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Start of NFL season packs Atlantic City sportsbooks

ATLANTIC CITY — Online and mobile sportsbook operators in New Jersey may take nearly 80% of all wagers throughout the year, but on the first Sunday of professional football, casino sportsbooks were handling plenty of action.

From the Boardwalk to the Marina District, Atlantic City’s eight brick-and-mortar sportsbooks were filled with avid gamblers and casual fans, all eager to watch a full slate of games during the opening weekend of the 100th season of the National Football League.

At the official grand opening of The Book inside the Wild Wild West Casino at Bally’s Atlantic City — the resort’s largest sportsbook at nearly 15,000 square feet — former Philadelphia Eagles players Chris Long, Hollis Thomas and Fred Barnett greeted fans, signed autographs and took pictures.

Among the fans there to bet on the home opener against the Washington Redskins and meet his Eagles heroes was Thomas Killian, 39, of Chester Pennsylvania, who spent the weekend in Atlantic City in preparation of the NFL’s first Sunday.

PHOTOS of Eagles vs. Redskins game

“This place is perfect for watching the games, hanging with friends and, hopefully, winning some cash,” Killian said, while showing his bet ticket at The Book that showed his $100 wager on the Eagles to win by more than 10 points. “We’ve never been to Atlantic City for football before, but I think we’ll be back.”

Killian was among those who saw easy money disappear in the final seconds of Sunday’s game as the Redskins, down by 12, scored with six seconds left to pull the game within five points (Philadelphia won 32-27), meaning his Eagles bet did not win.

Mike Zani, 54, of Middletown, New York, and Stephen Brennan, 58, sat in reserved seats at The Book on Sunday. The duo had wagers on several games, including Brennan’s bet on the New York Jets to win by more than two points and Zani’s pick for the Kansas City Chiefs to win by more than three.

“If (the Chiefs) lose, I have a bad day,” Zani quipped. “They’re like the sun today — everything revolves around them.”

Kansas City won by 14 over the Jacksonville Jaguars, but the Jets lost by one to the Buffalo Bills.

Further down the Boardwalk, at the William Hill Sportsbook in Ocean Casino Resort, Justin Teegs, 25, of Highland Park, Middlesex County, picked against the Jets although he is a fan of Gang Green.

“I always bet against my teams,” Teegs said. “That way if they lose the game, I still walk away happy.”

While bettors and fans enjoyed the first NFL Sunday of this year, the casinos and sportsbooks were equally pleased. One sportsbook manager, who could not speak on the record because they were not authorized, said Sunday “was the busiest the windows have been” since sports betting started in New Jersey last June.

“We’ve had more walk-ups, more first-time players (today) than I’ve ever seen,” the manager said. “A lot of $10 and $20 bets, but people are really into it. You can see what it’s doing for the restaurants and bars and casino,” gesturing to a crowded gaming floor and standing-room only bar.

Since legalized sports betting began in New Jersey in June 2018, an average of 80% of all wagers have been placed through an online or mobile operator, with daily fantasy sports giants FanDuel and DraftKings leading the way.

For fans such as Killian and Teegs, the games were secondary to the experience of spending a football Sunday at an actual sportsbook.

“I could easily see this being my go-to spot for football,” Killian said, before heading over to the self-serve beer dispenser at The Book.

Teegs, who lowered his head in an all-too-familiar agony while watching the Bills take the lead late in the Jets game, held up his bet slip from across the sportsbook, shrugged and mouthed, “I win.”

PHOTOS: Atlantic City sportsbooks on Week 1 of NFL season

Hammonton teen making name for himself as motorcycle racer

Given his last name, you might expect Gus Rodio to be a basketball player.

His family is related to legendary St. Augustine Prep coach Paul Rodio, who is the only coach in South Jersey with more than 900 career victories.

Instead, the 14-year-old Hammonton resident is making a name for himself as one of the East Coast’s top young motorcycle racers.

“He tried other sports, but nothing really took,” father Kevin Rodio said. “Racing motorcycles is all he’s ever wanted to do.”

He got to do it again last weekend.

Gus Rodio was aboard his Kawasaki Ninja 400 at New Jersey Motorsports Park in Millville on Saturday and Sunday.

He competed in the Liqui Moly Junior Cup division of MotoAmerica’s Championship of New Jersey. He finished in ninth place in Saturday’s race.

