however, through strong friendships he still has with ex-teammates such as Justin Pryor, Dennis Singleton, Ed Pierce and Rob Warren. Pryor was Gheen’s best man when Gheen married his wife, Toni.
“We still hang out a lot. We get together at least two or three times a year,” Gheen said of his former teammates. “There’s still a lot of good dudes I keep in touch with from that team.”
Every once in a while there will be a reminder of those Friday nights under the lights, strapping on the helmet and pads and going out and winning a state championship.
“I was helping my buddy Dennis (Singleton) work on his house last year and I was moving some stuff around in a room and there was his (championship) jacket. It was kinda funny,” Gheen said.
Winning a state title in football and a district championship in wrestling are great memories for Gheen, but there is one moment that sticks out above the rest. It came in the fall of 1996, when the Red Raiders beat rival Mainland Regional late in the season.
“Not only were they a rival, they were a great team. They won back-to-back state titles in 1995 and ’96 and we won by one point,” Gheen said. “It was a real tough game. That was probably the highlight of that season for me.”
Now Gheen enters a new phase of his life. He and Toni are trying to repair their house in Ocean City following Hurricane Sandy, and he’s settling into married life as he enters his mid-30s. He finished up his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice this past winter, and he’s got a solid career going with the OCPD. Still, on occasion those high school memories pop up, and no doubt Toni will be hearing about them for many years to come.
Does Toni ever get sick of hearing about Gheen’s and his buddies’ exploits on the field during their high school football careers?
“Yeah, she does,” Gheen said with a smile.