Former rivals lead Bergen Catholic (N.J.) football: 'There’s no way I thought I’d be on this side'

Photo: Danielle Parhizkaran/Northjersey.com

Former rivals lead Bergen Catholic (N.J.) football: 'There’s no way I thought I’d be on this side'

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Former rivals lead Bergen Catholic (N.J.) football: 'There’s no way I thought I’d be on this side'

ORADELL, N.J. — A post-practice film session is about to begin, which means the football office at Bergen Catholic High School is filled to capacity. Players climb over each other in search of an empty chair, some choosing to hop onto the high shelf along a back wall, others taking spots on one of the two flights of stairs that lead up toward the locker room. The spot at the head of the table is still empty though, reserved for head coach Nunzio Campanile. He’s been pulled upstairs for a quick meeting with a parent.

Two men in the back corner share a knowing glance, one that remembers the days they juggled the many and varied responsibilities of being the head coach, one that honors the understanding of how draining those demands can be, one that even acknowledges the gratitude of not bearing that burden anymore. Greg Toal and Fred Stengel, decades of coaching between them, have been in Nunzio’s shoes.

Now, they have his back.

Not in a million years

How Bergen Catholic (N.J.) came to have the most fascinating coaching staff in high school football history is a story that starts with Toal, the man who up until February was the head coach of Bergen’s biggest rival, the man whose unceremonious end at Don Bosco Prep set the stage for a coaching reunion no one – least of all the two men themselves – saw coming. That Toal exchanged his Bosco wardrobe for a Bergen one is strange enough, painting a picture any New Jersey observer recognizes as incongruous. But that he now shares daily laughs and inside jokes with his former fiercest rival Stengel, the man who for 22 years was the head coach at Bergen and occupied the other half of the best mano-a-mano coaching battle North Jersey football knew?

Dogs and cats living together.

“Ten years ago? I would say ‘no way,’” Toal, 63, says.

“He would have said ‘no way?’ I would have said, ‘Hell no way,” answers the 68-year-old Stengel.

This is a story of mutual respect, of evolution, of loyalty and friendship, of what can happen when time and perspective intervene in the face of fiery passion. It’s a story of competition, of two old school coaches pushing each other to new heights, of daily drills between Stengel’s offensive line and Toal’s defensive line drawing onlookers interested in the outcomes, yet of post-drill dissection bringing two great football minds together.

“It’s amazing how much we’re alike but you never would have thought it because you were too busy hating each other,” Stengel admits.

View from the other side

Greg Toal was Bergen’s Public Enemy No. 1, the man who caught and surpassed Stengel’s 1990s powerhouse Crusader program by building his own 2000s decade of dominance at Bosco, who almost singlehandedly turned what was already an intense rivalry into something barely describable for depth of emotion.

“When I got to Don Bosco my goal was to beat Bergen Catholic and continue to beat them,” Toal says, no need to mention the 23-5 career record he did indeed compile. “When I got there we were behind them in wins in the rivalry. I wanted to change that total number.”

Now he’s on the other side. “My goal is different now, no question. Beat Don Bosco? That’s my job, to beat all of them. To win. That is the greatest rivalry though, the key game on the schedule.

“Life is a series of ironies. But no, I never thought of this. There’s no way I thought I’d be on this side. It caught me by surprise.”

No more so than the end of his 19-year run at Don Bosco, when school officials essentially fired him but tried to sell it as a voluntary retirement, a botched transition to new coach Mike Teel that left jaws hanging and tongues wagging across the entire high school coaching community. The story dragged on for months, driven not simply by what had happened (ultimately a clash of personalities), but by what would happen, as in where would the legendary Toal (winner of nine state titles and two national ones with Bosco) end up?

That the answer came from his onetime offensive coordinator is a testament to Campanile, the silent hero of this story, a man unafraid to surround himself with these two strong and successful former head coaches, a man who hasn’t simply added one onetime boss and rival in Toal, but his predecessor at Bergen. Stengel endured his own unceremonious end seven years ago, but in continuing as a phys ed teacher at Bergen Catholic and in forging a friendship with Campanile, a return to the Crusader sideline seemed inevitable. After years of commuting to Ocean Township to work as their offensive coordinator, Stengel and Campanile began talking at the end of last season about Stengel coming in to work with the offensive line. As Stengel mulled the idea, the Toal debacle happened, and Campanile offered Toal a job too.

But first, he told Stengel.

“He said, ‘That’s it. I’m in,’” Campanile laughs, leaning back in a swivel chair, head nearly touching the sliding white board behind him. “He’d kill me if I said this but it is what it is. He said he went home and told his wife and she said, ‘Well you better get in there and coach your ass off.’”

More proof that competitive people aren’t just drawn to competitive people, but made better by them too. There’s Stengel grumbling after a one-on-one line drill that is dominated by Toal’s defensive linemen (watch out for ends Javontae Jean-Baptiste and Aeneas DiCosmo), decrying the set-up as inherently pro defense. There’s Toal with a simple reminder to his exhausted players – “It’s a collision sport – that’s what you signed up for.” Here they are together a few minutes later, standing behind the line of scrimmage, leaning into each other as they talk, in each other’s paths but never in each other’s way. Not anymore.

“We laugh now more than we ever did,” Toal says.

“We’re having a lot of fun,” Stengel agrees.

In the comfort zone

The sun is setting now over the corner of Oradell and Forest Avenues, and with practice over, the film room awaits. Stengel won’t stay much longer – offensive line did its film review prior to practice, and this meeting is with the defense – but like the rest of the staff, he’ll be back for Wednesday morning’s 8 a.m. meeting. Between chatter, the young men guzzle from their water bottles and down their Gatorades, eventually quieting as coaches call for their attention, with all eyes turning toward the large television screen propped in a corner. Critiques and compliments fill the air, until finally, the kids are sent to the showers. A fire door is held open long enough to air out the room but short enough to avoid the alarm, and the coaches kick back, flip a few beer bottle tops, and start talking.

Someone brings up the blockbuster NBA trade between the Celtic and Cavaliers, but it is Toal’s response that breaks up the room.

“My god, how old IS Isiah Thomas,” he asks, before being told the Isaiah Thomas traded for Kyrie Irving is not the same Isiah Thomas who once starred for the Detroit Pistons. That’s Toal. An old school soul in a new school setting. And he’s almost used to it.

At one point, Nunzio is asking for input on filling a need at defensive tackle, wondering if there are any offensive linemen who might be up to it. One of the names perks Toal up, and he says, “Oh yeah, he could help you,” before quickly amending that with, “He could help us.”

Toal’s former ‘them’ and current ‘us’ meet Oct. 27 at Don Bosco, an ESPN-televised game that will have no shortage of drama. From there to here, quite a strange journey.

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