MotoAmerica is considered the top racing circuit in the country. Millville was the ninth stop of a 10-race series that culminates with the Championship of Alabama on Sept. 20-22.

“I’m pretty excited to be racing here because it’s my home track,” Gus Rodio said last week. “This is where it all started for me.”

Gus started riding a dirt bike at age 7. A few years later, a friend of his invited him out to the Millville track, which had rental bikes available.

By age 10, he was competing in New Jersey Mini GP races. This year marks his first season in the MotoAmerica Liqui Moly Junior Cup, which is for racers aged 14 to 25.

Depending on the class, racers can reach speeds of up to 180 miles per hour. Gus routinely tops 100, with his top speed being 131 mph at Daytona International Speedway in March.

“I’ve just always enjoyed going really fast,” he said. “I’ve always liked being the fastest one out there.”

Because of his travel schedule, Gus, the youngest of three children, is being home schooled for the first time this year by parents Kevin and Stacey Rodio.

The couple owns Spellcaster Productions, which provides audio-visual services for concerts and shows such as the recent Warped Tour concert in Atlantic City.

They also own the Kathedral Event Center in Hammonton, which was an old church they converted into a concert venue.

Previous shows have featured the Platters and the Drifters. The Midtown Men: Stars of the Original Broadway Cast of Jersey Boys are appearing on Friday, Sept. 13.

“Gus was going to be a freshman at Hammonton High School this year,” Kevin said. “But because of his racing schedule, it makes more sense for him to be home schooled. He’s racing almost every week all over the country. We load up the RV and go.”

Because son Max (20) and daughter Natalie (18) are older, Stacey is now able to travel more with Gus and Kevin.

As his mother, Stacey admitted to occasionally experiencing a twinge of fear when Gus first started racing, but now is confident in the fact that Gus has both the knowledge and the experience to deal with going faster than 100 mph.

“He’s doing what he’s meant to do, and as a mom, I had to embrace that,” Stacey said. “It’s part of his DNA. It’s his passion, and Kevin and I have always done our best to help cultivate that with all our children.”

Grandparents Mark and Rose Rodio are also along for the ride.

The Hammonton residents attend every race, whether it means driving six hours to Virginia or flying to Florida.

“We’ve been going to all his races since he first started,” Rose said. “We just love being there. It’s very exciting, to say the least. Watching those races is something you really can’t describe until you experience it in person.

“It’s more than just the racing. The competition is one thing, but the racers are also like a family. They bond with one another, root for one another. We’re just so very proud of Gus.”

GALLERY: Hammonton motorcycle racer Gus Rodio

New Jersey's 'Dream' mall: 40 million people and a traffic nightmare

After 16 years of false starts, the behemoth American Dream retail and amusement complex is set to open just west of Manhattan. To get there, an expected 40 million visitors must join the traffic-choked roads of northern New Jersey.

The project’s owner, Triple Five Group, expects crowds to rival those at its Mall of America, where express buses, free shuttles and Minnesota’s most-traveled light-rail route carry people to the busiest U.S. shopping destination. Unlike Minnesota, New Jersey has no plans to link the site by rail from its major airport. In fact, it has no plans for any new train service, only additional bus routes with extended hours and stops.

American Dream was built at New Jersey’s Meadowlands, where some of the nation’s most congested highways crisscross swamps, former landfills and commuter towns. In and around neighboring MetLife Stadium, home to the busiest NFL playing schedule and a favorite concert stop for the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Beyonce, stand-still traffic and transit muck-ups are routine.

“At peak hours, I can see traffic being backed all the way up to the Lincoln Tunnel,” Secaucus Mayor Mike Gonnelli, whose town hall is six miles from Times Square, predicted for American Dream. “I don’t know how extra buses are going to be enough for 40 million people.”

The complex’s 3 million square feet are 45% retail and 55% entertainment, including what Triple Five calls the Western Hemisphere’s biggest indoor theme park, North America’s only indoor snow skiing and a DreamWorks water park. Among the tenants are Saks Fifth Avenue, Hermes, Century 21, a kosher food market and a 20-restaurant dining terrace.

While the opening coincides with a dire retail outlook — fewer than half of U.S. malls are expected to survive ongoing store closings, according to Bloomberg Intelligence — American Dream says it can beat the odds because of its attractions' mix and accessibility to New York City, on pace to draw 67 million tourists this year.

