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Sunday, October 4, 2020

Local football coaching legend Stephans dies

When I was about 12 or so, I remember going to Jersey City State College football games at the old Jersey City Roosevelt Stadium with my friends to watch the great Gothic Knight teams of the early 1970s, teams that featured All-American players like current Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo at quarterback and Bruce Naszimento at running back. Later in life, Bruce became a dear close friend who I cherish. Anyway, the head coach of those great JCSC teams was a man by the name of Jack Stephans, a Hoboken native who was schooled at the University of South Carolina and Boston University, a man who had an incredible coaching career with stops at places like Fordham University, William Paterson as well as JCSC. It was with the Gothic Knights that Stephans had his best success. He led the Gothic Knights to two New Jersey Athletic Conference championships in an undefeated season in 1966 and then that fantastic year in 1972 with DiVincenzo and Naszimento. In his eight seasons at JCSC, Stephans posted an incredible 48-15 record. His last season at JCSC was his best, posting a 9-1 record, before heading off to William Paterson for three years (1975 through 1977), posting a 10-16-1 record with the Pioneers. Incredibly during the days that he was at Jersey City State, he was also the head coach at St. Joseph’s Regional in Montvale. Yes, Jack did double duty, coaching the high school kids right after school, then racing to Jersey City to coach the college guys at night. There’s a famous tale that said that Jack had to drive in a rental car from Montvale after a Green Knights’ game on Friday night to Buffalo in a snowstorm no less in order to coach the Gothic Knights the next morning at the famed War Memorial Stadium against Canisius. Jack didn’t particularly like to fly, so he drove up to Buffalo with two student/managers in an attempt to get there before kickoff. Now that’s dedication. In 1979, Stephans made the bold step to take over the famed head coaching position at Fordham, the same place that produced Vince Lombardi and the famed “Seven Blocks of Granite.” One of those famed linemen of college football folklore was Ed Franco, a Jersey City legend who I had the pleasure of working with at P.S. 27 School in the Heights during my days coaching Biddy basketball for the Jersey City Department of Recreation. There I was every day with a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, talking about his days at Fordham. It was a joy to be around Ed Franco every day. Stephans stayed at Fordham for two forgettable seasons and then bounced around New Jersey as an assistant football coach. In the late 1990s, Stephans then took on one of the biggest challenges of his coaching career, deciding to become the defensive coordinator at Weehawken High School under head coach Mike Guasconi. It was a program that was floundering severely, but Stephans wanted to be involved. In 2000, the unthinkable happened. The grandfather figure helped to lead Weehawken to a school-record eight wins, including a thrilling last-second win over New Milford in the opening round of the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group I state playoffs. It remains to this day as Weehawken’s lone victory in the state playoffs. At that time, I remember approaching Jack to introduce myself and tell him how much I admired him and those great days watching the Gothic Knights. But Jack already knew who I was and he told me that he admired me. It was the beginning of a good friendship.
Jack was soon inducted into the Hudson County Sports Hall of Fame as deservedly so, for his days as both an athletes and a coach. We lost Jack last week. He was 82 years old. His son, Jason, reported to me that his Dad passed on “peacefully and on his own terms.” The Stephans family, wife Judy and children, were by his side as he left us. Jack Stephans is just another legend that we’ve lost in 2020. It’s just too sad for words. I’ll remember that gruff exterior that had a real soft heart deep inside. I’ll remember the gigantic mitts he had for hands and that a handshake could be crippling if one wasn’t paying attention. And I’ll remember the way he talked about football, like it was the love of his life, the way Shakespeare and Hemingway wrote about love and nature. It was a joy to be around Jack and he will be missed by the hundreds of young men he touched, mentored and molded on the gridiron. The late Jack Stephans will be waked Monday, Oct. 5 at the Becker Funeral Home in Westwood from 2-4 p.m. and 7-9 p.m. The funeral Mass will be held Tuesday, Oct. 6 at the Our Lady of the Mother in Woodcliff Lake. Both locations are in Bergen County. God bless Jack Stephans, a truly great man with great football mind and the ability to coach the sport he loved.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Prep grieves for the losses of Terry and Patt

Believe it or not, the greatest decision I ever made in my life came when I was perhaps five years old. Thanksgiving morning was a special time in my home in Jersey City, filled with the early smells of the turkey filled with my father’s special recipe for stuffing that I still follow to the last morsel of black pepper to this very day. And after the turkey was safely placed in the oven, my father would say to me, “C’mon James, we’re going for the rolls and rye bread.” That meant a ride to Pechter’s Bakery in Harrison, where we would stand in line together and procure dinner rolls, rye bread for leftover sandwiches and perhaps a cheesecake for dessert. And on the way home, we would stop at the old Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City to watch the St. Peter’s Prep-Dickinson traditional rivalry football game. My father, who worked for the Jersey City Department of Public Works, had a friend who would allow us to come in through a back door and stand on the sidelines. While I was standing there, clutching my father’s hand like my young life depended upon it, I uttered the words that remained with me forever. “Daddy, I’m going to go to St. Peter’s Prep,” I said. That was more than 55 years ago. I remained steadfast to that promise, after my father’s death in 1971, through our family’s incredibly tough financial crises, through my grade school days at St. Paul’s of Greenville, where I started to wear suit jackets to school to prepare for wearing one at Prep, through all my closest St. Paul’s buddies going to other schools. I wanted St. Peter’s Prep. I needed St. Peter’s Prep. Sure enough, I graduated from Prep in 1979. I made close friends at Grand and Warren, many of whom I still remain very close to today (although I’m also fortunately close to many of my St. Paul’s comrades as well). I am a man for others, as Prep professes. I have so much pride in my association with that school. It’s a huge part of who I am, in what I believe in, in what I’ve been taught to be. My association with St. Peter’s Prep is endless and steadfast and unwavering (well, most of the time) and rock solid. So today, I am one of those men for others who has an immense sense of sadness and loss for two incredible women with whom I became very friendly with through my association with the Prep. We lost Terry LaBruno two weeks ago at the way too young age of 63. Terry LaBruno was an amazing energetic and beautiful woman with a smile that could light up the sky. She was filled with this infectious energy that was just so admirable and endearing. She had an amazing life, the wife of Joe, the mother of three incredibly beautiful daughters, one of whom is expecting their first grandchild. She was a former Hoboken Councilwoman, but more importantly, she was a teacher and a coach. Terry taught math at the Academy of the Sacred Heart in Hoboken and St. Mary’s in downtown Jersey City, two schools that are now defunct. Terry was also a basketball coach and carried that intense energy to the court. I had the pleasure to coach against Terry on three occasions and each ended with a hug instead of a handshake. I also had the pleasure to write about Terry’s players on several occasions with each interview ending with so much thanks that you would have thought I gave Terry two million dollars.
The late Terry LaBruno A decade ago, Terry brought her energy to Grand and Warren, continued to teach there and instantly became a favorite of the students. She was also a fixture at sporting events, especially football games, where she was clearly the loudest cheerer at Caven Point. You could hear Terry’s hoots and hollers all the way to Nutley. I know, because I’ve spent a lot of those games doing the public address announcing at the games. Terry was louder than me on the mike. Terry and Joe were also very generous of their time and efforts in regards to Father Anthony Azzarto, S.J., who remains today 45 years after we first met as the single best gift I’ve ever attained from my association with St. Peter’s Prep, far more important than my diploma. Terry and Joe would go pick up Father A at his new home at the Murry-Weigel Residence at Fordham University to bring him to events at the Prep or even places like Rutgers, when the Marauders played there. Terry and Joe became attached at the hip to Father A and I always knew that Father A was in impeccable care. About a month ago, Terry suffered an aneurysm and fell into a coma. Before she passed, some of her organs were harvested and donated, showing for one last time how incredibly generous she was. There’s no way to describe Terry’s passing other than an incredible tragedy. God didn’t need to call her home now, with the grandchild coming, with a new football season dawning. It’s beyond heart wrenching. I ache for her great family. The other loss the Prep family is enduring this week is the loss of Patt Kachel. Patt died after a courageous battle with cancer in her recent home in Raleigh, North Carolina, but she was a Jersey City girl at heart.
The late Patt Kachel (center) with son Brian (left) and daughter-in-law Shelby (right), on Brian and Shelby's wedding day I became close friends with Patt and her late husband Butch in the late 1980s, when their son Jeff was a budding baseball star, playing for the Jersey City Recreation Stars of Tomorrow team run by the great Harvey Zucker and the incomparable Ed “Faa” Ford. Jeff was a sweet swinging, slick fielding left-handed hitting first baseman who also pitched a little. He was full of life and an absolute joy to watch perform. Jeff then made the decision to attend St. Peter’s Prep and play baseball for Joe Urbanovich, a move that I wholeheartedly applauded. Soon after Jeff arrived at Prep, he was diagnosed with leukemia. It was a long, tedious, often painful battle for the courageous teenager. There were days at Sloan Kettering where Jeff had to endure painful needles of medication that plunged his body temperature and caused him to shiver. I cried for hours after visits with Jeff. But Jeff trudged on, wanting so much to return to the baseball fields that he loved. Sure enough, Jeff did. He made it back to the field, much to the joy of Patt, Butchie and their younger son Brian. But Jeff was not the same player he once was after being zapped of his strength by cancer. I tried to tell him that it was so remarkable that he even made it back to play, but Jeff was frustrated. He wanted to hit the way he once did. I spent a good hour trying to encourage Jeff and tell him how important it was to other cancer survivors to read about his struggles in my column, that others had to see how great it was that he was playing baseball again. Jeff was in and out of the hospital for the rest of his young life and died tragically at the age of 19, a year after graduating from the Prep. I ached for Butchie and Patt and Brian. Jeff was such a wonderful kid with so much to offer. I loved talking to him and I certainly loved writing about him. I wrote a special Thanksgiving column about Jeff in 1988 and it hung over his bed in the hospital. He told Faa while touching the column, “This is my guy right here. He’s a Prep guy.” I would stop into Butchie’s bar on Summit Avenue, the old Pete and Helen’s, which ironically was just torn down within the last few months, from time to time to say hello and have a beer. We would try to smile to talk about Jeff. We had some laughs. And I remained close to Patt, seeing her at special events, especially after Urbanovich retired Jeff’s No. 11 and at the times where Prep would honor a student with the Jeffrey Kachel Memorial Award. Every single year, Pat wished me a Happy Birthday on Facebook, even after she moved to North Carolina to be close to Brian and his wife Shelby after Butchie’s passing 10 years ago. Faa would always say that Patt Kachel looked like Carol Burnett and that drew laughs. But Patt was far more beautiful that the funny comedienne. Patt also had an electric smile that caught everyone’s attention. She was statuesque, standing close to 5-foot-10. She was such a tough Jersey City broad for enduring the death of her beloved son and her cherished husband. And now, she’s gone, leaving Brian and Shelby all alone. Patt Kachel had a good life, but it ended way too soon, much like her son and husband, much like Terry LaBruno, much like so many other people that I’ve grown to know through my incredible endless association with the edifice that stands so proud at Grand and Warren. I am a man for others. And like those others, I grieve tremendously for two of our own. God bless Terry and Patt.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Prep's Hansen to step down as grid coach at season's end; will remain as AD

Before the 2020 high school football season officially begins Monday with full-fledged practices, veteran St. Peter’s Prep head coach Rich Hansen addressed his team Friday and officially told them all this would be his 33rd and final season as the head coach of the Marauders.

The 60-year-old Hansen, whose team won the NJSIAA Non-Public Group 4 state championship last December and were expected to be the favorites to repeat as state champions in a non-pandemic world this season, said that there were a number of factors involved with him retiring as head coach.

“I get asked by a lot of people every year,” said Hansen, whose 278 career coaching victories ranks first among Hudson County coaches for wins at one school and ranks second all-time behind North Bergen’s Vince Ascolese on Hudson County’s all-time coaching win list. “I just wanted to be fair to my team and fair to the current crop of eighth graders to announce it now.”

While Hansen will step down as the head football coach, he will continue on as the school’s athletic director.

“The AD’s job has become more demanding,” said Hansen, who is also the president of the North Jersey Super Football Conference, the largest league in the state that encompasses almost 150 football teams, as well as serving on a handful of different committees with the NJSIAA. “I’ve been putting in 14-hour days between coaching and administration and that’s just not healthy. I don’t want that to show in my performance in either position. Rather than doing it this way, I’ll make the announcement now when everyone is aware of what’s going on. It will give us time to plan and move on.”

Hansen said that the “condensed” season, as he called it, was the perfect time to step away and give someone else the opportunity to take over the program in 2021 with a full season.

Hansen said that there were some emotional losses that he had to endure over the last year, including the death of his mother, Gail, and the recent passing of close childhood friend, college teammate and former Hoboken High School head coach Lou Taglieri, that played a role in his decision to step down after the current season.

“I’ve lost a lot of people in the past year,” Hansen said. “The losses brought a sense of mortality into the situation. I’d rather leave one year too early as opposed to too late. I’ve spent 38 years overall at Prep and 33 years as head coach. I have to admit I’m a little bit tired and spent. I’ll be honest that it was taking a toll on me. Now I can concentrate on having just one job and not have to worry about doing all the things I’ve been doing.”
Hansen said that he has taken a lot of pride in taking the Prep football program to historic heights, winning five NJSIAA state championships in easily the toughest section to win a state title in.

Hansen took over the program from his mentor Gerry Bellotti in 1986 and won state crowns in 1989, 1995, 2005, 2016 and last season. He has sent more than 100 players on to college football via scholarship and saw three of his players, Will Hill, Jonathan Hilliman and Minkah Fitzpatrick, move on to eventually play in to the National Football League.

“It’s hard to fathom where we are now compared to where we were when we started,” said Hansen, who was a standout player at St. Joseph of the Palisades and then played at both Jersey City State and St. Peter’s College during his playing days. “We’re now nationally ranked and have national prominence. It’s a tribute to the school and the players we’ve had. I’m just happy to be a part of it.”

Veteran St. Peter's Prep head football coach Rich Hansen announced Friday that the 2020 season will be his 33rd and final season as the head coach of the Marauders.

The Marauders were 11-1 last season and defeated Don Bosco Prep, 21-14, last December at MetLife Stadium, to win the fifth state title in school’s history.

Hansen said that he likes the makeup of this year’s Marauder squad, which features returning starting All-State quarterback Tahjamell Bullock, who has already declared his intentions to attend Virginia Tech next fall.

Making the decision official now takes away all the mystery and intrigue about Hansen’s future.

“If this wasn’t a pandemic year, I still would have stepped down,” Hansen said. “I’ve been tossing it (the decision) around for a while now. I’m doing it now because I didn’t want to have all the questions to answer every week. It takes all the guess work away. I think the decision would have been the same. I just think the timing would have been a little different.”

The Marauders begin the 2020 season on Friday night, Oct. 2, playing at West Orange. The Marauders play their first home game on Saturday, Oct. 10, against Don Bosco Prep at Caven Point Cochrane Stadium at 1 p.m.

The Marauders’ final game of the season will be played on Thanksgiving morning at Seton Hall Prep with kickoff for the final game of Hansen’s coaching career slated for a 10:30 a.m. kickoff. It will mark the first time St. Peter’s will play on Thanksgiving Day since their Marauders’ traditional rivalry contest against Dickinson was ended in 1983.

“I said to the kids today that they will have the chance to be crowned state champs and that would be it,” Hansen said. “So they will have a lot to play for this year. Every day we play this year is a blessing and this will be a blessing. I think it’s going to be special to go out with this group of seniors.”

And as for making the decision official today?

“I feel like I’ve just had the elephant on my back removed,” Hansen said. “I have the memories I’ve made that are strong and the relationships I’ve made even stronger.”

There has been no word of a possible replacement for Hansen, but his son, Rich Hansen, Jr., an assistant coach with his father for the last 15 years, has to be considered a candidate. It will obviously be a highly coveted position.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Former St. Peter's AD Stein recalls days with legendary Thompson

It was the early autumn of 1961 when they first met – this 6-foot-10 African-American chiseled Adonis from the Nation’s Capital and a 6-foot Caucasian from Connecticut. They were both freshmen at Providence College, prospective players on the Friars’ freshman basketball team.

Back then, freshmen were not permitted to play varsity sports, but if it was allowed, then the towering giant from Washington, D.C. certainly would have been a player of instant impact for the legendary coach Joe Mullaney. The kid from Waterbury had a better shot as a baseball player.

But Bill Stein vividly recalls the first time he laid eyes on John Thompson.

“I saw him walking around campus,” Stein said of his long-time friend, who passed away Sunday at the age of 78 after battling an assortment of medical problems. “I never really met him until we started practice.”

Little did Stein realize at the time that it would be the start of a close friendship that lasted six decades.

“I guess we became close because I passed him the ball all the time,” said Stein, now retired after a 30-year stint as the athletic director at St. Peter’s College, now St. Peter’s University. “We became very close then. They kept on the team because they saw the way John and I got along. I learned never to ask John a lot of questions. But we did a lot of things together, not just basketball.”

The two were teammates on the Providence team that won the 1963 National Invitation Tournament championship – Thompson, the star center of the Friars who averaged 18.9 points and 14.5 rebounds per contest and Stein a backup point guard.

Also on that team were Jersey City native Vinnie Ernst, who was the Most Valuable Player of the 1961 NIT also won by Providence, and Ray Flynn, the future mayor of Boston.

Thompson and Stein went their different ways after graduating from Providence in 1964 – Thompson went off to play for the Boston Celtics for two seasons as the legendary Hall of Famer Bill Russell’s backup, winning NBA titles both years, and Stein went become a coach at high schools in his native Connecticut.

“But I always stayed in touch with John,” Stein said. “We always kept in touch.”

After his playing days were done, Thompson would eventually go back to his native Washington, D.C. to become a high school coach at St. Anthony’s, while Stein became an assistant athletic director at Bryant College in Rhode Island.

In 1972, Thompson went up to Rhode Island to visit Stein at Bryant.

“We went to have lunch and he said to me, ‘Bill, I’m taking over the head coaching job at Georgetown,’” Stein said. “He said, ‘Do you want to come with me?’”

The year prior, Georgetown was 3-23. Stein was leaving a steady administrative job at Bryant to become an assistant coach with a program that won just three games.

“It was a little bit of a gamble,” Stein said. “But John said that if it didn’t work out, I could always go back to Connecticut to teach. And 3-23? I said, ‘John, we’ll do better than that.’ That’s how I got there. He just trusted me.”

Stein joined his friend at Georgetown for 10 years and was there as the Hoyas went from a mid-major Catholic school program on the East Coast to the NCAA Championship game in 1982, where the Hoyas fell to North Carolina on a last-second jumper from Michael Jordan in the New Orleans Superdome.

Of course, the ascent of the Big East Conference and the recruitment of Patrick Ewing helped the Hoyas tremendously. But Stein was involved with the recruiting of standout Georgetown players like Reggie Williams, Eric “Sleepy” Floyd and David Wingate.

Stein recalled the days of working alongside Thompson.

“He was fair,” Stein said. “He was very demanding, but he was very easy to work with if you worked your tail off. As long as you did what you were supposed to do, that was fine. John ran practice. If you had a question or suggestion, you didn’t do it on the floor during practice. You did it in the office beforehand. But we didn’t have any problems working together.”

And as for Thompson’s image of being a stern, strict disciplinarian, almost a taskmaster?

“If a kid messed up, he’d be the one to deal with it,” Stein said. “He knew how to deal with people. If someone messed up, then he would have to be at practice the next day at 5 a.m. If someone came into practice late or not ready to practice, then they just sat there and watched and he dealt with the kid after practice.”

Stein said that he had no idea that Georgetown would emerge as a frontrunner of the college basketball fabric as it would eventually become.

“We had no clue whatsoever,” Stein said. “The recruiting part was hard, because there was a lot of negative recruiting, with people telling kids that you shouldn’t want to play for a black coach. There were people going after John. We couldn’t make mistakes.”

In terms of recruiting, Thompson used to tell Stein to sit away from him.

“If we went to a high school game, we didn’t sit together,” Stein said. “We would separate when we got into the gym, so we could get different opinions on kids. We didn’t want to influence each other’s opinions.”

Of course, the recruiting game changed when Thompson secured the services of Ewing, one of the all-time greats in college basketball history, who led the Hoyas to three NCAA Finals appearances and the 1984 NCAA title.

“Patrick was the key,” Stein said of the current Georgetown coach and former Knick superstar. “He got us a chance to win every year.”

But after the 1982 season, Stein left Georgetown for Jersey City and the job as the St. Peter’s College athletic director. It was there that I had the chance to work with Stein for five years when I was the Sports Information Director.

“I felt bad that I was leaving, but I felt it was time,” Stein said. “I made up my mind that I didn’t want to travel anymore. My kids were getting bigger and wanted to stay close to home. The travel was brutal. When I got there, the cupboard was bare. When I left, the cupboard was full.”

The 1988 United States Olympic men's basketball team with Bill Stein (front row, second from left) and John Thompson (back row, second from right).

In 1998, Thompson asked Stein to be part of the coaching staff for the United States Olympic men’s basketball team that competed in the Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. Stein traveled with Team USA all over the globe that year.

Even though the two were at separate schools, Stein kept in constant contact with his old friend.

“We would spend a lot of time on the phone,” Stein said. “We spoke all the time.”

The last time the two friends spoke was three weeks ago.

“We were talking about Providence College and guys we went to school with,” Stein said. “I hadn’t heard that he was sick. John was very private. Even if he was sick, he wouldn’t tell me anything. I didn’t ask questions.”

Stein was asked how he would remember his legendary friend.

“He was a great coach, a great person and a special friend,” Stein said. “He was extremely loyal. You can see how well he took care of me.”

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Renaming Hoboken's JFK Stadium as Louis M. Taglieri, Jr. Stadium

Anyone who knew my friend Louie Taglieri knew that he adored two people outside of his family, namely Penn State football coach Joe Paterno and John F. Kennedy.

In fact, Lou’s adoration for JFK went as far as to have photos of JFK hanging in his home and his office.

It’s something that didn’t get by Hoboken Superintendent of Schools Dr. Christine Johnson, who in her tenure as the Hoboken schools chief got to know Taglieri and love him like everyone else who knew him, including yours truly.

“Lou became one of my dearest friends,” Johnson said of Taglieri, who died tragically only two weeks ago while vacationing with his family in Virginia Beach. “He welcomed me to Hoboken with open arms. When I first met him, we connected right away. It felt like we knew each other for years. He was the kind of guy who never missed a holiday or a birthday. He would call and say, ‘How are you doing? How are you holding up?’”

Johnson said that she could relate well to Taglieri, the long-time Hoboken football coach, because she was a former athlete herself, having been a 1,000-point scorer in basketball, as well as a volleyball and softball player at North Arlington High School as Christine Morrison.

When Taglieri died, Johnson wanted to do something spectacular to honor Taglieri’s memory.

“I said that we had to do something to honor him,” Johnson said. “We had to do something to make his wife (Gabriela) and his children (Trey, Taylar and Shayne) proud.”

So Johnson called Hoboken Board of Education President Sharyn Angley and Vice-President Tom Klutfel to inform them of her idea – to rename JFK Stadium in Hoboken as the Louis M. Taglieri, Jr. Stadium and Veterans Field.

“JFK was Lou’s hero,” said Johnson, who also knew of movements on social media to have the stadium renamed in honor of Taglieri. “I thought to myself that this was perfect. I thought of how Lou loved JFK and how Lou impacted the lives of so many kids. There was a connection between Lou and JFK. With no disrespect to JFK and his legacy, Lou had such an impact on the faculty, the students. He had such a love for Hoboken. Let’s honor Lou genuinely right now.”

So on Tuesday night, Johnson introduced the idea to rename the stadium after our beloved friend. The rest of the Board of Education agreed and sometime very soon, there will be an official ceremony to permanently honor Taglieri with the renaming of the stadium after Louie.
“I talked to Gabby and I told her that we’re doing it,” Johnson said. “She said that she wanted to have it when there will be no limitations on the use of the stadium, because she didn’t want to see kids moved from playing there. I’ll take her cue for the best time for it.”

Johnson spoke of Taglieri’s importance to the district, not just as a coach, but as a mentor.

“I gained so much respect for him watching what he did for kids,” Johnson said of the 59-year-old Taglieri. “He was the most loyal guy. He was Hoboken. He worked so hard finding his boys a home in college. He had the opportunity to mentor kids and change kids’ lives. That’s the kind of person you want to be more like.”

So wholeheartedly agree. Louie was someone who I always loved and admired through our 40-plus years of friendship. We will all miss him terribly, but at least we will have a great way to remember him every time Hoboken enjoys another version of “Friday Night Lights.”

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Remembering "Coach Tags": Louis M. Taglieri, 1961-2020

It was the summer of 2011 when Hoboken’s most famous resident was introduced to Hoboken’s favorite native son. Well, at least one who didn’t sing for a living, that is.

That summer, the National Football League was embroiled in an owner’s lockout, which was basically the NFL’s way of keeping the league’s players out of entering the respective team facilities until a new collective bargaining agreement was reached.

So it meant that if the New York Giants wanted to hold impromptu workouts, they had to do it on their own at a location that was not owned by the league.

Eli Manning, the celebrated Giants’ quarterback, knew that his team had a good chance of contending for another Super Bowl championship like they won three years prior.

So Manning wanted to hold unofficial workout sessions with his receivers, but needed a site to hold these passing and route running drills. Manning thought it would be logistically feasible to hold such workouts in his adopted hometown of Hoboken, where at the time Manning resided with his growing family.

Manning made one phone call – to the Hoboken High School head football coach Lou Taglieri.

“I got in touch with Coach Tag,” Manning said. “I told him that we had a number of guys who wanted to come use the field in Hoboken (namely JFK Stadium).”

That’s all it took, just the one phone call to establish a relationship that remained strong over the last nine years.

“Coach Tag was so helpful to us,” Manning said. “He didn’t tell anyone at all. We were able to come in and get our work done. I just remember how excited he was that we came and worked out at Hoboken High. I think it was so important that he told no one, that we were able to come in and get our work done. We were there for business. We weren’t joking around. We had work to do.”

Manning spent the better part of the summer months throwing to receivers Hakeem Nicks, Mario Manningham, Victor Cruz, Domenik Hixon, Jerrel Jernigan and tight ends Kevin Boss and Bear Pascoe.

“If anyone knew, there would have been a lot of media there and it would have been a distraction,” Manning said. “Coach Tag made sure that no one came in to bother us. To his credit, he didn’t tell anyone. He was adamant about keeping it quiet. He knew we wanted to get our work in and get out. We signed a few autographs or so, but mostly, we weren’t bothered. Coach Tag saw to that.”

The sessions became especially very beneficial to Cruz, the Paterson native who was looking to earn a permanent spot on the Giants’ roster. Cruz, an undrafted free agent out of the University of Massachusetts, became the Giants’ sensation that season, catching 82 passes for 1,536 yards (a new franchise record for receiving yardage) and nine touchdowns, complete with his patented salsa dances in the end zone.

In the next-to-last regular season game that year, a Manning-to-Cruz TD pass against the rival Jets went for 99 yards (also a club and NFL record) and catapulted the Giants to a postseason to remember. But that record breaking season all started in the Hoboken heat in June and July.

“Victor and I got on the same page from those workouts,” Manning said. “He started to learn about his routes and what he was supposed to do. That started his breakout season. A lot of that work all began in Hoboken.”

So when Manning was informed about Coach Taglieri’s untimely and shocking passing Tuesday afternoon while vacationing with his family in Virginia Beach, Manning was deeply saddened like the thousands of others who loved and admired the man known in the Mile Square City as “Coach Tags.”

“I was very sad to hear about the loss,” Manning said. “I couldn’t help but think about his family. He was a great man and a wonderful coach. He was so helpful to us over the years. We never had to use the field again after that one year, but he was willing to do anything for us. He loved the game of football.”

Manning said that he remained in touch with Taglieri from time to time ever since the two became friends in 2011.

“We made some donations to the Hoboken football program,” Manning said. “We did that a few times. I would keep up with how the Hoboken football team was doing, follow their seasons. We developed a bond between the two of us, a bond we had all these years. We stayed in touch, sending texts to each other. He was always willing to support us. I think he played a part in that (Super Bowl) championship that year. He played a big part.”

Taglieri was just 59 years old when he passed away last Tuesday. He spent more than half of his life being involved in Hoboken football, first as a player, then as a dutiful assistant coach under Ed Stinson during the Red Wings’ glory days in the 1990s, then as the Red Wings’ head coach from 2005 through 2016, and finally as an assistant to current head coach Keeon Walker for the last three seasons.

The news of Taglieri’s passing hit Stinson hard.

“I was in shock,” said Stinson, who is currently the defensive coordinator at Seton Hall Prep in West Orange. “Just to hear something like that, happening so suddenly, brings back the group concept of football. The thought of family kicked in, our Red Wing family, the bonding that takes place. I thought of our good times and our not so good times. No matter what, Louie was a major part of it.”

Stinson remembered that when he first took the head coaching job at Hoboken in 1977, he was taking over a program that didn’t win a single game the prior two seasons. But Stinson knew that if he was starting fresh, he needed an important ingredient – a quarterback. Stinson realized that the best quarterback in Hoboken was already attending Hudson Catholic.

“I sat down with Louie’s parents and I told them that I needed to bring Louie home to Hoboken,” Stinson said. “We needed a leader. We needed a quarterback. What Louie did to rejuvenate the program was huge. Two years later, we were undefeated and three years later, we won the state championship in Giants Stadium. That championship season doesn’t take place without Louie making the commitment to come back home to Hoboken.”

After graduating from Hoboken High School, Taglieri moved on to play football at St. Peter’s College with childhood friend Rich Hansen.

“When we were kids, we used to play football in the streets and later pick-up football in 10th Street Park (in Hoboken),” said Hansen, now the highly successful and long-time coach and athletic director at St. Peter’s Prep, currently the No. 1-ranked program in New Jersey. “We would also play at Maxwell House, but we were usually on opposite sides. Then, we both go to St. Peter’s (College) and we become teammates and close friends. Incredibly, we always talked about coaching together.”

That happened briefly, when both Taglieri and Hansen were part of Ed Agresta’s coaching staff at Hudson Catholic in 1981. Soon after, Hansen joined forces with his high school coach Gerry Bellotti at St. Peter’s Prep and Taglieri enlisted in the United States Air Force, where he had an extended stay and thought for a bit about making the military his career.

But Taglieri eventually came home to Hoboken after a 10-year stint in the Air Force and took that military style and approach to coaching under his high school mentor Stinson. Those two were part of the Hoboken coaching staff that has now become legendary, as the Red Wings had a stint in the 1990s that will never be matched again in New Jersey high school football history.

The Red Wings won five NJSIAA state sectional championships (1994 and 1995, then 1997 through 1999). In the process, they reeled off winning streaks of 29 games and 38 games. It meant that for a five-year stretch of the 1990s, the Red Wings were an astonishing 67-1, with the one loss coming in the 1996 state finals to Ramapo, led by All-Americans Chris Simms and Greg Toal.

Walker played for the Red Wings during that span before heading off to have a fine career at Syracuse. He remembered fondly the relationship he established with Taglieri as an assistant coach.

“Coach Tag and I had a great relationship back then,” Walker said. “We interacted with each other all the time. He was a great leader for us, with his military background. He was a little bit of a hard ass. He made sure to let you know what you did wrong, but a lot of us needed that. I think we all needed that, not just the guys and the athletes, but the girls as well. The girls all loved him. He would put his foot up your ass, but then turn around and give you a hug. He was that way with everybody. He’s a Hoboken guy.”

Wilber Valdez, the current head coach at Union City, also recalled the intensity displayed by “Coach Tags” when Valdez was a standout player for the Red Wings.

“He was a player’s coach from the get-go,” Valdez said. “Like a true military guy, he hit the ground running. He was so cool and down-to-earth with us. He just exuded confidence.”

Valdez said that he and his teammates were a little nervous going into the 1994 NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group III championship game against Sparta.

“He said, ‘Guys, if you play your regular game, you should win by 40,” Valdez said. “He was close.”

The final score was Hoboken 36, Sparta 6, giving the Red Wings their first state championship in 14 seasons.

Valdez remembered a special side to Taglieri’s personality.

“Our senior year, I remember Tag had a little white car,” Valdez said. “And Tag would give us the car. We would put the top down and just take off. We would ride around town with that car. He was always that kind of guy.”
Taglieri remained as Stinson’s assistant and kept reminding Stinson about one promise Taglieri made a long time ago.

“He said, ‘If you go, I go,’” Stinson said of Taglieri’s decree.

In 2005, Stinson decided it was time to move on and the legendary coach made one final recommendation.

“When I was leaving, I recommended Louie to take over the program,” Stinson said.

The Hoboken Board of Education wanted Joe Rotondi or Chipper Benway to take over, but both were already head coaches – Rotondi at Union Hill, Benway at Hudson Catholic – and were reluctant to give up their positions. The Board then turned to Taglieri.

