Josias Sterling had a big smile, a big heart and he loved to eat apple pie.
Not just a slice but the whole pie.
“He use to come to my house and ask for some apple pie every time he visited,” Angela Gregory said about the star Temple University rugby player. “And he meant the whole pie not just a slice.”
On July 24, 2009, Josias Sterling was staying with the Gregory family in Ocean City, N.J., when he and his best friend, Ryan, were tossing a rugby ball on a beach near the water. Sterling chased the wayward rugby ball into the ocean and got pulled in by a rip current. Sterling couldn’t swim.
Ryan tried to save Sterling but couldn’t and ran to get help.
“[He] didn’t know just to float on his back to get through a rough current,” Angela Gregory said. “A lot of minority children don’t know who to swim.”
Josias Sterling never made it out of the ocean alive. His body was found 10 days later.
On that night when the current ripped Sterling out to sea, over 50 young people converged onto the Gregory’s home and along with the chaplain of the Ocean City Police Department, they said a prayer for Josias Sterling.
The chaplain encouraged all the young men to go out and play their rugby game the next day in honor of Sterling’s memory. The group named its team “428 West,” the the address of the senior week shore house, and then played that game one man down.
After the shock of Josias Sterling’s death, his teammates from Philadelphia’s St Joe’s Prep School and Temple University wanted to do something to honor his memory. They started an annual Josias Sterling Memorial “Apple Pie” 7’s Rugby Tournament. This tournament is played every year the Friday after Thanksgiving at Edgely Field in Fairmount Park near 33rd and Diamond streets.
This event is not just about remembrance and fun. There is a higher purpose for this event–raising funds for scholarships to provide water safety training for underserved, inner-city youth. It is hoped that such training can help avoid tragedies like the one that took the life of non-swimmer Josias Sterling.
The tournament day starts with a prayer by a local chaplain and a few words from friends and family of Sterling. Over 30 high school, collegiate and club rugby teams usually compete in the competition. And in 2012, for the first time in this tournament’s four-year history, female rugby teams came out to play.
Liz Czajkowski, a member of the University of Scranton Wwomen’s team, said she was honored to be among the first women’s teams to play. “There’s no brackets, no winners, no losers. It’s just for a good cause and its fun,” said Czajkowski. “I wouldn’t want to spend my Friday any other way.”
The money for the scholarships is raised by apparel sales, ad sales, donations, and the participating teams pay to play that day. The tournament is also sponsored by Tastykake, a well- known Philadelphia bakery.
The scholarships, named the Josias A. Sterling Aquatic Education Program, provide water safety lessons for inner-city children at the Kroc Center of the Salvation Army.
The children are given swim lessons by legendary swim coach James Ellis. “Our partnership with the Josias’ [Sterling] organization is to teach almost 100 swimmers per year swim lesson,” Ellis said. “Our biggest need right now are more qualified instructors.”
Salvation Army Maj. Dennis Gensler, said, “It’s not just children, we’re teaching adults too. He added, “ You never know when you’re going to find yourself in that type of situation.”
A rip current is a strong narrow channel of water that flows from the surf zone (beach) out to sea. Rip currents can be 50 feet to 50 yards wide and their currents can range from three to five mph. Those freak currents can pull even the strongest swimmer out to sea. Statistically over 100 people a year lose their lives to rip currents in the United States. Last year in New Jersey waters there were over 1,315 incidents of such rescues by lifeguards.
The “Apple Pie” Tournament’s fund raising purpose does not eclipse its mission of honoring a great man and a great friend, who excelled academically, athletically and in community service.
“It’s great to see [this tournament] keep growing and see more teams. It’s a really positive outlook that just kind of reflects what kind of person Josias was” James O’Brien said about his former teammates. “I miss him. We still tape our wrist and write JS on our armbands. Nobody forgets. We all miss him.”
Sterling’s family has a separate day where they honor his memory. “We honor him every year on his birthday,” Sterling’s sister Johanne said. “He had friends from everywhere he went.”
Sterling’s mother, Marie, added that he “had a special way of making you want to laugh and do things. I miss him every day.”
Sterling enjoyed his life, his Haitian heritage and his friends.
And Sterling used to love to give out hugs. “I wasn’t the only mother who got that hug, but I may have been the last,” said Angela Gregory