Ashley LaGuardia and Joe Leicht recall Anthony LaRezza’s class and passion

Reflection has been deep and somewhat painful for those who cared sincerely about the late Anthony LaRezza. We’ve heard from many former players and coaches, as well as life-long friends and appreciative acquaintances, on the lasting impression the Immaculate Heart Academy softball coach left.

The latest to speak on his sudden passing and lasting legacy are perhaps LaRezza’s biggest coaching rival, Joe Leicht, the head softball coach at Indian Hills and Ashley LaGuardia, a phenomenal pitcher at DePaul High School, who is now a sophomore pitcher at Princeton University.

Let’s start with LaGuardia. An incredibly intelligent young woman, a Valedictorian of her high school class who is now excelling academically and athletically at Princeton, LaGuardia had always shared a good friendship with LaRezza, even though she was usually competing against his teams.

Ashley was informed of her friend’s death on Feb. 4, by her father, John, and needless to say, the news hit hard.

She was able to put some words together tonight, remembering some great times.

(As an aside, having gotten to know Ashley’s family over the last past year, any time I’d tell Anthony that I was having dinner at the LaGuardia house, Anthony would always ask about Ashley, and for that matter, her entire family.)

Ashley recalled a wonderful man in LaRezza, who was sincerely committed to her future success.

“Although I never had the opportunity to play for him, LaRezza felt like he was one of my coaches,” said Ashley. “Whether it was playing IHA, or growing up through the years playing against Pride, I could always count on a good competitive game, followed by jocularity from him.

062515-td-laguardiatrioAshley LaGuardia (far right) with her sisters Alyssa (left) and Amanda, counted LaRezza as a good friend and mentor.

“He had a way with players and the sport of softball, that will make him a legend in the softball community. It was like I was one of his own players, and to this day I have the utmost respect for him.

“May he Rest in Peace.”

John LaGuardia, who never missed a high school game his daughter played, concurred.

“It was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do with my kids, telling Ash about Anthony,” John said. “But I didn’t want her to hear it from someone else.

“Anthony was an incredible guy. IHA and DePaul had some great games, but in the end, Anthony was all about the kids, in general. He wanted to win as much as anyone, but he cared about all of them. He was a huge influence in my daughter’s life, and for that matter, a good friend to my family.”

Joe Leicht has put together a Hall of Fame high school coaching career. At Wayne Valley, he passed the 500 win mark earlier this season, as that school’s boys basketball coach. In the spring, Leicht coaches the Indian Hills softball team. In 2014, he guided that program to a state-best 34-0 record. He is closing in on 500 wins as a softball coach, too, and could hit that plateau in the next few years, making him a rare 1,000 victory coach.

Hills4HillsIndian Hills softball coach Joe Leicht was joined by his 2014 undefeated squad, after a Wayne Valley basketball game in early 2015. Leicht and LaRezza shared a great rivalry and good friendship.

If you know Bergen County softball, then you understand the rivalry between Indian Hills and IHA is potent, to say the least.

In the 2014 Bergen County championship game, IHA and Indian Hills met, in a battle of unbeatens. IHA led, 4-3, before Hills won it on a dramatic two-run, walk-off homer, in the bottom of the seventh inning.

LaRezza would often say afterward that Leicht made it a point of reaching out to LaRezza to congratulate him on a great game, before joining his team in a crazy celebration.

“If he was celebrating with his kids after that kind of game, that would be have been fine with me,” LaRezza said back then. “But Joe took a minute to come over, in the euphoria of a great moment for them, to say something to me. That’s not only a great coach, but a classy guy, too.”

Leicht was coaching a basketball game today, but took a few minutes before the tip off, to remember LaRezza.

“It’s just so hard to believe,” Leicht said. “Anthony wanted to win as much as anyone, but the way he went about his business was something you had to see. I always said for a Non-Public coach, he had a conscious. He was all about the kids, whether it was his team, or any team he’d play. There are so many kids on my team that thought the world of him.

“When I won my 400th career game at Indian Hills (in 2014), he and his team sent over a card congratulating me. Who does that? He was really special. I’ll miss him.”

Anthony LaRezza will be waked at Biondi Funeral Home, in Nutley, on Feb. 8, from 2-8 p.m. The Funeral Mass will be on Feb. 9, at 10:30 a.m., with internment to follow at Glendale Cemetery, in Bloomfield.

 

 

 

 

By mike051893

Sergio Rodriguez tearfully remembers his surrogate brother, Anthony LaRezza, and ‘The Times of Their Lives’

(Good morning yesterday. You wake up, and time has slipped away. And suddenly, it’s hard to find, the memories, you’ve left behind. Remember, do you remember?)

When you go to the number of New Jersey high school softball games that most us in the media cover on a yearly basis, some of the results can be forgotten, over time, past looking back at a specific article.

But on May 19, 2015, I remember, well, going to a what appeared to be a routine game at Newark Academy of Livingston, as the Minutemen played host to Immaculate Heart Academy, on a warm, sunny afternoon.

On paper, it didn’t look like much of a game. IHA was on its way to an eventual state championship, just a few weeks later, while Newark Academy was young and gaining varsity experience.

ihaThe late Anthony LaRezza, in this 2014 photo with the state’s all-time winningest pitcher, Stef Thomas (center) and assistant coach Diana Fasano, following another IHA victory. Perhaps the softball field at IHA will one day be named in LaRezza’s memory.

I remember going to this game, because I wanted to see the two head coaches compete. Sergio Rodriguez would always convince you his Newark Academy team can play with any squad in the state while Anthony LaRezza would downplay his team’s chances. I remember spending a few innings on the Newark Academy side, and a few by the IHA dugout, and trying to keep a straight face was next to impossible.

(The laughter and the tears. The shadows of misty yesteryears. The good times and the bad you’ve seen, And all the others in between, Remember, do you remember, The times of your life?)

Rodriguez and LaRezza were as close as brothers. And in the early stages of this game, as Newark Academy stayed within a run through four innings, Serg was doing his usual magic act, pushing every button, while LaRezza was having a meltdown, basically saying his team stunk and they were destined to lose this game.

Well, IHA would go on to win, 10-0, breaking the game open in the late innings. And afterward, there was Serg and Anthony, making fun of each other, and saying they’d catch up at the Franklin Steakhouse, in Nutley, sooner, than later.

Fast forward to today, and a heartbroken Rodriguez could barely talk, when discussing his best pal, who died a day earlier, at the age of 50.

sergSerg, coaching his Minutemen.

“He impacted so many lives,” said Rodriguez of LaRezza. “I mean, I can’t believe he’s gone. And, yes, I hurt, but I really feel for those kids who never had the chance to play for him, and for the current team, that was looking forward to a chance at repeating a state championship with him leading the way.

(Reach back for the joy and the sorrow, Put them away in your mind. The mem’ries are time that you borrow, To spend when you get to tomorrow)

“But you know what? It’s about those players who did play for him, that won’t be able to invite him to their wedding, or to meet the children of the kids who played for him one day. That’s all a part of what Anthony meant to so many. And those kids will be cheated, by not having him in their lives.”

Rodriguez and LaRezza’s friendship went back a quarter century.

hoopsWhere did the time go? Serg and Anthony playing hoops, some 20 years ago. (Courtesy of Sergio Rodriguez)

“We met 25 years ago, at a softball game,” said Serg. “Anthony was coaching Project Pride, and one of the players on the team was my then-girlfriend. We started talking at a game and really never stopped. He was eight years older than me, but we hit it off right away.

(Here comes the setting sun. The seasons are passing one by one. So gather moments while you may
Collect the dreams you dream today, Remember, will you remember, The times of your life?)

“Anthony was a great baseball player as a kid at Bloomfield Tech. We later played in a pretty good fast-pitch softball league and Anthony was one of the best players I ever saw. I always said he was the only white guy on a team with Dominicans and natives of Puerto Rico. I remember once Anthony hit a homer at during a game, and it was a shot. He could really play.”

Rodriguez played his high school ball at Newark East Side High. Later, he began coaching the Pride, with LaRezza, from 1996-2006, before taking on a new summer team. The two had talked about reuniting and coaching together again in the summer.

Both Rodriguez and LaRezza are dads. Serg’s eldest daughter is already in college, playing softball at Rowan University, while he has two younger sons, in elementary school. Anthony had a young daughter, whom he adored.

Serg admits he’s pretty numb.

“People tell me that the pain will subside,” he said. “But I don’t see how. Everything I do, especially coaching, will remind me of Anthony. I can’t imagine going to a (summer) tournament, and not seeing him there. Thirty five years from now, if I’m lucky to be around that long, I’ll be thinking of him.

“He’s my best friend.”

(Gather moments while you may, Collect the dreams you dream today, Remember, will you remember
The times of your life?)

By mike051893

LaRezza’s influence felt by many, including Phil Delgado, Mike DiPiano, Ed Bates and opposing team’s parents and players

Phil Delgado’s coaching style is wearing his emotions on his sleeve. His passion for the game and love of teaching his players the proper way to play consumes him.

That same passion is also directed to his family and friends. And when someone he loves has departed this life, that emotion is evident for all to see.

So, when news of Anthony LaRezza’s passing became known, Delgado, the second-year head softball coach at Montclair High School, was quick to credit a man who did so much for his professional career.

“Keep your head up,” said Delgado, to me. “We lost a great one today. Anthony was my guru, in many avenues of life.”

Mike DiPiano, the head girls soccer and wrestling coach at Nutley High, as well as that school’s assistant softball coach, also recalled a good experience with LaRezza.

“My first game as a softball coach was against Ridgewood, at the IHA tournament,” said DiPiano. “Anthony knew me and my family, growing up. He treated me like a seasoned vet, from that first softball game. He sat behind our bench when we went to the (2010) state final, and cheered so hard for us to win. He wanted us to win so bad. He was such a genuine guy.”