“He didn’t want to do it,” Stinson said. “He took it to continue the tradition. He did it for the program.”

Taglieri did more than that. He won his first 23 games as a head coach, winning another state championship in 2005. Taglieri stayed on and won state titles in 2012, 2013 and 2015. When he left the head coaching position at Hoboken, Taglieri posted an incredible record of 95 wins and just 38 losses and four state titles in those 12 seasons.

During that time, Taglieri met someone in the next door classroom at Brandt Middle School who would eventually become his wife for the last 15 years, namely Gabriela Taglieri.

“We both had the same passion for helping students,” Gabriela said.

She said that she fell in love with Lou from the cologne he lived in, namely Patchouli Essential Oil, an expensive, unique fragrance that became a part of Taglieri.

“That cologne would leave a trail wherever he went,” Gabriela said. “We gave my sister a couch set and she said that the couch smelled like Louis.”

The two loved football together.

“It’s what he loved to do,” Gabriela said. “He loved everything that it entailed. We would go over the plays together, the strategy. We would watch videos. Honestly, there was nothing like it.”

Gabriela said that she became enthralled in Hudson County’s version of “Friday Night Lights,” namely home games at JFK Stadium on Friday nights.

“My sister (Victoria) and I were at every game,” Gabriela Taglieri said. “I’d take her with us everywhere.”

In fact, the Taglieris became a coaching tandem during Lou’s heyday as coach – with Lou as the head football coach and Gabriela as the head cheerleading coach.

Lou and Gabriela have a son together, Trey, who just turned 13. Lou had two children, son Shane and daughter Taylor, from a previous relationship.

Taglieri was all set to walk away from coaching in 2017, then thought about joining Stinson and new head coach Billy Fitzgerald at Seton Hall Prep. Finally, Taglieri agreed to remain with Walker as he took the head coaching position.

“Coach Tag gave me my first chance as a coach,” Walker said. “When I was done playing, he said to me, ‘You can always come home.’ He also told me that there was no one else he wanted to coach our defensive backs. He was like the uncle or the big brother to me. He provided leadership for me. A lot of time we would just sit there and talk about life and football. It was priceless.”

Taglieri’s passing has left a huge void in Hoboken.

“It’s going to be difficult going to Hoboken from now on,” Valdez said. “If you don’t appreciate the time you have here, then this is it. It’s going to feel weird. I’d occasionally get that ‘Good Luck’ text. It’s a big loss for Hoboken.”

“I’ve known him since second grade,” said long-time youth baseball umpire and basketball official John Madigan. “Our mothers became best friends. It was like we were all a big family all the time. He was like my older brother. He tried to get me to play football, but I wouldn’t do it. He used to call me ‘Psycho-Matic.’ He said he saw it once on a milk carton and thought of me. He was just a great, great man.”

His colleagues loved working with him.

“He was always in control,” said long-time Hoboken baseball and basketball coach Buddy Matthews. “He always said the right thing. We hung out a lot together. He was never critical, just made suggestions. When he made suggestions, you had to listen. I had a lot of respect for him. It’s an incredible loss. He made an incredible impact on so many people. He was a great coach and a great person. He will be missed on and off the field.”

Opposing coaches were also friendly with Taglieri.

“In 2009, we scored 32 points in the fourth quarter to beat Hoboken for the first time in 21 years,” said long-time Lincoln head coach Robert Hampton. “After the game, he came into our locker room and spoke to our kids. That showed me a lot of class. He told my team that they showed toughness, class and heart and that they were resilient. That meant a lot to me. In 2016, Hoboken beat us on a tipped pass that was caught (by Jim Hague Sports Male Athlete of the Year Nyjon Freeman) to win, 7-6. I was crying like a baby and Tags come over and hugged me to say it was going to be okay.

Added Hampton, “For 15 years, all our games were hotly contested, but at the end of each game, Coach Tags and I respected each other and enjoyed the passion that our kids showed against each other. We had an emotional and good natured relationship that was forged by football and our commitment to teach the game the right and honorable way.”

Taglieri enjoyed no relationship in football more than the one he shared with Hansen, as opponents, as teammates, as inseparable friends for life. They were once bouncers at several different Hoboken and Hudson County nightlife establishments and often worked as a pair together. Can you imagine causing trouble at a place like the old Good ‘N Plenty or the Down Under and had to deal with those two as they somehow escorted you to the door?

“We always had a lot of fun,” Hansen said. “We talked a lot about what we wanted to do with our lives. We had a lot of great times together. He had a PhD in ball busting. We loved doing it to each other and loved laughing. I’d bust his chops and he’d bust mine. We go back and forth and then laugh about it. Louis had a lot of friends. I’m happy to say that I was one of them. I had a different level of friendship.

Added Hansen, “He had a tough guy exterior and that might have overshadowed his great heart. His persona was one thing, but the genuine Louis was the one who truly loved people. He loved his family and his friends. I know he would be honestly proud of the mark he left. I feel so horrible for Gabby and his children. He always talked about one day us coaching together.”

“He always wanted to help people,” Matthews said. “Whenever I talked to him, he always wanted to talk about someone else. He never wanted anything in return. He was always there to do something for somebody.”

“He always spoke with such a positive approach in everything he did,” Hansen said. “I never heard him complain. And he had such great loyalty. He was a loyal dude. He was old school, a true blue friend. He was one of the guys I could truly count on. There are so many kids who owe a debt of gratitude to Louis.”

“He tried to help as much as possible,” Valdez said. “Whenever he talked to a college coach, he would make sure to tell the coach about my players.”

“He’s a legend,” Gabriela Taglieri said. “He touched so many people. He was just a complete loving and caring man. He would give the shirt off his back to anyone. And I saw him do that. He would help kids from other schools, from Memorial, North Bergen, Union City, Lincoln, it didn’t matter.

Added Gabriela Taglieri, “What I found unbelievable was his way of speaking to adults, to boy or girl, woman or man. He could always comfort them and give them confidence. He gave people strength to go through tough lines. I used to watch in amazement the way he used to act. He had such a way with people. It was so remarkable. It was soothing and comforting in whatever situation it was in. He was also a wonderful story teller without putting his opinion into it. He had a way of getting to someone and helping them out by soothing them and listening to them.”

“Every single holiday, he would call, text, send a message,” Hansen said. “With every achievement my kids got, I’d hear from him right away.”

“He never forgot anyone’s birthday or anniversary,” Gabriela Taglieri said. “He would sit there with his phone and go through the list, wishing everyone a Merry Christmas or Happy Thanksgiving. He’d sit there with his phone for hours.”

As for the two guys Louie chose to work with as an assistant coach?

