By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Holy Spirit High School senior AiJohnnie Rembert has a keen interest in perhaps becoming an electrician after he graduates in June. It would be a fitting career choice for the Spartans linebacker who spent the past two years lighting up opposing running backs and receivers while leading his team to a state championship and South Jersey title in successive seasons.
“He’s very charismatic. He wrestles, too, so he’s one of the kids who gets our guys pumped up and he brings the energy, which gets our practices going,” said Holy Spirit head coach A.J. Russo. “AiJohnnie plays hard on every play and he’s very athletic. He’s hard to block on the edge and he gives teams fits. He has great athletic ability. In practice, our first offense is trying to block him off the edge and he gives our offense fits. He’s athletic, he has a high motor, and when his motor is going he’s very difficult to block. We always talk about doing your job and he’s not worried about what anybody else has to do, he’s focused on what he has to do and that gives him the ability to understand what is coming at him, and he’s making the plays.”
Rembert, who transferred into Holy Spirit from Oakcrest as a sophomore, isn’t that big at 5-foot-11, 190 pounds, but just like the rest of the Spartans’ defensive unit, he brought every ounce of hustle and determination to Ed Byrnes Stadium every day, and was the centerpiece for perhaps the best defense in the state this year. The Spartans went 8-0 en route to being named the No. 1 team in South Jersey and No. 2 team in the state, and only one team, Pleasantville, was able to score more than a touchdown against them. In the COVID-19 version of the postseason, Holy Spirit shut out a previously unbeaten Winslow team, 34-0, then limited Lenape to just one score in a 21-7 win in the defacto South Jersey championship game.
“I knew I had to come in here and be determined to do something. I took a chance and came to the open house. My junior year I was determined to get on the field, and that year was decent. But this year, I practiced the whole offseason and I think I got better,” said Rembert, one of Holy Spirit’s leading tacklers. “I was more focused on my agility and getting sideline-to-sideline. Last year I could do that, but this year I knew they were going to switch me around because that’s what was going to be best for the team. So, me making plays from left defensive end side all the way to the right side is what I focused on. It was mostly on my own, and mostly mental because I get inside my head sometimes.”
In 2019, Holy Spirit capped off a thrilling season with a 38-0 win over St. Joseph of Hammonton in the Non-Public Group 2 state championship game, and that served as notice to the rest of South Jersey that the Spartans were here to play some defense. They shut down Jada Byers, one of the most talented running backs in South Jersey history, and shut out a team that had scored 20 or more points in seven of its 10 games leading up to the championship.
That type of shut-down defense continued into this season, as Spirit beat St. Joe again in the season opener, 18-6. Then the Spartans shut out Cedar Creek and allowed only seven points to Vineland. After a 42-20 win over Pleasantville on Oct. 23, Spirit allowed just 14 points in its final four games, including two shutouts.
“We definitely come to play every single Friday. We practice all week really hard. We lost some great defensive players (from last year) but we had a lot of kids step up. One thing I can say about this defense is they are driven. I don’t know what they are driven by, but they are driven to hold that No. 1-defense-in-South-Jersey title. I’m driven, too,” Rembert said after the playoff win over Winslow. “Me, personally, I just tell myself I can do anything I want to do. People try to hold me to certain limits, but I exceed those every time, and I like my odds every time. It feels good to earn having my name out there. My goal every week is to make sure our defense is ready to play on Friday night.”
Rembert isn’t the rah-rah type of guy, instead, he likes to wear down an opponent with consistency and brute force. But over the past two years he’s become one of the top leaders for the Spartans.
“haven’t really been vocal in any sport throughout my life, but this year I really talked to the guys both on and off the field,” he said. “I tell them every down we have to stay focused and confident.”
At the moment, Rembert said he isn’t sure where his future will take him. He said he’d love to continue his football career at the collegiate level, if there is a college out there willing to take a chance on him. If not, he may get an early start on a career as an electrician.
“There will be an opportunity for him to play at the next level, and I’m not trying to speak for him but he wants to be an electrician,” Russo said. “He’s very interested in getting out of high school and getting his feet wet in terms of trying to become an electrician. He’s very goal-oriented as far as that is concerned.”
“I’m a blue-collar type of guy,” Rembert said, “I like to use my hands and that helps me on the football field. Right now, I’m just counting my days and seeing what I want to do.”
No matter what happens, Rembert said he’ll carry with him the life lessons he learned from Russo and the rest of the Spartans’ coaching staff.
“I’m going to miss this, for sure,” he said. “One thing I can say about this football program is they don’t only make you into a football player, they make you into a gentleman. I know whenever we do something wrong that’s not on the football field or inside the weight room, we have to run for it. And I don’t like running, so I make sure I don’t do any bad things. Everything you do has consequences.”