I received a wonderful note from ‘Tim‘, who recalled LaRezza’s class and love of the game

“My girls, Lyndsay and Jessica, never had the honor to play for Anthony,” he said. “They were always in the other dugout. However, their five years of travel ball and high school ball in New Jersey would not have been as memorable without meeting and becoming friends with Anthony. Win or lose, we would always look forward to our talks and our shared laughter with Anthony! He was a great guy, who cared about his girls and the world of softball.

“He will be missed by all.”

Kaitlin wrote, “A very sad day for the softball community.”

Ed Bates wrote, “Hard to believe you no longer with us, and all why why this have to happen you the best coach there was.”

edbEd Bates’ pals are sad tonight. LaRezza was always good to Ed, often driving him to games.

Gianna wrote, “RIP to the best coach I’ve ever had. You inspired and pushed me to the player I am today. we love you& miss u Ant.”

The Verona High School softball team tweeted, “Thoughts are with the LaRezza family, IHA, & all the players along the way.”

Just another, in a long line of those who are saddened this night, by the loss of a legend.

By mike051893

Tributes pouring in for Coach LaRezza, from grief-stricken players, friends and coaches

I had just picked up the phone to call my friend, Jason Daily, the head softball coach at Livingston High School. I didn’t want to bother him, during work hours, and wasn’t sure he’d be able to pick up his phone, but on the second ring, he was there.

“Hi Mike,” he said. “Anything wrong?”

Jason must have known something was up. I didn’t want him to read, somewhere, that his friend, Anthony LaRezza, had passed away today.

When I told him, the silence was devastating. “Oh man,” he said. “I can’t believe it.”

Daily and LaRezza had shared some great coaching moments together, as Jason’s Livingston team, and Anthony’s Immaculate Heart Academy squad, had some intense encounters over the years. I often kidded Anthony that the “game that never was”, in 2012, between the state’s top two teams, Livingston and IHA, would have been something special. (I was always a Livingston ‘fan’. LOL)

“I’m not sure we could have beaten Livingston that year,” LaRezza often told me. “But it would have been fun to play it.”

lar

The game was scheduled to be played at Ivy Hill Park, but was rained out and never made up.

Daily had the highest regard for LaRezza, who returned that admiration many times.

As news spread today, the friends, players and coaches turned to social media to express sadness, but also to say thank you.

The softball community lost a great coach and friend today,” said Nutley softball coach Luann Zullo. “This news is unimaginable. I will miss him. May he rest in peace.”

Zullo’s assistant coach, Mike DiPiano, echoed those words.

lareLaRezza’s final game as a high school softball coach was a state championship last June.

“He left us way too soon,” said DiPiano.

The Mount St. Dominic softball program tweeted its condolences. IHA and the Mount had some marvelous games over the years, but the friendships enjoyed by the players was always paramount.

Raritan softball coach Aado Kommendant wrote a beautiful tribute, on Twitter.

West Essex’s star pitcher, Sami Huetter, was also devastated.

“It’s unbelievable, I’m shocked,” Huetter said. “I will be forever be grateful I was able to know such an amazing man. I will always play for him.”

Jim Stoeckel, III, who contacted me with the news, spoke like a true coach.

“I feel so bad for those IHA (softball) players,” said Stoeckel. “Those kids really responded to Anthony, and he was great with them.”

College softball teams quickly extended their condolences. Former IHA players quickly posted pictures they had of Anthony. In everyone, LaRezza had that special smile, indicative of a man who loved working with kids.

“This is just incredible news,” said MaryAnne Dondarski Loperato, whose daughter, Ally, played for LaRezza at Montclair Kimberley, in 2004, when it won a state title. Lopreato’s daughter, Nikki, played for LaRezza’s ‘Pride’ squad and another daughter, Gianna, was a player on a college exposition team that LaRezza coached.

“As Luann Zullo said, this is a tremendous loss for the softball community. Anthony was funny, passionate and competitive. My daughters were lucky enough to have been coached by him. So so sad.”

Newark Academy coach Sergio Rodriguez said his life will never be the same again.

The NJ Pride Softball team tweeted, “God needed a coach, and He got the best.”

Other high schools teams in New Jersey, including Wayne Valley, Wayne Hills and Mahwah, sent their thoughts. During the season, the competition is fierce, but on this day, it’s about friendships and relationships.

The reactions will continue for days to come. Anthony LaRezza was a friend to many, a mentor to thousands and a role model for a new generation of athletes.

His influence will not soon be forgotten.

 

 

 

 

By mike051893

Anthony LaRezza: Friend, Sports Fanatic, Championship Coach, Rutts Hut Fan, Firefighter and Spiritual Man

There are moments where words will never tell the true story.

Such is the case today, as the news of the passing of Anthony LaRezza shuttered through. The news came with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

Anthony’s faith had guided him, as he worked through some health issues. He never wavered, instead he did what he loved most, which was coaching high school softball.

Immaculate Heart Academy was Anthony’s stomping grounds, as he guided that program to greatness, including the 2015 NJSIAA, Non-Public A championship, with a team of all underclassmen.

larePhoto by Sean Reilly…Anthony celebrating another state championship last spring. What a moment.

There was that moment, when the winning run scored in the state final, at Kean University, where Anthony jumped up and down in pure joy, as IHA won, 1-0, in extra innings. Anthony had coached state champions before, but this team was special. And has he celebrated with the kids, on the field, drenched in Gatorade, he was quick to remind those kids that 2016 would be just as good.

larLaRezza was a legend.

I’ve written about him for years, on this blog. We had more fun at his tournaments than one deserved to have. We talked about sports trivia, movie trivia, horse racing, and anything else that popped up. But when it came to his players, man, that was special.

indexI will stop at Rutts and have a few for my pal…

Anthony and I had just spoken recently. He called to let me know that he would be going through some treatments, but that he and I would be meeting up soon, at Rutts Hut, for some rippers. Anthony loved that place.

I had taken him to Rutts, a few days after the state championship last spring, to celebrate.

iha 2Anthony loved coaching IHA. Ed Bates (second row, far left) was his friend, too.

Pictures will tell a much better story of Anthony. This was a fun-loving guy, but also a devoted parent. He was the constant whirlwind.

ihaLaRezza’s 2015 IHA team would win what some called an improbable state championship.

But he always had time to say hello. He always made sure to congratulate an opposing team, win, or lose, on Twitter, after a game.

The last tweet, on Jan. 26, was perfect LaRezza.

On April 30th we play in the Coaches vs Cancer event. will donate 1 dollar for every Retweet to pediatric cancer research. Goal 1000

It was about a softball game, of course, and the ultimate goal to raise money for cancer research. There was always a goal, always a motivation.

iha 2It was a special day in 2014, when Stef Thomas won her state-record 113th game for IHA.

I’ll miss this man more than I can ever describe. I’m not quite sure how I can go to a softball game this spring, and watch. However, the last thing Anthony would ever want is for anyone to feel bad.

iha

Anthony LaRezza was so many things. But most of all, he was a man. He stood for decency, integrity and, having a lot of fun.

downloadTypical Anthony, taking in a softball game, even if his team wasn’t playing, at IHA.

I still want to call your cell and hear you say ‘hello’. Or just get a text from you.

20111012-233439LaRezza often liked to tell the story of the chicken and the pig.

Something…

I always believe God has a better plan. And sometimes, we are faced with surprises when He calls someone home. Anthony always believed that, and I feel somewhat happy in that Anthony will flash that smile again. And one day, we’ll all see each other.

He always loved my horse racing analogies, especially calling Stef Thomas, Affirmed.

And Anthony always got a kick out of my ‘get your popcorn ready’ quote, for a big softball game.

stock-photo-4276574-bag-of-popcorn

Thank you, pal. I’ll never forget you.

 

By mike051893

Coach Pat Cosgrove recalls Greg and Chris Olsen’s first championship, as Greg prepares to play in Super Bowl 50; Goldy’s influence recalled

Long before the bright lights of the NFL, the glamour of All-Pro status and the chance to play in a Super Bowl were ever a part of Greg Olsen’s life, there was that moment that exemplified being a champion.

And for Olsen, it came in the first round of the NJSIAA playoffs, in 2002. Olsen was a senior tight end for the Patriots, as well as a stalwart defender. He was destined to play college football on the D-1 level, but at that moment, winning a playoff game was paramount for him, and his dad, Chris, the team’s head coach, against upstart Passaic Valley High, of Little Falls.

Entering that game, Hills was the top seed in the section while Passaic Valley had gained the final seed, at number eight.

Pat Cosgrove, an assistant coach on Olsen’s staffs at St. Cecelia, Bergenfield, Paterson Eastside and Wayne Hills, as well as being an assistant today at Hills for current head coach Wayne Demikoff, recalls that first round game against Passaic Valley.

“Honestly, I thought they had us,” Cosgrove said of PV, coached then by Bill Johnson. “It’s the first round of the playoffs. We’re favored to win, it’s 1 against 8, but they came to our place ready to play. I really thought we were one and done that year.”

Hills had established a winning tradition in 2002, but were also becoming known as the Buffalo Bills of its generation, having played for a state championship numerous times, but coming up short. And now, it looked like PV would pull the upset in the first round, eliminating the Patriots once again.

The game had gone into overtime, with the teams tied at 21. Passaic Valley scored first, on a field goal, for a 24-21 lead. The Patriots had the ball next, and the way Cosgrove tells it, kicking a field goal was a possibility.

“We had gotten as close as their 3 or 4 yard line,” said Cosgrove. “Brendan Monaghan was our quarterback. Chris called timeout, and when he went into the huddle, he said to try and get the ball to Greg in the end zone, but if it’s not there, then don’t force it. We would kick the field goal and keep the game going.”

When the coach left the huddle, the word among the players was that Greg Olsen told Monaghan to get him the ball and he’d do the rest.

“There had to be two, or three, kids draped on Greg in the end zone, and he still made the catch,” said Cosgrove. “Incredible.”

olsen3Greg Olsen and his dad, Chris, celebrate Wayne Hills’ first state title, in 2002.

Hills would win the game, 27-24, and the momentum of the victory would carry over for the Patriots, who went on to win its next two playoff games, including a 19-0 victory over rival Ramapo in the championship game for the program’s first-ever title, after a win over a good Sparta team in the semifinals.

“To show you what kind of impact Greg had, he hardly touched the ball in the championship game, because Ramapo was double teaming him, so we took advantage of that and ran the ball, instead. Even on defense, Greg didn’t have that much of an impact, because they were so intent on running the ball away from him. Greg was that much of a difference maker.”

Johnson, Passaic Valley’s head coach from 1999-2003 and again from 2012-2014, remembers the game well, too.

“Greg catches a touchdown pass and I (eventually) get fired (as head coach),” said Johnson, with a laugh now. “It was a tremendous game. And Greg was a phenomenal high school football player. His football career speaks for itself. If we had to lose, at least it was to someone as talented as Greg.”

Cosgrove credited Johnson and his team with a good game plan.

Pat_CosgrovePat Cosgrove

“Bill had that team ready,” said Cosgrove. “I remember we were winning in regulation and they forced a fumble, which eventually resulted in a touchdown for them, that tied the game. PV was really good that day.”

One catch truly defined the Hills program.

“If we had lost that PV game, seriously, I think that would have been it for Chris, at Hills,” said Cosgrove. “We had come so close, but never won it. Greg would be graduating and I really think Chris might have packed it in, as a coach there.”

Instead, Hills would go on to win seven more state championships, from 2004-2008, and then again in 2010 and 2011. There would also be the famous 55-game winning streak, from ’04-09.

Greg Olsen, of course, would play college football at the University of Miami and then, in 2007, was a first-round draft pick of the NFL’s Chicago Bears. After four years in the Windy City, which included an appearance in the 2010 NFC championship game, Olsen would be traded to the Carolina Panthers, where his career has flourished. In 2014 and 2015, he was named All-Pro, at tight end, and now, he’s preparing to play in Super Bowl 50.

On a somber note, Jan. 28, 2016 is the two-year anniversary of the passing of Jon Goldstein, a long-time coach for Hills football, basketball and golf.

“Goldy would be going crazy with all this (Super Bowl) stuff,” said Chris Olsen. “He would have been coming to the game, with us. He was part of the family. We sure miss him.”

jgThe late Jon Goldstein

By mike051893

Two years later, Goldy’s legacy as bright as ever; This year’s Super Bowl would have been big, says Demikoff

It was late in the evening, on Jan. 28, 2014, when my cell phone rang. My editor, Nick Gantaifis, was calling, and since it was a Tuesday night, I figured he might be checking about a deadline question on an article I had written for the Wayne Today.

“Hey, Nick,” I said, like I always do when he calls.

“Did you hear about Goldy?” Nick said, forgetting to even say hello.

“No,” I asked, figuring my pal Jon Goldstein, was up to something crazy at Wayne Hills.

And then the next two words resonated in a way that left my entire body numb.

“He died.”

Huh?

Goldy had just finished coaching a JV basketball game for the Wayne Hills Patriots high school team when he began to feel ill. The game was at Fair Lawn High School and within seconds, the Fair Lawn trainers were at Goldy’s side, administering aid. Minutes later, an ambulance had arrived.

At just 41 years of age, almost everyone who remembers that day figured Goldy would be just fine, that maybe this was just a health scare.

But hours later, he was gone.

Within five minutes of Nick’s call two years ago today, my phone rang again.

It was Chris Olsen, Wayne Hills’ long-time head football coach and Goldy’s best friend. Chris had retired to North Carolina, a few months earlier, but in this world of instant communication, it didn’t take long for the word to get around.

A few days later, hundreds of friends and family would gather at Temple Beth Tikvah to say good bye. Olsen and his entire family would be on hand, and Chris gave the perfect account of how Goldy had arrived on the scene at Wayne Hills some 21 years earlier.

“I invited him to come to a game,” Olsen said to the large crowd on Jan. 31, 2014. “So it’s game day and I’m getting ready. I turn around, and Jon is standing next to me. He says ‘I’m here’. I said, good, now get back a little, please. (As the crowd began to laugh out loud).

“For the next 19 years, he never left my side. He was there through the good times and during a lot of times when things weren’t so good for me. When my wife (Sue) became ill, he never left my side. I’ve seen this guy help kids at school who may have needed lunch money. My father once said that you’ll have a lot of acquaintances, but not a lot of friends. Well, Goldy was my friend. He was my best friend.”

1655923_10202126083207390_1933780252_nGoldy (center) and members of the Hills football coaching staff.

Fast forward to today, and in speaking with Wayne Hills’ current football coach, Wayne Demikoff, who was a long-time assistant at Hills and was a close pal of Goldy, he made the perfect analogy.

“How much would Goldy have loved seeing Greg (Olsen) playing in the Super Bowl?” said Demikoff, as the Carolina Panthers prepare for Super Bowl 50 on Feb. 7, with Greg, the middle son of Chris and Sue, being an integral part of the Panthers’ success this season.

Great question, I thought. And leave it to Demikoff to think of that right away.

