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.”
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.
“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.”