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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

2011: What I'll remember

The calendar year of 2011 is rapidly winding down, much like the year did itself. As I get older, I find time just flies by, the days, the months, the years.

I see little children grow almost before my eyes. I marvel at how big my own 14-year-old nephew Jonathan has grown, almost as tall as I am, and wonder how did that cute little baby become almost a man overnight.

I see my friends' children go off to college, reach their 20's and try to figure out how that happened, when just yesterday, I swear I was just in my 20's myself.

I recently went through the litany of pictured Christmas cards and in each picture, I was stunned on how much my friends' kids had grown. It's all a sign of how it flies by.

So as I reflect on 2011, the year that I turned 50, a fact that I can't seem to fathom either, I'll think of all the things that transpired in the past year.

I'll think of the tremendous triumphs and achievements I witnessed as a sportswriter, including the national championship won by St. Anthony in basketball and the state championship won by North Bergen in football, coached by legends like Bob Hurley and Vinnie Ascolese, two icons who I am fortunate enough to consider as friends.

St. Anthony won the battle of the titans at Rutgers, defeating the then-No. 1 team in the nation, St. Patrick of Elizabeth, a team that was already destined to be crowned the best high school basketball team of all-time until coach Hurley unleashed the best surprise attack since Pearl Harbor, a device called the "amoeba defense" that left St. Patrick and coach Kevin Boyle in a state of shock and panic. It turned the entire HBO documentary production about a championship made in heaven into a total afterthought.

If you wanted real drama, nothing was better than North Bergen. Nothing. First, coach Ascolese announced his retirement after 50 years of coaching. This would be his swan song.

The Bruins then managed to qualify for the state tournament, after turning their starting tight end into their starting quarterback. They won two state playoff games in overtime, with the coach's grandson scoring the game-winning touchdown in one and a little-used kicker making an improbable field goal in the other.

The Bruins then headed to MetLife Stadium for the North 1, Group IV state title game to face a Montclair team that was the top-ranked public school in the state, a team that had won 10 straight games by 34 points or more, yet somehow came away with a 14-13 victory on the game's final play. Does it get any better than that?

In sports, there were the horrendous child molestation cases in Penn State and then Syracuse and then involving sportswriter Bill Conlin. It used to be that sports pages were covered with sports stories, but over the last 25 years or so, there's more about court cases and arrests and now graphic sexual assault that makes me -- yes, even me -- want to turn the page.

There was another thrilling NCAA Tournament and in my eyes, there's nothing better to watch and be a part of. There was another baseball season, filled with trips to CitiField, to watch my beloved Mets become a laughingstock.

There were glorious days spent in the sun, watching high school sporting events, even October days spent in unexpected blizzards, yes, watching high school sports, where I was so thankful to realize that I was indeed getting paid to cover those games and events.

There were countless people to see along the way, friendly faces who somehow never forget, but sometimes I do. The smiles, the handshakes, the hugs, go a long way, knowing all those relationships I've acquired over the years through my career as a sportswriter, all the wonderful people I've met and got to know.

But in 2011, I had to say goodbye to so many people I loved and cared for, more than any other year in my life. Someone told me that it's because I'm getting older and that I know too many people. And yes, people do die.

In many cases, I wasn't ready to say goodbye to my friends and comrades. I didn't want to make another appearance at a funeral home or a funeral Mass. It wasn't time.

I paid farewell to both of my mother's best friends, the beloved twins, Alice Stark and Ann Doyle, both of whom died only months apart this year. It was sort of fitting that the twin sisters would only be away from each other for a short time. Now, I bet they're tooling around the afterlife with my mother. Those two took their lives into their hands every time they got in a car with Helaine, the worst driver known to man. I hope they have personal taxi services in Heaven.

I said goodbye to Mickey McLaughlin, who always treated me like I was her own while I dated her daughter, Meg. I was never just a guy who happened to go out with her daughter. I was a member of the family and I am forever grateful.

I said so long to countless Hudson County sports figures who I was close to, people I considered friends. I never greeted Roddy Maffia, the long-time Dickinson athletic director, with anything other than a kiss on the cheek. I used to capture every word that came out of Danny Waddleton's mouth with awe, because every single tale was something to behold and a complete belly-laugh. He was one of the best storytellers ever.

I developed a strong bond with both of the state's top two winningest baseball coaches in Harry Shatel and Tony Ferrainolo, both of whom died this year. Shatel, the Morristown legend, held the record when he died in May. Ferrainolo, the Memorial of West New York icon, broke the record a week after Shatel passed, then he lost his battle with lymphoma in October, taking the record with him as he went.

I lost my close personal friend Ed "The Faa" Ford in April, ending a 35-year relationship that I still have trouble finding words to describe. We were combative, argumentative, bombastic and at some occasions over those years, vowed never to speak to each other again. But I know one thing for sure. I loved him and he loved me. We told that to each other on the day before his life ended. And still it's almost surreal for me to believe he's gone.

But the hardest loss of all I suffered this year was the loss of my beautiful and wonderful friend Patti Crocco Gardner, who was introduced to me 15 years ago as my friend Glenn's new girlfriend, then became his wife and mother to his two boys.

Over the last decade or so, Patti and I became as good of friends as I am with her husband. Thanks to the computer, we chatted almost every single day. We spoke on the telephone about all different kinds of topics, ranging from reality TV to music to the Mets.

Patti wasn't just my friend's wife. She was my friend. She battled leukemia with an electric smile to the very end, to the last time I talked to her on the phone on Mother's Day. A day later, she slipped into a coma. Three days later, she was gone at age 45.

There was a game this year at CitiField where someone was heckling Patti's beloved Met, Jose Reyes. I went after the guy, saying that "I have a friend who loves Reyes and if she was here right now, she'd tell you how she felt." And I had to catch myself, totally forgetting that Patti was gone from all of us.

Maybe in a way it's fitting that Reyes is no longer a Met, then I don't have to worry about defending Patti's honor at CitiField. Hell, I'm not re-upping my season tickets anyway. Another loss in 2011, thanks to the hideous Met management.

So unfortunately, that's what I'll remember most about 2011, the people I lost in the year. They might be gone, but will never be forgotten, especially people like Patti and the Faa, who live with me still every single day.

Here's to hoping that there will be less suffering in the year to come, not just by me, but for everyone. In that respect, then it will truly be a Happy New Year.

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You can read more of my work at www.hudsonreporter.com, www.theobserver.com and www.dailyrecord.com. The Hudson Reporter has the Top 10 Sports Stories of the Year for 2011. Maybe there was a hint as to the top two already in this blog.

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