And while we’re at it, how much would Goldy love to see the success of this year’s Wayne Hills boys’ basketball team? The Patriots are 11-1, and the top seed in the upcoming Passaic County Tournament, under head coach Kevin Grimes, who was also very close to Goldy.

Somewhere, in a place where Goldy is holding center court, talking baseball statistics, fantasy football and hearts he broke from female admirers, Jon Goldstein will be getting ready to watch Super Bowl 50. He’d known Greg Olsen since the now 30-year-old NFL All-Pro was a little kid, and will be smiling that mischievous grin as No. 88 lines up at tight end.

olsen1Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen, here with (left to right), dad Chris, son TJ, son Tate, daughter Talbot, wife Kara and mom, Sue, was a dear friend of the late Jon Goldstein.

By mike051893

Sixth Gift of Life Wrestling Duals return to Nutley, with the familiar theme of Mike DiPiano’s incredible story of a renewed life, through organ donation

At 44 years old, Michael DiPiano, Sr. had indeed entered the cross roads. With his health deteriorating because of diabetes, the Nutley native was on dialysis for kidney failure and had been read his Last Rites. He was a devoted husband and father of three, a well known wrestling coach and athletic director in New Jersey. But now, his life was seemingly coming to an end.

That was 21 years ago. Today, DiPiano (Big D to his friends) is beginning the 65th year of his life. What changed the course for this man?

“The greatest gift of all,” DiPiano said with a smile. “I’ll never be able to repay that gift.”

The gift was an organ transplant. In DiPiano’s case, it meant a new lease on life, after receiving a kidney and pancreas on Oct. 25, 1998. The organs were donated by a man we’ll know simply as Sean, a 21-year-old who, on Oct. 24, 1998, was killed in an automobile accident. Sean had indicated on his driver’s license that he wanted to be an organ donor in the event of his death.

DiPiano had never meant Sean, but he lives life every day with the constant reminder that Sean is indeed a part of him.

“Back in 1995, I was told I would need a double transplant because of a nearly 30-year battle with diabetes,” DiPiano recalled. “I remember a year later, I was at the Olympics in Atlanta and I was told to get to a hospital right away. My sugar was high but I thought I’d be okay. Later that summer, when I was back home, I was rushed to St. Michael’s Hospital and got so sick that (St. Benedict’s Headmaster) Father Edwin (Leahy) read my Last Rites, and they were already planning my funeral at St. Benedict’s.”

10478566-largeMike DiPiano Sr. (right) with Delbarton wrestling coach Bryan Stoll (left) and state champion Guy Russo of West Essex at the Gift of Life Duals in 2012.

At that time, Dr. Leon Smith stepped in, through a contact of Fr. Leahy’s. A renowned Internist who specializes in infectious diseases, he assessed DiPiano’s condition. “Whatever he did, he took me from a five to 10 percent chance of surviving,” DiPiano recalled. “He saved my life, because even Father Edwin said ‘if he can get to 10 percent, he’ll make it.’”

Having administered the last rites to DiPiano, Fr. Leahy knew a higher power was looking out for DiPiano.

“If it weren’t for Dr. Smith and the Grace of God, we would have lost him a long time ago,” Fr. Leahy said. “He went from a 5 percent chance of survival to the poster child for organ transplant. It’s a great overall story.”

DiPiano’s new lease on life will be recounted at the sixth annual Gift of Life Wrestling Duals, set for this Saturday, Jan. 16, at Nutley High School. With a wrestling theme of ‘Organ Donation is a Major Decision’ as the backdrop, there will be six teams competing, including the host school, Nutley, which is now coached by DiPiano’s eldest son, Mike.

The other teams participating are Demarest, Union City, St. Benedict’s, Robbinsville and Garfield.

fd1Mike DiPiano and youngest son, Frank, after Nutley won the 2012 Essex County Tournament championship for the first time in school history. Frank recently stepped down as Nutley’s head coach, after a marvelous run, and is now an administrator at his high school alma mater, St. Benedict’s, in Newark.

Wrestling begins at 9:30 a.m., and continues with matches at 11 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. After a break, DiPiano will speak to the crowd, telling his story and the importance of organ donation, at 2:30 p.m. Following that, wrestling resumes with third and fifth place matches, followed by the championship match, commencing at about 4:30 p.m.

This year marks the return of the Duals to Nutley, after a few years at Demarest, where the younger Mike DiPiano had coached, before coming to Nutley this season to succeed younger brother, Frank, as head coach, after Frank received a wonderful opportunity to work at St. Benedict’s, in an administrative capacity. (More on Frank’s new work can be read here. https://mikelamberti.wordpress.com/2015/11/18/frank-dipiano-to-begin-a-new-chapter-in-professional-life-leaves-nutley-wrestling-returns-home-to-st-benedicts/)

The success of the duals, since 2011, speaks for itself, mainly through awareness.

“We have had people who attended, over the years, become organ donors, which is a major reason for having the Duals,” said DiPiano. Also, some people have actually donated organs (thanks to the event), as well as become donors after hearing me speak at an event.”

