Senior Spotlight: Ocean City's Eric Levai savored every moment of his high school careerBy DAVE O’SULLIVAN
No matter what he does, recently graduated Ocean City football player Eric Levai is going to have fun doing it. The big offensive lineman has an even bigger personality, and not only did he help solidify the Red Raiders’ football team the past couple of years, but he also helped inject a renewed sense of school spirit into the student body, along with his predecessor, Jeff Hoffner.
Hoffner and Levai were two of the students responsible for coming up with “Raider Nation”, the student body fan group that would fill the stands and winter and spring sporting events to help cheer on their classmates.
“I think that’s an underrated aspect of high school anymore. With social media and the kids constantly being aware that they have cameras on them and eyes on them, where somebody can tweet something about them, it’s almost like there is a more passive environment in schools and school spirit isn’t as cool as it used to be,” said Ocean City football coach Kevin Smith. “So, guys like Eric and Jeff are kind of like throwback guys who really enjoyed the high school experience and didn’t mind putting themselves out there and getting themselves involved. That’s important, especially in a small town like Ocean City. You have people who have lived here for generations, and they want kids to take pride in the high school, so I was happy to see the whole Raider Nation thing come about. It’s been great for our high school.”
“I’m going to miss it a lot. I’m going to miss Raider Nation, obviously. That was a lot of fun,” Levai said. “I’m looking forward to coming back to some of the football games next year.”
Levai was able to cap off his career in late June with a selection to the Adam Taliaferro All-Star Classic, one of the premier all-star football games in the state. He and Donoghue represented the Blue team, which featured players from Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Burlington counties, and his squad came away with a 19-7 win over the White team at Rowan University.
“We had a lot of fun and I met a bunch of great guys. It was a great time and the game was a lot of fun. It’s definitely something I’m going to remember forever,” Levai said. “It was awesome. That one last game with (Donoghue) was really cool. He’s going to TCNJ next year and I’m going to Ursinus, so we won’t be seeing each other that much. But it was really cool playing with him one more time. It meant a lot to me to be one of the few offensive linemen in South Jersey to be recognized and selected, it was absolutely awesome. Words can’t describe how lucky I am to be selected to that team.”
“They played a lot of football together. All-star games are usually pretty sloppy because the kids don’t have a lot of time to work together,” Smith said. “With the White team, they put the ball on the turf a few times because the guys didn’t have enough time to really get comfortable, but with Eric and Andrew, they’ve had thousands of reps together and you could see the difference.”
While Smith could always count on Levai to crack a joke or lighten the mood throughout his high school career, he also could rely on his center for unrivaled consistency at the position. It won’t be easy for Smith and his staff to replace a guy who anchored the offensive line for nearly three years.
“It’s always nice to be able to return your center. And Eric is smart, so it got to the point where he was making a lot of the protection calls himself. The center is really your anchor. Everybody aligns themselves off of him and he touches the ball every play, so you better be able to trust your center,” Smith said. “One thing about Eric was his consistency with his snaps. We ran over 1,000 offensive plays the past two years and I can count on one hand the number of bad snaps we had. That’s huge because you hate dead plays (with a bad snap), so that consistency was huge for us.”
Levai wasn’t a star right out of the gate, as he had to work his way up through the junior varsity team as a freshman before earning some varsity time as a sophomore and ultimately assuming the starting role.
“Going into high school as a freshman was different. Everyone was bigger than me. They were turning into grown men while I was 14 years old, so it was a little weird for me,” he said. “Going in was a little overwhelming, but lifting and practicing with the guys was a lot of fun. You have to wait your turn and put in the work, and if you can open up some eyes you’ll get your chance.”
Offensive linemen typically don’t get a lot of attention — unless the quarterback is getting sacked — but Levai said he didn’t have a problem with rarely getting his name in the paper following a Red Raiders victory. That’s something that comes with the territory when you are one of the big guys up front.
“I’ve been playing center since I was 4 years old, so I’m used to the skill players and the quarterbacks getting all the press. But I’m OK with that,” Levai said. “Like my offensive coordinator always said, they score the touchdowns, but whenever they score it’s also an offensive line TD. We just had to remember that. The reason they are scoring touchdowns is because of us.”
Levai said he understands what a privilege it was to play high school football, particularly for a school that has the kind of tradition that Ocean City enjoys, and he’s thankful he had so much support from his coaches and family.
“It meant a lot because of all the rich history throughout (Ocean City). Having a chance to play for Ocean City High School was life changing, all the opportunities I had on the field and even outside of school, it was unbelievable. I work in town and I’ll see coach (Gary) Degenhardt and some of the other coaches and we’ll have a 20-minute conversation about football. Coach Degenhardt is always talking about the glory days. Playing for Ocean City was awesome. My greatest memory was beating Mainland (last fall). That was probably the coolest game I’ve ever been a part of. We hadn’t beaten them in 12 years and we beat them on their home field,” Levai said. “My whole entire family has been big supporters of my career. They’ve been a huge part of everything and they’ve always been there supporting me. I’m very thankful for that because there are other people who aren’t blessed with that.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays