Lawrence High School football player Matt Kildea missed his entire junior year season after he broke his collarbone during an August 2018 practice. Now, the senior tight end is ready to play. (Photo by Rich Fisher.)

Rob Radice is back, and so is Matt Kildea.

The return of the former was greeted with a tad more fanfare than the latter, but both are extremely key figures in the Lawrence High football program.

In fact, Radice said Kildea, a senior tight end, “is kind of the piece that makes our offense work.”

Radice begins his second tenure as the Cardinals head coach after a five year sabbatical in which he served as an assistant at Hopewell Valley and Lawrenceville. He had a successful run during his first stint, including a trip to the state finals, but stepped away to enjoy family life.

“I had a great experience when I left here, spending time with my kids seeing them play their sports,” Radice said. “The job came open in the winter, and I said, ‘Hey, I’m not coaching, why not throw my hat back in the ring.’ I was working with (Athletic Director) Greg (Zenerovitz) doing events and working all these events, I figured why not be here and coach.”

He has surrounded himself with a predominantly new staff, including the ultra-successful former Pennsbury High head coach Galen Snyder as defensive coordinator. Also coming in with substantial experience are Pete Lestician and Anthony Ammirata, while former Cards Bayshawn Wells and Drew Reca are volunteer assistants.

And despite not being the head man since 2013, Radice said his first day of training camp felt like business as usual.

“It was just normal,” the coach said with a shrug. “We’ve been going all summer long, five days a week. Nothing different. Kids are kids, I don’t care where you’re coaching. As long as they want to work hard and put the time in, then it’s kind of fun to come out every day and do your thing.”

Radice has a guy who definitely puts the time in with Kildea, who is coming back from a broken collarbone that forced him to miss his entire junior season. It occurred in early August when the Cardinals were running a 7-on-7 drill and not even in pads yet. Kildea dove for a pass, landed hard on his collarbone and snapped it.

At the time, he knew it was painful, but was unsure just how serious an injury he had until the ride home.

“On the impact, I knew something was wrong,” he said. “I thought it might have been a dislocation. Once I tried to move it, I knew something wasn’t right. Apparently once I got in the car, I started to go into shock and was getting pale. So I got rushed right to the emergency room. It was rough.”

It got even rougher when Kildea heard the diagnosis and knew he would miss the season.

“I went to the games, I was on the sidelines,” he said. “It was hard. It’s just a game, but…”

He didn’t need to finish the sentence. Every competitor wants to play instead of watch, but Kildea made sure to provide emotional support. He was finally cleared in late November.

“It didn’t need surgery,” he said. “They said I could have gotten a plate but it wouldn’t have been as strong. They said if I let it grow, it would take a little bit longer but it would be much stronger.”

Kildea immediately got back in the gym and began lifting, and over the summer he made sure not to take any unnecessary risks.

“I’ve just been trying to get stronger, make sure I’m healthy, make sure I don’t do anything dumb to get hurt like dive for a ball in a practice,” he said. “It was probably irresponsible to dive in a seven-on-seven drill. But in a game I’m going 150 percent. I’m lifting, getting stronger, just working as hard as I can to have a good senior season.”

It is the resumption of a career that started in fifth grade when Kildea played on the line at left tackle—which seems surprising considering his 6-foot, 180-pound frame.

“I was bigger back then,” he said with a laugh. “After that I played linebacker, but once I got to high school I was more offense.”

Kildea saw limited time as a sophomore and was being counted on to contribute last year until the injury hit. This season, he will be playing a hybrid tight end moving all over the field.

“I go to wide receiver, sometimes I’m on the line, sometimes I’m off the line,” he said. “Sometimes I’m flex off the line, so I kind of move around.”

Radice is counting heavily on Kildea and senior running back Deon McLean to make the offense go.

“Matt is a really smart kid, an awesome character kid, a leadership kind of kid,” the coach said. “He came out and worked really hard. He runs great routes. He’s a good athlete, catches the ball really well. All those things are intangible, we’re super lucky to have him. He’s sort of what makes this offense go, just his smartness and ability to change formations and get good match-ups.

“He’s such a great kid and positive leader. It had to hurt not having him last year. I think having him back is just awesome. I think we’re really gonna enjoy him playing and playing hard and being a smart player out there.”

Radice is bringing in a no-huddle offense, and Kildea feels he will fit right in.

“Coach is just running things a lot differently,” Kildea said. “It’s really aggressive and I think we’re gonna be good this year.”

Because of the up-tempo offense, Kildea’s hopes of playing a lot of linebacker or safety may not be fulfilled.

“I love defense, I kind of wish I could play more,” he said.

But, as Radice pointed out, “ with a no-huddle offense it’s just a matter of how much gas he has in the tank. If he can give us some plays here and there, awesome.”

Awesome is a good way to describe Kildea in the classroom as he has a 4.2 grade point average and is looking into attending either Maryland or Lehigh. He is considering computer science after taking part in Lawrence’s Engineering Club.

“I take school seriously,” he said.

He is also taking his senior season seriously as Lawrence tries to bounce back from a 1-8 season. Kildea feels the new staff is up to the challenge of turning things around.

“It’s nice having coaches with a lot of experience and success,” he said. “We can tell by the way they talk and the way they teach us that they know what they’re talking about. Everybody respects the coaches here and listens to what they say. I’m really excited. I think we’re gonna hit a bunch of teams this year. They’re gonna come out thinking we’re slow and I think this year we’re gonna surprise them all, show them we’re contenders.”

Radice shares that same optimism.

“I think they have great potential,” he said. “They’ve worked hard since March 1st, they had a great summer, committed to our training. They want to learn. They’re looking forward to making the next step. It’s kind of like a fresh start for them. I’m getting to know them well and they’re getting to know their coaches.”

And a key figure in it all will be Kildea.

“He is,” Radice said, “super central to us.”