The elder DiPiano’s association with St. Benedict’s Preparatory School in Newark is legendary. As the wrestling coach there, he amassed a record of 274-89, and was named the state’s Coach of the Year by the Star-Ledger in 1987. He is a member of the St. Benedict’s Hall of Fame, as well as the USA Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma. After coaching at St. Benedict’s, DiPiano became the school’s athletic director. Now retired as the A.D., he remains associated with the school.

In May of 2011, DiPiano received the school’s highest honor to a Lay person, the Medal of St. Benedict’s.

“Mike DiPiano helped build this place,” Fr. Leahy said. “He must have held a thousand different positions here. He was the spine of the school.”

10513806-largeMike DiPiano Sr. along with sons, Michael (left) and Frank.

DiPiano’s family, wife Karen, daughter Michelle and his sons had never given up on the rock of the family beating any kind of odds.

“My kids were incredible during the toughest times,” Karen DiPiano recalled. “We’re a close family and everyone took a part in being there for him. We all believed he’d get better.”

DiPiano was on dialysis for nearly two years, and at the top of the list for a transplant, before fate intervened in October, 1998.

“Back then, everyone used beepers to keep in touch,” DiPiano said. “I’m out with a friend and the beeper goes off, and I thought it was his. But he looked at me, and said ‘no, it’s yours’. That beeper was there only to inform me of a possible transplant match, so when I returned the call, I knew things would be happening quickly.”

When DiPiano was informed that there was a match for his kidney and pancreas, there was little time to get to know who the donor was. The surgery was scheduled for Oct. 25, 1998, a date which is clearly evident on Michael’s right arm in the form of a tattoo.

get-attachment.aspxThe tattoo on DiPiano’s arm, honoring Sean.

“The surgery lasted about eight hours,” DiPiano recalled. “I was in the hospital about seven days. The biggest concern after a transplant is that the body could reject it, but everything went well. I could tell pretty quickly how much better I was feeling. I don’t think I really knew how sick I was until after the transplant.”

DiPiano actually has three kidneys now. “They don’t remove the old kidneys, they kind of stored them in my body,” he said with a laugh. “The one working kidney is in the normal place.”

With a new pancreas, DiPiano’s diabetes is no longer the concern it once was. With his blood sugar near normal, he doesn’t need to take insulin, but is careful with his diet.

As his health improved, DiPiano returned to work at St. Benedict’s in January of 1999. “I might have gone back a little too early,” he said, “but I felt like I was ready.”

He also wanted to know more about Sean.

“Normally, the process with a donor is that it’s anonymous,” DiPiano said. “I have gotten to communicate with Sean’s mother through E-mail, and while I’ve never met her, I hope to one day.”

DiPiano’s passion is talking about the importance of organ donation. He has been to numerous high schools in New Jersey, where he usually begins by showing a film clip about Jason Ray, the 21-year-old mascot for the University of North Carolina basketball team who was struck by a car and killed in 2007 while walking to a diner on Route 4 in Ft. Lee. (Lee was there because the basketball team was in New Jersey for the NCAA Eastern Regional).

“Jason was a organ donor, and that film really has an impact on the kids,” DiPiano said. “It goes on to show the many people Jason saved by being a donor. It’s very emotional.”

On the surface, DiPiano is a hard-nosed individual, a man’s-man who takes no prisoners, so to speak. But he has no problems expressing his emotions on this subject. He recalls attending the first Transplant Games, for those athletes who are recipients of organ donation, in Minnesota eight years ago.

“When I went to the first Transplant Games, it was such an overwhelming feeling for me,” DiPiano, his eyes welling, recalled. “That’s when I had the tattoo made, to honor Sean, the date of my transplant, as well as the initials of a very close friend, Peter Kupczak.”

DiPiano’s message has resonated well in New Jersey, where the theme of Saturday’s tournament will focus on the need for people to be organ donors.

Michael Sr. has been to numerous Transplant Games since 1998, both in the United States and abroad, including Thailand and Australia. DiPiano has competed in athletic events at the games. He speaks constantly on the need to be an organ donor. He is very much involved with the work of the National Kidney Foundation, as well as the New Jersey Sharing Network, which procures tissues and organs.

“Over 125,000 people are waiting for an organ donation of some sort,” DiPiano said. “Twenty five die, waiting, each day. It is truly amazing what medical science can do when someone gets a new lease on life with a heart, lung, pancreas, kidney or liver. It’s amazing.”

Mike DiPiano is indeed an amazing man. He thanks his family, his friends and loved ones for the constant support. And he remembers a young man named Sean.“I’ll never be able to thank him enough,” DiPiano said.

“I just hope I can meet his mom one day and tell her that.”

DiPianoM_122012_BT_tif_Mike DiPiano, Sr., hosts a Christmas party every year at St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston for children who have had, or will be receiving, an organ transplant. He’s here with his reliable ‘Elves’. 

By mike051893

Mike DiPiano Sr. and Santa will, once again, provide a great party for children at St. Barnabas

He’s as imposing as they come, a hard-nosed, somewhat gruff-voiced man who can easily make you run the other way if you tick him off.

