Joseph Wiltsey has not had an easy life. Growing up the oldest of five children in Chambersburg, his lip got taken off by his best friend’s dog at age 4. On Christmas Eve 1993, as an early teen, his best friend was murdered. While a playing football his junior year at McCorristin (now Trenton Catholic Academy)—a school he paid out of his own pocket to attend for three years before graduating in 1997—Wiltsey was paralyzed from the neck down for nearly five hours during a football injury.
It was the kind of life that could make a guy bitter.
But not this guy.
“What don’t kill us, only makes us stronger,” the Hamilton resident said.
Not only did Wiltsey avoid going to the dark side, he made it a mission over the past nine months to enrich the lives of several deserving Hamilton Township athletes.
When Nottingham High won the school’s first NJSIAA Group III state basketball championship last March, Wiltsey footed much of the bill for championship rings.
This past July, a young family friend named Lamont Monard, who bowls with Wiltsey’s niece in the Special Olympics, was chosen to bowl for Team USA. Wiltsey donated $1,000 for the plane fare for Monard and his parents, and Monard went on to win two gold medals.
One month later, Broad Street Park Post 313 won the New Jersey American Legion State Championship for just the second time in its history. With his nephew, Justin, a long-time member of the team, Wiltsey once more helped fund the championship ring purchase, and was lauded at the BSP awards dinner Nov. 11.
Having run AJ’s Lawn Sprinklers and Landscaping in Trenton as a side business for the past two years (he is making it his full-time business this year), Wiltsey felt it was his responsibility to provide for area youth. He never hesitated with his generosity.
“It’s was a very easy decision for me,” he said. “I knew that those kids needed someone to step up and show them that someone outside of their circle cared. Between Nottingham, BSP and Lamont, I knew I was giving to people that were in need. And to me, every small business in the township should have stepped up to help those young men. It’s something I will continue to do. There’s no better feeling, than seeing a smile on a kid’s face.”
Wiltsey provided Nottingham with $2,000 and wanted to go higher, but coach Chris Raba would not accept any more.
“Joe Wiltsey was a Godsend for our basketball team,” Raba said. “When we won the state championship, he immediately contacted me and said he wanted to donate to our rings.”
Raba asked Wiltsey to make the check presentation to the players himself and set up a date.
“He met with the team in the auditorium and gave them the check,” Raba said. “The guys erupted, and they all ran up and hugged him.”
Since he had family connections with both Monard and BSP, it was easy to see Wiltsey helping them out. But why Nottingham?
“I didn’t understand why the school didn’t provided them with the rings,” he said. “Being a small business owner, I felt I had the means to give back to the community. Those kids busted their butts all year to achieve something that doesn’t happen too often in the Hamilton area. They deserved to be honored on every level.”
In turn, the Northstar players honored Wiltsey.
“I have to say their reaction when I presented them with the check was by far one of the best moments of my life. Seeing the joy on their faces was priceless. And it shows those young men that people do care and that there are good people left in this world. The basketball they presented me with, will be on my mantle forever.”
Wiltsey was presented with one of just three balls that were signed by the entire team and the administration (with the other two going Raba’s wife’s sister-in-law; and close friends Heather and Chris Tucker).
After he helped Monard get to the Special Olympics, Wiltsey turned his attention toward his nephew’s newly crowned legion state champs.
“When we sat down to talk about fundraising and how we would do it, Joe immediately texted me and asked how much we wanted,” BSP manager Mike Petrowski said. “At first I declined, but he insisted and gave us a check for more than $2,500 to cover more than half the rings’ cost.”
Wiltsey said his gesture had more to do with just his nephew playing on the team. As a youth player and coach in Trenton, Hightstown and Hamilton, Wiltsey had ample success and saw the fabric of countless teams, none better than BSP.
“In all my years of playing and coaching sports, I don’t ever remember seeing a team that close,” he said. “Those kids were together all the time, no matter what it was. That team had great leadership starting with Mike and going down to the leaders of that team, Kyle (Harrington), Brien (Cardona), (Darius) Land and you could go on. My nephew grew this season and became a more mature kid. And of course, he knew what I did for Nottingham, so I wasn’t gonna let him down and not help his team. It’s an awakening lesson for everyone that my donation helped, it can help (elsewhere). Do it. There’s no better feeling in the world.”
That feeling reached its zenith at the BSP awards dinner, when Wiltsey got the same treatment that the Nottingham players gave him.
“A lot of people do things to be in the spotlight,” he said. “I hate when the attention is on me. But hearing what Mike said, and the ovation from the parents and friends made me feel good about it. I know how much it meant to Mike, Chris and all the players from both teams. And that’s truly all that matters to me.”
Lest anyone think Wiltsey was just paying lip service by saying he didn’t want the recognition; think again.
“He wanted to keep it anonymous,” Petrowski said. “I demanded we let people know. He’s just a generous, generous guy with a great heart. It was a great gesture for a group of kids that deserve nothing but the best.”
While Wiltsey won multiple championships playing in the Hamilton Football League, the closest he came in high school was reaching the Non-Public A South Jersey baseball semifinals with McCorristin as a senior. The Mikes were beaten, 3-1 by Red Bank Catholic.
“I can remember the heartbreak I felt, and I have to say, I’m glad these kids don’t know that feeling,” Wiltsey said. “I mean, they are state champs! All we got was a jacket for winning championships when I was in the youth leagues. Those rings will be something they will have forever. I know my nephew has fought to win a state title since he started playing. Being a person that works long days, I was glad I was able to be there to watch them win that state title.”
Wiltsey added with a laugh, “Although I wasn’t gonna go ’til (Justin) asked me, because he doesn’t play well when I’m watching. But his aunt and I are very proud of him and want him to shoot for the stars, because he is one.”
Guys like Joe Wiltsey don’t come along too often, and when they do, their impact is immeasurable.
“When our team played last year, they almost seemed invincible,” Raba said. “They were emotionless, they just played and always knew they would win when they stepped on the court. One of the great memories I will always have is how much emotion they showed when they got the donation from Joe and the Tuckers.”
It is the kind of emotion that Wiltsey encourages others to experience.
“If you can ever give back, do it,” he said. “Especially to groups of kids like Nottingham basketball and Broad Street Park. Show kids and young men that there are people out there that do care about them.”