When Joshua Kotokpo started his high school football career at Pleasantville four years ago, like a lot of freshmen, he thought he was the man. He thought the success he had at the youth level would transfer right over to the varsity level and he’d be a star from the get-go. 

He quickly realized that high school varsity football is serious business, and if he wanted to make an impact with the Greyhounds in the years to come he had to work harder and get bigger, stronger, faster and better. That drive to be the best he can be and overcome anything that was put in his path — from injuries to a horrific shooting during a state playoff game his senior year — is what has set Kotokpo up to become a college football player at Assumption University.

“When I first started high school I thought I was the man. At the end of preseason coach Sacco saw a lot of potential in me so he put me on special teams. I started a little bit for kick return and punt return and got some playing time with the varsity in some of the scrimmages. Sophomore year, I started getting the ball in games and scored a few touchdowns. I was feeling great and just trying to build a foundation for (junior year). I started seeing some potential in myself so I kept working hard throughout the offseason, and that showed on tape during the season and that started getting some interest from colleges,” said Kotokpo, a 5-foot-8, 170-pound running back. “My mentality changed (after sophomore year). You could see my grades getting better in school and my energy was better. I was loving it. It was frustrating to get injured (early in senior year) because I was thinking I had to get into a college, not only for me, but for my family. I was out there every day trying to get the young guys every day, and I was still getting in my lifts and my rehab. I was just waiting patiently.”

Kotokpo suffered an ankle injury in the preseason before his senior year in 2019 and he missed the first couple of games, but once he got back on the field he showed why coach Chris Sacco and his staff had so much confidence that Kotokpo could be a difference maker. Upon his return at the end of September, all Kotokpo did was rush 13 times for 141 yards and three touchdowns. He finished the year with more than 500 yards and eight touchdowns for a team that went 8-3 and advanced to the Central Jersey Group 2 semifinals before falling to Camden. During his career, Kotokpo rushed for more than 1,000 yards and scored more than 20 touchdowns, and the Greyhounds went 27-15 after going 3-37 in the four years prior to his arrival. 

“People started seeing how serious we were. We just kept working every single week trying to get each other better. We had a lot of competition during practice and that showed in games, how hard we were working and how bad we wanted it,” he said. “I’m just glad we’ve made a name for ourselves. We used to be the talk of the town as a joke — coming in my freshman year, nobody wanted to go to Pleasantville. Even coaches from my youth league didn’t want me to go to Pleasantville, but I saw something in Pleasantville and I took that route, and I’m very satisfied. Playing with the older guys like Mohamed (Toure) and Elijah (Glover) showing us the ropes, we just wanted to keep that going. That’s probably the best feeling, knowing you helped keep this new legacy going.”

Kotokpo, like the rest of his teammates, believed they had built a state championship-contending squad heading into the 2019 season, and they were right. The Greyhounds took down a good Salem team in the season opener but then lost to perennial powerhouse Haddonfield in the second game of the season. But after that they ripped off seven straight wins, including an 18-6 victory over eventual sectional champion Cedar Creek and a 21-14 win over Buena that secured a West Jersey Football League divisional championship. 

But during a hotly contested sectional semifinal game against Camden, with the Greyhounds trailing 6-0 late in the third quarter, shots rang out in the stands at Pleasantville and that violence eventually led to the death of a little boy, 10-year-old Micah Tennant. That hit the Greyhounds hard, and when the game resumed the following Wednesday at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, the team just wasn’t the same and ended up losing to the Panthers, 22-0. 

“For me, at the time, I was really just worried about the well being of my teammates and my family in the bleachers, and everybody at the game. I just wanted everybody to be safe. It didn’t take me long (to recognize what was happening). A few shots in and I knew it wasn’t fireworks or anything like that. I was just running off instinct at that point. Where we live it’s kind of common, but I didn’t think it would happen at a football game,” he said. “Once we got into the school we were just trying to calm everybody down. It was getting kind of hectic in there and the atmosphere felt unsettled. Nobody felt safe, everybody was panicking. We let the guys have a little bit of space but we kept telling the younger guys that we’re there for them and we’ll make sure everybody is safe.”

The Pleasantville players learned on the morning the game resumed that young Micah had died from his injuries, and as much as they wanted to, they couldn’t pull of a win in his honor against a very tough and talented Camden team. 

“At the beginning of the day we came to the school and we were talking about how we were going to win for Micah. But before we left they let us know that Micah died. Everybody was sad. Some people didn’t show it, but a lot of people were emotional. But we just tried to stay calm and keep working on taking care of business for him. I was proud that we fought so hard, but I was also disappointed that we couldn’t pull it off for him,” Kotokpo said. “We’re here for each other. We build together; we go through a lot together, the whole team. We showed how strong this team has gotten the past couple of years and how much of an impact this program has had on us.”

Kotokpo will carry a lot with him to college, most notably the knowledge that he can overcome anything, and the future engineering major is intent on proving the best is yet to come for him. And he’ll always remember his Pleasantville roots.   

“Knowing I’m going to be a college football player — I just know I’m going to take care of business. I know I have to work on my speed because everybody is fast in college. I know I’m going to have to get bigger and stronger and just keep working on my game,” Kotokpo said. “It’s been a privilege to play for Pleasantville. We’re all pretty close and the love the whole team had was unmatched, just the way we stuck together and helped make each other better.”