The healing process of losing a loved one happens with time, love and strength.
There’s no ‘end date’ to when the grieving process should cease. Nor, should there be.
The Immaculate Heart Academy (IHA) softball team has dealt with the loss of its beloved head coach, Anthony LaRezza, as well as possible in 2016. That can be attested by the fact that the Eagles will be playing for a second straight NJSIAA Non-Public A championship, as well as what will assuredly be the state’s number one ranking, on June 11, at Kean University, when it takes on Donovan Catholic at 3 p.m.
IHA has accomplished a 30-1 record and 29-game winning streak by focusing on the game, thanks to superb coaching, led by Diana Fasano, and a hard-working staff, as well as parental support so well-timed in providing encouragement, as well as stepping back and watching their daughters just play.
A bond of brotherly love. (Left to rght) Billy, Joe, Allen and Anthony LaRezza, on Anthony’s 50th birthday party in January of 2016, just a few weeks before Anthony’s passing. (Courtesy of LaRezza family. Click on photo for larger image).
There has also been a bond between Anthony’s three older brothers, Joe, Allen and Billy, that has afforded a kindred rapport, filled with encouragement and almost an awe factor, on the siblings’ part, as to what their little brother meant to so many, and how the players have responded to seeing those guys at the games.
And with that in mind, the LaRezza brothers’ presence has provided another healing process.
The LaRezza brothers (left to right) Joe, Allen and Billy, along with Ed Bates and his beloved ‘Flippy’ at a birthday party for Bates this past March. The entire IHA team attended, and it was the first time Anthony’s brothers had the chance to talk with the Eagles’ players about their brother.
At most IHA home games, you’ll see Joe along the fence, on the third-base/left-field line, watching the game, usually wearing that maroon tee-shirt, which honors Anthony. Allen is usually there, too, with his brother. They don’t say much, they just watch, cheer, and on most occasions, stay afterward to congratulate the team on a nice win.
And it’s not just home games. It’s anywhere the Eagles play. Joe and Allen were at Ivy Hill Park earlier this week, when IHA won the North Non-Public A title.
Anthony’s brothers have thrown the first ball out on a few occasions this year. They’ve shook more hands than most running for political office. Many who talk to them, most of whom Joe and Allen had never met before, will just tell them how much Anthony was an influence, whether it be helping a daughter get a scholarship to college, or just a few kind words Anthony had for a player. And on many occasions, that player probably played on the opposing team.
“We never knew the extent of what he did, honestly,” said Allen. “He was our little brother, the guy we sent to the store. Anthony was a Newark fireman, and we knew he coached softball at IHA, but he never talked much about his coaching.”
Bob Jones, whose daughter Reagan plays third base for IHA, found it hard to believe, when Anthony’s brothers first told that story.
“Joe and Allen told us that, but now looking back, I guess it’s true, because we never got to know Anthony’s brothers until this season,” Bob said.
And yes, it’s true. Only Anthony’s brother Joe had been to a handful of IHA games prior to this season.
“Never was,” said Allen. “It was a side of Anthony that I never knew. We knew that he loved working at IHA, and enjoyed teaching the kids softball, but not to this extent.”
Bear in mind that Joe, Allen and Billy could have come to one or two games, and then moved on with their lives. That’s completely understood. They have families and careers of their own, and no one will ever question the love from the older brothers to the younger sibling.
But they’ve come back, game in and game out, especially Joe. They smile, laugh and watch softball. And you can see the eyes of the players light up, when one of the LaRezza brothers stops by to say hello.
It’s a healing process. Many of Anthony’s friends have gone along the same route to honor a friend. Sergio Rodriguez, the Newark Academy coach, addressed the IHA players in early April, telling them it was time for them to play the way Anthony would want, because Anthony wouldn’t want the kids to feel sad.
Phil Delgado, Montclair’s coach, admits to keeping Anthony close to his heart, all season long. “The best way to pay respect to Anthony is by coaching and playing the game the way it’s supposed to be played, the way he’d want it done.”
And Fasano, the unsung hero, put it best early in the regular season, which was filled with so much emotion. “Anthony would have hated all of this,” she said. “That was never his style. You honor him by just playing.”
So, that’s what those close to Anthony have done.
Delgado led Montclair to an unexpected appearance in the Essex County Tournament championship game. Rodriguez guided Newark Academy to a Super Essex Conference championship, 19 wins, and a berth in the North Non-Public B title game.
And for Joe, Allen and Billy LaRezza, providing a presence at the games has been their response to remembering a loved one.
“We hear a new story every day about our brother,” said Joe. “It’s amazing. It was a world we never knew existed, because that’s the kind of guy Anthony was. It was never about him.”