Proposed in 2003 as a mega-mall called Xanadu, the project’s ownership changes and financial hard times left it unfinished.

Its indoor ski slope became a forlorn landmark for New Jersey Turnpike motorists; its garish multicolored exterior in 2011 was called “the ugliest damn building in New Jersey, and possibly America” by then-governor Chris Christie.

Edmonton, Canada-based Triple Five Group took ownership in 2011, ultimately securing $1.7 billion in construction loans from JPMorgan Chase, $1.1 billion in tax-exempt municipal bonds, $500 million from the developer and tenant payments. The state Economic Development Authority in 2015 approved $390 million in tax breaks.

As the Oct. 25 opening approaches, traffic skepticism has taken root even among some who had cheered the state incentives.

“The problem is going to be it’s so congested that you can’t get there,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney, a South Jersey Democrat.

Plans call for three helipads at the mall. For those taking more common transportation, American Dream says not to worry.

“We are working closely with New Jersey Transit and NY Waterway to provide guests with convenient, easy ways to reach American Dream from New York and the surrounding area,” Dana McHugh, an American Dream spokeswoman, said in an email. A ride-share hub and 30,000 parking spaces will be on site, she said.

NJ Transit, the nation’s largest statewide mass-transportation provider, is adding daily express service every 30 minutes from the Midtown Manhattan Port Authority Bus Terminal, where homeless people, panhandlers and harried commuters jostle amid stench-permeated hallways. A replacement for the depot, operating beyond capacity for more than 50 years, won’t open until at least 2030.

Janna Chernetz, New Jersey policy director for the non-profit Tri-State Transportation Campaign, said buses may not be the best fit for visitors weighed down by purchases and post-water park clothes.

“What is the draw for people to use mass transit for American Dream?” Chernetz said. “I’m still trying to get public transportation to work for the people who live in that area.”

Other American Dream buses will run locally, and between East Rutherford and the Secaucus train station, one stop from Manhattan. Special-events crowds there, though, have a tendency to overwhelm platforms. In an email, Jim Smith, an NJ Transit spokesman, said the agency will “ensure that demand is properly met with commensurate service.”

NJ Transit has no plan to build any sort of link from Newark Liberty International Airport, about 10 miles from American Dream. Trains won’t serve American Dream until the system “is resilient enough that doing so won’t adversely affect New Jersey commuters,” Nancy Snyder, an agency spokeswoman, said by email.

NJ Transit also is studying an elevated train, like the $4.9 billion system under construction at the Los Angeles airport, “to provide seamless public transit” between Secaucus and the Meadowlands, Stephen Schapiro, a state transportation department spokesman, said in an email. “Specific cost and route are to be determined.”

New Jersey’s railroad doesn’t have an estimated $1 billion to build a crucial loop so trains between Secaucus and the complex could run in both directions simultaneously. This year, WrestleMania fans threatened to riot when rail ran hours behind, and Rolling Stones concertgoers were warned about two-hour train waits.

Even the “first mass-transit Super Bowl,” in 2014, flopped when buses and trains were ill-prepared to handle football’s most-hyped game. With the mall set to open in the thick of the season, the Giants have worked with American Dream and the state “to best address traffic and parking in the sports complex,” according to team spokesman Pat Hanlon.

“Our first concern is our fans and their ability to enter and leave the sports complex on game days,” Hanlon said in an email.

Another football league, the XFL, says its New York Guardians will play eight games at MetLife’s 82,500-seat stadium when matches start in 2020.

Northeastern New Jersey is one of the most densely populated regions in the nation. The state has the nation’s worst urban traffic and road conditions, according to an August report by the Reason Foundation, a research group that advocates free markets.

In the Meadowlands region, upgrades to the turnpike, Routes 3 and 120 and local roads have done little to alleviate congestion, said Jeff Tittel, New Jersey chapter director of the Sierra Club, the Oakland, California-based environmental group.

“This is an area with some of the worst air quality anywhere in the country, especially because of trucks, buses and automobiles,” Tittel said. Even without Meadowlands events underway, some streets see in excess of 100,000 automobiles a day, state data show.

Tittel, using Californians’ term of doom for tie-ups during freeway construction shutdowns, said the roads can’t handle more.

“It’s going to be Carmageddon,” he said.