But underneath that exterior lies as compassionate a man as they come, a family guy through-and-through, a man who met his mortality at a relatively young age and not only prevailed, but devotes his daily endeavors to making sure others can appreciate the gift of life as much as he.

Welcome to Mike DiPiano’s world, and on Dec. 22, 2015, ‘Big D’ will be in familiar territory when he dons a big red suit, white beard and black boots at St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston to ensure some special youngsters will have a memorable Christmas holiday.

dipianom_122012_bt_tif_Michael DiPiano (front row, center) and his elves will be making some beautiful children smile at St. Barnabas Medical Center Christmas party on Dec. 22.

‘Big D’ and his elves will be giving out presents and hugs to children whose lives have been changed by the Gift of Life, an organ transplantation.

Many of you probably know DiPiano’s story. At age 44, his life was drawing to a premature conclusion with kidney failure. A devout Christian, he had received the last rites.

But DiPiano’s life was given a new meaning when he received a new kidney and pancreas, from a donor known as Sean, a 21-year-old who was killed in an automobile accident. The transplant took place on Oct. 25, 1998 and now, as DiPiano enters his 63rd year of life, the big man has never hesitated in helping others learn of the value of organ transplant and the need for people to be a donor by simply signifying as much on their driver’s license.

10468066-smallDiPiano honors ‘Sean’, the young man who saved his life, with a tatoo.

Mike has extended his message to countless amounts of people, as well as groups and wrestling tournaments. A legendary grappling coach at St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, the husband and father of three retired (so to speak) in 2012, moving with wife, Karen, to Florida. But Belleville is still home for the DiPianos,  who are home for to spend the holidays with daughter Michelle and sons Michael and Frank. All three DiPiano siblings are successful high school coaches today, following in dad’s footsteps. In fact, youngest son, Frank, recently took a job at St. Benedict’s and appears to be following in his dad’s massive footsteps.

At St. Barnabas, Mike will put smiles on the faces of children, many of whom are also recipients of an organ transplant at a very young age. Other children may be recovering from illnesses which could keep them in the hospital for the holidays.

For Mike, it really doesn’t matter what the condition. If that child can draw a smile from seeing he and his friends on Dec. 22, it’s all that counts.

In January, 2016, the sixth annual ‘Organ Donation is a Major Decision’ high school wrestling tournament will be held at Nutley High School. It began five years ago, and has had numerous themes, with the most important the need to understand the significance of organ donation. The event was the brainchild of Big D.

In the meantime, as the Christmas holidays near, Mike DiPiano will be back home, spreading his cheer and love for life to some great kids, as well as his extended family.

“For me, it’s about these kids with a new lease on life and the importance of organ donation,” DiPiano has said on numerous occasions. “Organ donation saved my life, and it can save so many others. It requires only a notation on your driver’s license that you wish to be an organ donor. My goal is to continue spreading that word to as many people as I can.”

It is indeed the true meaning of the holiday, and it will be wonderful to see Mike again on Dec. 22.

By mike051893

A huge thank you to the Wayne Hills football moms; Another great season, with thanks to Lynn Pellegrino, Maria Grave, Stephanie Petracco, Albina Sportelli, Terriann LoVerde, Ann Fiumarelli, Jill Gawrych, Cindy Skiba, Sandy Kenny and many others…

There are many steps to building a successful high school football program. There, of course, is a need for committed coaches and players. That goes without saying.

Building a program at the lower levels is vital, too.

In addition, a program needs a good training staff, as well as volunteers who enjoy teaching kids the game.

It’s not an easy proposition. And then there’s the extra perks that not all programs can provide.

At Wayne Hills, a championship style program has been in effect for nearly two decades. And the commitment not only comes from the administration, coaches and players. There’s also a tremendous amount of work from a number of the players’ parents, mainly the moms.

Starting in early August, and lasting until school starts in September, the football players enjoy breakfast, or lunch, before, or after practices, in the school cafeteria. During the season, there’s a beautiful dinner served before games, or if it’s a Saturday contest, breakfast is offered to the players.

IMG_9494THANK YOU SO MUCH, TO (left to right), Lynn Pellegrino, Stephanie Petracco, Albina Sportelli, Terriann LoVerde, Ann Fiumarelli, Jill Gawrych, Cindy Skiba and Sandy Kenny, for doing so much to keep the football program at Wayne Hills thriving once again.

And I’m not talking about a small portion of food. The Wayne Hills football moms go out of their way to make sure everyone has seconds. And the mothers are there to serve the food, and they ask for nothing in return.

The players have long appreciated what their parents do to make a game day extra special. And the players reciprocate, but honoring their mothers at the Mother-Son brunch in October, and the Father-Son Beefsteak on Thanksgiving Eve.

Wayne Hills football coach Wayne Demikoff couldn’t say enough good things about the work the football moms (and dads) perform.

“They’re incredible,” said Demikoff. “There are no other words. Breakfast before practice, lunches in between double sessions. Pre-game meals, that are so delicious. There’s nothing like it. On behalf of our coaches and players, a huge THANKS to everyone who helped make this such a great season, once again.”

 

By mike051893