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Lights out: In a town without a high school team, 8th-grader Josh Arruda shines

Josh Arruda is destined to play under the lights. The Jaffrey 8th-grader has rocketed up the national rankings, recently earning a spot in the American Youth Football East/West All-Star game in California, thanks to his lifetime of dedication to football, and a lot of hard work.

“He started asking us to play football when he was four years old,” said Josh’s mother Mary-Ellen Arruda. “And we were like ‘No way, he can’t play – he’s four!’ And he kept at it, every year, every year, every year. Finally, when he was seven years old, we said “Well, okay, we can have him try Pop Warner and see how he does. It’s hard for a mother to see her son go out there and get beat up on the field, but you know, you say a little prayer when they go out there that they don’t get hurt, and he’s just been amazing.”

Arruda played for a number of teams in the area before landing on the Monadnock Mountaineers, a youth team serving the Conant and ConVal school districts. As a running back and defensive end, Arruda led his 8th-grade squad to a state title last season in dominant fashion, leading the team in rushing yards (454), average yards per carry (10.3) rushing touchdowns (9), tackles (65) and sacks (7.5).

His regular-season play, coupled with a strong performance in the state all-star game, got him noticed, and he was invited to play on Team New Hampshire in a national championship tourney held in Orlando, Fla. in December. Arruda and Team New Hampshire made it all the way to the finals, beating teams from Rhode Island, Maryland and Michigan before losing to New Jersey in the final game.

“They were a lot bigger and better than us,” Arruda said. Even when playing big-city kids, Arruda stood out from the pack, and he was named to the East Coast all-star team. Next stop: California.

Josh and his parents flew out for the East/West game in early January, where Arruda was in for the experience of his young life. The teams traveled to practices on a swanky team bus, took part in a scouting combine, participated in nightly team activities, like a Skype session with Philadelphia Eagles receiver Desean Jackson, and got to rub elbows with high school All-Americans bound for Division I college football.

Since both the East and West teams practiced together, Arruda had the chance to meet other 8th-grade peers from around the country.

“Most of those kids from the west side of the United States didn’t even know where New Hampshire was!” Arruda laughed. He even bonded with some of his most heated rivals, like Mickey Maldonado, a New Jersey player who had gotten scrappy with Arruda late in the Orlando tournament. After hanging out with each other all week, the two became fast friends, and now keep in touch via Twitter and Instagram.

As if all this wasn’t enough, there was still the All-Star game to play! Arruda won’t soon forget walking out onto the cavernous StubHub Center in front of fans, parents, scouts – and yes, cheerleaders, his name echoing over the loudspeakers (“Just like Cam Newton,” Arruda insisted).

With so much talent at the running back position, Arruda hopped right into a new role – wide receiver. He took to it pretty quickly, too: late in the third quarter, he went out for a deep pass, leapt up alongside the cornerback for a jump ball, ripped it away and stiff-armed his defender for good measure before cruising in for a 75-yard touchdown.

WATCH: Josh Arruda's 75-yard touchdown catch (7:47 mark of video)

“We knew Josh played well in New Hampshire,” Josh’s father, Paul Arruda, said, “and he was a good player, but we thought when he goes to Florida, he’s going to see a higher level – which he did, but he was at that level. And then we go to the U.S. competition, and we thought he’s going to see a higher level – which he did, but he was at that level and he had an amazing game.”

After returning home to New Hampshire, Arruda was faced with a stark reality: even with all the doors that football was opening for him, without a high school team to play for, his options are limited. Arruda could play for the Granite State Panthers, a club team with players from Conant and Mascenic. But the team isn’t recognized by the NHIAA, and as such, wouldn’t afford the exposure he needs to reach his goal of playing for a DI college. Now, the Arrudas are working on the logistics of sending Josh to a high school with a football team; they’re looking at St. Paul’s, Lawrence Academy, and Cushing, among others.

“I’m going to leave all my friends,” Arruda said. “It would just be a whole lot easier if my school had a football team.”

“It’s disappointing, it really is,” Mary-Ellen said, “because he does have some great friends. And you know, he has a younger brother who loves football just as much.”

Wherever Arruda ends up, he’ll be playing under the lights, and that’s all that really matter for him; he’s been pursuing his goal for his entire life, and now, he’s one step closer to achieving it.

“I’ve got to work even harder to go to the place I want to,” Arruda said. “I want to get a full scholarship to play DI football and maybe even go pro, and I’ve just got to work even harder.”

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