Jim Silvestri’s influence on so many Belleville High School wresters, as well as students, covered nearly four decades.
One of the grapplers who learned early of Silvestri’s extraordinary coaching skills and dedication was Nick Di Domenico. A 1967 graduate of Belleville High, Di Domenico wrestled the last two years of his high school career for Silvestri.
Di Domenico and many other former BHS wrestlers and coaches will be on hand on Jan. 26, when Belleville hosts Millburn, in the seventh Jim Silvestri Memorial Wrestling Match. Proceeds from the match will benefit a scholarship set up in Silvestri’s memory, for a BHS wrestler who excels on the mat, and in the classroom. The match will begin at 7 p.m., with ceremonies honoring the coach probably starting around 20 minutes earlier.
“Jimmy did so much to help me,” said Di Domenico, today a successful businessman after a career in education and coaching. “When I was in high school, the thought of even going to college was never in my plans. Like so many people in Belleville back then, we grew up with hard-working parents, most of whom didn’t go to college. You were raised to do good in school, then go out, learn a trade and get a good job. But Jimmy had other ideas.”
While attending college was barely a reality, wrestling at the next level was a pipe dream, Di Domenico admitted.
“When I was in high school, Jim came up to me and asked if I wanted to go to college,” Di Domenico recalled. “And I pretty much laughed and said, ‘Sure, Coach’. I never thought I’d go to college. My grades weren’t the best at Belleville and the thought of college wasn’t high on my list.”
Silvestri had other ideas. He had received a recruiting letter from the University of Massachusetts, and worked hard to get Di Domenico an interview with the school.
“I never thought I’d get it, but everything worked out well,” he recalled. “But I remember early in my freshman year at UMass, before the wrestling season even began, I was planning to quit college and come home. It wasn’t for me. Jim got wind of this and called me at school. He suggested I wait on that decision until wrestling season started (in early October), then see how I felt.
“Four years later, I graduated with a degree. Today, I have two Masters degrees. None of that would have happened without Jimmy.”
Silvestri had taken the job as head wrestling coach at Belleville in the 1965-66 school year. He was the coach without really any background in the sport.
“Jimmy was the first to say he had to learn on the job,” said Di Domenico. “He had no ego. He was always looking to learn more and would seek the help of other coaches. Eventually, when I got to college, he always asked me for ideas and encouraged me to work with his wrestlers.”
Di Domenico would eventually coach at Lodi High School, helping the Rams become a solid wrestling program.
Like many youngsters, the true influence a coach has on one’s life doesn’t resonate until later on.
“We all say it, you never realize until later in life what someone like Jimmy really did,” said Di Domenico. “I was glad to say we had stayed in touch long after he stepped down as the wrestling coach and became the athletic director at Belleville. And I know, for sure, that not only did Jim help wrestlers get better, but he was also influential as a mathematics teacher, too.”
Silvestri always knew the limitations of his coaching abilities.
“When Jimmy was named the A.D., he probably could have continued on as the head wrestling coach,” said Di Domenico. “He had turned Belleville into a tremendous wrestling school, for the 11 years he coached. But he once said to me that the fact Belleville didn’t have a state champion during that run convinced him that the program needed a stronger coach. And as A.D., he brought in a tremendous guy in Gene D’Alessandro.”
D’Alessandro had a marvelous coaching run at Essex Catholic, before taking over at Belleville for the 1976-77 season. Three years later, the Bucs had its first NJSIAA champion in Chris Musmanno.
“That’s what made Jimmy the man he was,” said Di Domenico. “He only wanted what was best for the program, and the school.”
And with that, Di Domenico had a simple request for this article.
“I appreciate you writing about me,” he said. “But make sure it’s about Jimmy. This is a guy who came to watch me wrestle, in college, on last minute notice. He and his wife, Alice, drove four hours to watch me that day. This tournament is in Jimmy’s honor and memory. I’ll never forget him.”