“You can’t replace someone like Coach Tag,” Walker said. “He was there for so many kids. He had a good relationship with so many kids, with so many coaches and universities. He was so proud of the kids he coached. He would say, ‘That’s one of my guys’ if they did something. I don’t think any of us would have become the people we are without Coach Tag. He provided us all with the mentorship we all needed.”

“I’ll always remember the competitor he was,” Stinson said. “As a player, as a coach, he was relentless. He was that way in practice and in games, the same way. The way he trained was the way he played. And in a word, he was very loyal. He was loyal to me and to the program. He was the first relationship that I had to develop that way, from former player to a coach. He was the originator of that long line.”

It was a line that includes people like Walker and Valdez and Matt Gallo, all current Hudson County head coaches.

And there are people like Sean Fallon, Chipper Benway, Joe Rotondi, Ivan Ramos, Tyrell Dortch, Isaac Holmes, Ravon Anderson and Carlos Perez, who have served as assistant or head coaches at Hudson County schools, guys who became coaches after having once played for Stinson. There are more than likely more that escaped the mind while compiling this tribute.

Louie Taglieri was the first Stinson protégé to carve a gigantic niche as a coach. If Taglieri had failed, perhaps the list wouldn’t be as long. He certainly opened the door for others.

On a personal note, Louie was a very close and dear friend. We spoke regularly about anything and everything. He was constantly concerned about my health, always asking me about a doctor’s appointment and subsequent treatment. I wasn’t allowed to ask him about his health, just him about me.

Right before the pandemic hit in March, I had to get a CAT scan of my head and brain. In typical Louie fashion, he got his chance to bust chops.

“How’d it go?” Louie asked.

“It was fine,” I said. “They found nothing.”

“Well, we all knew that before you went in the tube, but what did they find?” Louie said.

Good one, Louie, I said. I gave him a point for those who were keeping score at home.

In 2007, I had ankle surgery a day before the Hoboken baseball team was going to Toms River to play in the NJSIAA Group I state championship game against Middlesex. I wanted to go to the game and felt like I could have gone, except that I couldn’t drive or walk.

“Don’t worry,” Louie said. “I’ll come pick you up. I’ll drive and put you in the (wheel) chair and push you.”

Now that’s what I call a friend.

Lucky for both of us, the anesthesia from the surgery wore off and the real pain kicked in, so that eliminated any chance of me getting to see the Red Wings that day. But it showed, once again, how truly great of a friend Louie was to me.

I made sure to get Louie a T-shirt from the NCAA Final Four every year, especially if and when his beloved North Carolina Tar Heels were involved. Every year I went to the Final Four, I made sure that Louie was on my list for souvenirs. He also received his share of Maguire University memorabilia after he heard the true story of Maguire.

When I had the gastric sleeve surgery almost three years ago to the day, Louie somehow got my address from someone and made a surprise visit at my front door. It was a complete shock, a move that made me feel a little better. Plus, I got the chance to smell Louie, which was always a treat. I made sure I hugged him every time I saw him to take in what I called, “The Essence of Louie.”

We all ache today, that deep visceral pain that simply will not go away, no matter how hard I try to dull it or mask it with an assortment of prescriptions or even alcohol. This was clearly the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write. It took me three full days to do the interviews, to make sure I got the right quotes and set the right tone. I had to make sure I included his wonderful and beautiful wife Gabriela as part of it – and I’m very gracious and thankful that she took the time to talk to me Friday.

Failla McKnight Memorial Home in Hoboken will handle the services. Visitation will be held on Tuesday, August 18, beginning at 2 PM and concluding at 8 PM. In lieu of flowers memorial contributions can be made to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital.

I’ll close with this note about my friend Louie. In 2012, the Red Wings won their second state championship under Taglieri’s tenure as head coach. Like always, in each of the Hudson County-record setting 10 state championships, a parade was held to honor the Red Wings right down the center of Washington Street, complete with floats and the band and cheerleaders and balloons.

Well, Louie wanted to bring Trey along for the experience, but for safety reasons, Taglieri was not allowed to bring Trey, by then already a tough-as-nails cancer survivor, on the main float with the players and the cheerleaders. It was believed to be too dangerous for Trey, then seven years old, on the float.

Louie was told that they were going to hold the parade without Trey. In typical Lou Taglieri fashion, he was not going to have his son miss the festivities. By that point, Trey was really into his Hoboken football, just as much as he loved his Penn State football. Having Trey sit out the parade would have been a crushing blow to the entire Taglieri family.

So what does Louie do? He puts his boy on his shoulders and marches with Trey the entire route of the parade. I will never forget the faces of both Taglieri men that day, father and son, creating a memory for a lifetime. So the coach wasn’t on the float, big deal. He was there with his son. That was the big deal – and it’s the image that will be seared into my brain forever and ever, when I think of my wonderful beloved friend, who we might have lost in person this week, but we will never ever lose him in spirit.

And that’s the enduring memory we can all share about Coach Tags, my dear friend Louie. In perhaps the biggest understatement I’ll ever write, you will be missed, my friend. You most certainly will be missed.

My love and my heartfelt condolences go out to Gabby, Shayne, Taylar and of course Trey Taglieri. Shayne is proud to say that he is a 14-year veteran of the United States Air Force in honor of his father. Louie also had a granddaughter named Kennedy, who is six months old. He was proud to be a grandfather and adored little Kennedy.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

The man simply known as Gibby: Gilbert Lewis, 1949-2020

The phone call, which was more of a rarity in recent years compared to general phone texts and Facebook messages, lasted for more than two hours two weeks ago.

In typical fashion, the range of topics during the conversation roamed all over the place, from past experiences together to local sports figures to politics to his baby brother’s untimely passing just a week prior to the call.

And when the call ended, much like every other phone call in our nearly 40 years of friendship did, two simple phrases were uttered.

“I love you, Gilbert,” I said.

“I love you too, James,” my friend said.

But in the middle of the conversation, my beloved friend and former colleague Gilbert Lewis, known better by thousands as simply by his nickname “Gibby,” cracked a joke about three calls he received that day, the other two being Jersey City basketball legends Mike O’Koren and Mike Rooney.

“Rooney, Hague and O’Koren, that’s like a Jersey City backdoor trifecta,” Gibby laughed, referring to hitting a trifecta with a horse that you didn’t handicap to be part of the ticket and still got lucky to win.

Unfortunately, that was the last time I got the chance to speak with my long-time friend, because we lost Gibby last week to cancer. He was 70.

The late Gibby Lewis (right) with fellow referee Buck Dabydeen

Gibby is a one-name moniker in Hudson County sports circles. There was never a need to utter the Lewis part. Gibby needed just one name, like Cher, Madonna and Elvis. You said the name Gibby and everyone knew who you were talking about. It seemed like everybody knew Gibby and most everyone loved him -- well, considering what day of the week it was.

