If you’re trying to find somebody to say a bad word about Buena Regional senior quarterback Luke Santiago, you’ll have to travel well outside the limits of Buena Vista Township.

And, certainly, all you’ll get is high praise from head coach Jonathan Caputo, and deservedly so. Not only has Santiago been the starting signal caller in Buena’s wing-T offense the past three seasons, he’s also been one of the school’s best students. Oh, and he also plays pretty much every down on defense as a safety.

“He’s awesome. We’re going to miss him. Not many times in high school can you give a kid a couple plays to run and let him decide based on what the defense is giving him. I can do that with him, which is nice. He can sort out what he sees and call the right play, and that’s nice to have. It’s not every play, but with teams that like to be multiple, instead of just calling one play I give him an option to check and that helps us get into the right play,” Caputo said. “Last year he started to really get comfortable with it and get a feel for the option game. You have to be a good decision-maker, so when you have a kid like him you’re usually in the right place. Every year we’ve had a different fullback, so he’s had to get used to that and that makes it a little more complicated, but he knows just what we want to do. High school football is a game where you want to get the ball in the hands of your best decision maker, and if you make the right decisions you’ll have a good chance to be successful.”

It’s been almost a birthright that Santiago would end up as the Buena quarterback once he got into high school. He’s following in the footsteps of his father, who had and impressive career at quarterback and safety during his days as a Chief and led his team to a state championship game appearance. He also wore No. 7.

His father, Mike, and mom Joy — both 2004 Buena Regional graduates — have been big supporters of Luke, not only on the football field, but in the classroom as well.

“I have big shoes to fill, but he taught me everything I know and I give all credit to him. Through the Taxi Braves he was my coach. He’s been my role model, my mentor and my best friend, and it’s great having him there. It’s something very special, I cherish it and love it,” Luke said. “I’ve been running this offense for as long as I can remember. My sophomore year I faced some adversity trying to battle for the starting spot, but I feel like that helped me in the end. I think confidence is a huge thing when you’re playing football, so I think now having three years under my belt, I’m not thinking as much, I’m just playing football.”

Buena annually is one of the best teams in South Jersey Group 1 and this year has been no different. The Chiefs improved to 8-2 with a dominating victory over Burlington City in the opening round of the state playoffs and are looking to make a return trip to the sectional championship game. To make it that far they’ll need a big effort from Santiago, but he’s used to it. There are less than 30 players on Buena’s roster, so Santiago has had to play both offense and defense throughout his career. And at 5-foot-11 and just 170 pounds, his body takes a beating. That’s why he spends so much time in the offseason getting ready for the grind of October and November.

“I’ve been grinding all spring and summer to get my body ready (to play both ways). I love running the football, I love throwing the football and I love playing defense. I’m blessed to be in a situation where I can play everything. I have a lot of bumps and bruises, but the Saturday lifts help with the soreness and I rest on Sundays to get ready for the next week,” he said. “It’s the same thing every week, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Honestly, your body never really stops because Saturday we’re lifting, Monday we’re lifting and Tuesday and Wednesday are the grind days — by Thursday, my body is probably as healthy as it’s going to get.”

Through all of that he still has to find time and energy to do all his class work, but Santiago is motivated to do well academically because he knows his football career likely will come to an end at the high school level.

“I just try to manage my time as best I can. Whenever I have time off I try to catch up on school work and watch film, not only get myself prepared for the game on Friday night but for my classes all week,” said Santiago, who was awarded a Brooks Irvine scholarship this year. “I give it all to my parents, they’ve always taught me that school comes first. Football is great but it’s not going to be there forever, and school is going to take me to where I want to be in life. School has always been my top priority.

“I try to use every minute for something good. Of course, I give myself time to rest and be a normal kid, but a lot of times I’ll be up until 11 p.m. studying for a test the next day. I just try to use my time as wisely as I can.”

“Even playing in youth football, kids always seemed to gravitate toward him,” Caputo said. “He plays hard every play and gets back out there. He plays safety but I think sometimes he’d rather play linebacker, then we put him on offense and he has to make a bunch of decisions there. That takes a special kind of kid. He wants to win, and with him leading us, we have a shot to win Central Jersey Group 1.”
Santiago, who carries a 4.3 grade-point average and scored better than 1200 on his SATs, said he knows it won’t be easy taking off that Buena Chiefs jersey for the final time, whenever that time comes in the next few weeks.

“I’m sure I’m going to be emotional. These last four years, I wouldn’t trade them for the world,” he said. “I love Buena, I love our mentality and what we’re about. I’ll always cherish this school. This jersey is something bigger than myself. My dad played safety and quarterback at Buena — I can’t put into words how much this town, the atmosphere and Chiefs football mean to me. Everybody is a family here. You go to school with the same kids your whole life, it’s just a great place to be.”
Caputo, however, knows there are much bigger and better things awaiting this young man once he earns his diploma.

“He’s just aces,” the coach said. “He wants to focus on his education and get a good job. He’s got it figured out.”