by Melissa Dudek
Tanner Cowley grew up at the Jersey Shore.
“I absolutely love where I’m from,” Cowley said, sensing your eyeroll and/or chuckle as you read that statement.
“Since coming to college, I have had to defend it many times. You say you are from Jersey, and then central Jersey, and then the Jersey shore, and people automatically associate you with that. I’ve had to talk people down and say the stereotype is nothing what it is like. There were five or six small towns that made up my high school. You know everyone, so that is a great experience. I have nothing bad to say. I love it. I loved every second of it.”
Despite what the MTV reality series of the same name has done for the reputation of Cowley’s region, the reality of growing up in the seaside town of Manasquan was fairly idyllic. He grew up playing a variety of sports, including baseball and lacrosse, but there were two that stuck with him from a young age: football, which he took up at the age of seven, and surfing.
Almost every day during the summers, Cowley would throw his board into the back of his father’s truck and head just a mile or two down the hill to Manasquan Beach.
“We used to have a sun-up/sun-down crew with a bunch of families,” Cowley said. “We’d go to the beach from like six to six and hang out. A lot of my childhood was spent at the beach all day during the summer. Most of my friends were pretty serious about surfing. They were very good at it. When you are that good, your board is usually smaller than you. I was always bigger, and I had a board that was a few inches bigger than me, but it was a fun thing to do.”
However, life in Manasquan was not always this sun-soaked and laid back. On Oct. 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy made landfall in New Jersey.
“Luckily my family lived in Brielle, which is a mile or two inland in some hilly areas, so the flooding, that wasn’t an issue, but I had a lot of friends who were affected by it,” Cowley said, who was a sophomore in high school at the time. “If you went down to the river and the ocean, boats were scattered all over. They were in the middle of the road and I wondered how something could possibly get there. People’s houses were under water. The beachfront had sand, because the storm surge was so high, eight feet tall in some spots.”
Cowley’s family was without power for several days, but they were among the lucky ones. In Manasquan, 1,850 homes were flooded or damaged by the waves from the storm. Cowley’s football coach, Jay Price, who was also a firefighter, mobilized his players to help with the relief efforts. The team helped unload trucks of relief supplies and then headed to the disaster zone to start digging out.
“The National Guard had the area closed off, open to no one, but we were some of the first people in there, my football team,” Cowley said. “We were shoveling out homes, helping them out. That was a cool experience.”
Cowley and his team’s efforts didn’t stop there, nor did the woes of the town.
A week after the hurricane, the area was hit with a rare November snow storm. A powerful nor’easter helped provide just enough cold air to dump a foot and a half of snow on the already stricken hamlet.
Coach Price and the football team mobilized again.
“We had a football game coming up that week,” Cowley said. “We didn’t have the greatest field, it is pretty muddy. It had just had that huge hurricane rain and then it snowed. It was supposed to be a home game, but we were going to have to move it to the other team’s place because they have turf, and they were fine and our facilities crew didn’t think they could get the field ready. So again, our whole team and a bunch of dads, coaches and others got together. We had my dad and another dad out there with snowblowers just chunking up the field, ripping it to shreds. We plowed out the middle and let the outsides dry up just to have this game for the community. We were trying to bring some joy back to the town for a time. We ended up winning, so it was a great experience.”
Over time, the town recovered from the effects of the storm. There are still a few empty lots where some of his friend’s houses used to be, but it has mainly sprung back to being a place where the fifth-year grad student loves to go back to visit.
Every single week during the season, however, a little piece of home comes to find him. His parents, Drew and Sandy, have been at every single one of his game.
“I want to thank my parents for always supporting me and never missing a single game my entire college career, which is almost unheard of,” Cowley said. “The amount of dedication it takes from them, I really appreciate it. I probably don’t tell them enough.”