And everyone who knew Gibby had a Gibby story. Or two. Maybe even three. I had several, but most of them are not for print.

And when Gibby told a story, it became an instant classic, an epic like “Gone with the Wind.” There might not have ever been a better story teller alive. That’s not saying he was telling untrue tales, because as a proud member of the United States Marine Corps (Semper Fi, do or die), Gibby only spoke the truth, even if you didn’t want to hear it. Much like Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men” with his famous line, “you can’t handle the truth.”

But Gibby telling a story was incredibly entertaining and without a doubt hysterical.

“He could embellish a story and make that story last 20 minutes,” said O’Koren, who became friendly with Gibby when O’Koren was playing basketball at Hudson Catholic and became closer when O’Koren headed to Gibby’s beloved North Carolina to play for the legendary Dean Smith in 1977. “When Gibby told a story, all you could do was laugh your ass off. He had an incredible sense of humor.”

When O’Koren was playing for the Tar Heels, Gibby made several sojourns to Chapel Hill to watch O’Koren play.

“He brought a whole bunch of people with him over the years,” said O’Koren, who became an All-American for the Tar Heels and led Carolina to the 1977 NCAA Tournament championship game against Marquette and Jimmy Boylan, another long-time friend of Gibby’s.

“Gibby got to know all the other players, the coaches,” O’Koren said. “And they all liked him.”

Before Gibby even met O’Koren, he established himself as an outstanding athlete in three sports. He played baseball, but he truly made his mark in basketball and football at St. Joseph’s of the Palisades in West New York.

“He was a great athlete,” said O’Koren, who played many a summer league basketball game at St. Joseph’s School courts, a place known for its metal backboards and metal nets. “He really could play basketball.”

Ed Finn knew Gibby even longer than O’Koren.

“I knew him from growing up in St. Aedan’s,” said Finn, who said that he knew Gibby for about 55 years. “I knew him forever.”

Finn, who runs the Dan Finn Classic, the top-level high school basketball tournament held every January at the Jersey City Armory in memory of his late son, who was tragically killed when he was struck by a car in Myrtle Beach, S.C. in 2004, called Gibby “my wild and crazy friend.”

“He was as loose as a goose,” Finn said. “I never had a problem with Gibby. There are people who you can call friends and then there are those who would go through a wall for you. If I needed him, I guarantee he would come to my aid right away. When Dan died, we asked Gibby to do the Prayer of the Faithful at Dan’s funeral and he told me that it was the most difficult thing he ever did.”

Both Gibby and Finn were respected basketball officials, as well as organizing the Jersey City Recreation High School Basketball League for 20-plus years.

“I figured I must have officiated about 100 or so high school games together,” said Finn, who worked with Gibby at several of my games when I was the head girls’ basketball coach at both the Academy of St. Aloysius and St. Aloysius High. “When you put the summer league in, we must have worked over 1,000 together. Most nights in the summer, we worked four or five games together every night.”

Finn has fond memories of Gibby with the whistle in his mouth.

“I think Gibby had a passion for literally everything he did,” Finn said. “And he was in charge. He had that drive and energy in everything he did. Gibby was one of the best and if I was refereeing a top game, there was no one else I’d rather work with.”

Steve Rubbinaccio, the Union City native and another highly respected basketball official, agrees about Gibby’s talents as an official.

“Gibby was the toughest on the outside and softest on the inside,” Rubbinaccio said. “If you were his friend, you were a friend for life. If you were lucky enough to be inside the circle with him as a basketball official, there was no one else you wanted to work with. No one else you wanted to be in a war with.”

Gibby was such a highly respected official that he was assigned to work the Prime-Time Shootout game in Trenton in 2003 that featured both LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony in high school. Gibby also worked several high profile NJSIAA state playoff games, as well as several Hudson County Tournament championship games.

The late Gibby Lewis (far left corner) officiating a game in Trenton that featured Lebron James in 2003.

Gibby was also the underclass (freshman and JV) assignor in Hudson County for several years.

For a good portion of his life, Gibby worked for the City of Jersey City, as a supervisor in the Jersey City Department of Recreation and later the Department of Parks.

On a personal note, Gibby was assigned to work with me at P.S. 40 when I was in charge of Jersey City Recreation’s Biddy Basketball program, coaching and working with kids ages seven through 13. I never once had to ask Gibby for a single thing in terms of assistance in coordinating as many as 600 kids in that gym on a daily basis. He took the initiative almost daily offering instruction and positive guidance. Never once did I have to instruct him what to do.

Legendary Naismith Hall of Fame coach Bob Hurley, who was once the Department of Recreation director for a stint, also had a long-time relationship with Gibby.

“We were life-long friends, going back to since we were teenagers,” Hurley said. “We were contemporaries growing up. He was just a tremendous guy, a man’s man. He was a terrific athlete, a guy who could play with anyone. He was a loyal friend if you ever needed one. He loved my kids and was respectful to my wife. He was always a complete gentleman to them.”

If there was problem that Gibby had over the years, it is that he had struggles with drugs and alcohol. Part of Gibby’s demons came from having to serve in the Marines during the Vietnam War. It definitely played a major role in his demise over the years, but he was clean and sober over the last nine years of his life, something he was very proud of – much like the pride he had in being a Marine.

“His course, his route to becoming a college official was impacted,” Hurley said. “I think the demons took away from his potential. He battled it. He was never going to be a ‘Yes’ man. But he was always true to who he was.”

St. Peter’s Prep head football coach and athletic director Rich Hansen also enjoyed a close relationship with Gibby.

“Gibby marched to his own beat,” Hansen said. “But if you were his friend, he had your back for life. He was a fellow Blue Jay (both being St. Joseph athletes), so he was close to my heart there. Professionally, he was always someone I could turn to. If I asked him for something, he’d figure it out. There aren’t a lot of people like that. If you were his friend, he had you covered for life.”

Hansen said that Gibby had a unique approach in everything he did.

“He had a doctorate in street smarts,” Hansen said. “He knew how to handle people, how to talk to people. He found a way to get things done. He once said, ‘If you want things done, Coach Hansen, you call a Marine.’ We had an honest, genuine friendship. He took care of the people who he considered his friend.”

Of which I considered myself to be one of thousands.

“One of the best things about Gibby is that you could not see him for a year or so, but he’d pick things up like you were hanging out with him last night,” O’Koren said.

Gilbert “Gibby” Lewis, USMC, leaves a wife, Paula, a son, Evan, and two daughters, Olivia and Charlotte. There was no funeral service. He was already cremated. There is talk of a Memorial Mass later this year.

For now, we’re left to grieve, reflect, remember and pay tribute to truly one of a kind, the one who put the “U” in unique, the one and only Gibby. Rest in peace, my brother.