Upon walking into the Piscataway High School gymnasium on Wednesday, where the football team gathers on the bleachers prior to the start of practice, assistant coach A.J. Cook sensed a palpable sadness among his players.
The Chiefs were without head coach Dan Higgins, who was attending the wake of his father Tom, a legendary Piscataway gridiron mentor (1970-89) and former NFL player who died earlier this week at 83 of natural causes.
“When I walked in I kind of had to shake them up a little bit,” Cook said. “When coach hurts, we hurt. Teenage kids don’t know how to internalize that hurt and turn it into a positive.”
Piscataway, coming off a 34-22 loss to Edison, its first defeat to the Eagles since 1994, doesn’t need added motivation for Friday’s Home News Tribune Game of the Week at Old Bridge, a team it lost to last fall and one that is coming off an upset of three-time defending sectional champion Sayreville, but the Chiefs have it with Higgins’ passing.
Every member of Piscataway’s varsity coaching staff played for Tom Higgins, so they all understand what the man was about, and shared his legacy with their charges.
“We are in tune with the whole thing because we actually were influenced by him at one point in our careers,” Cook said. “High school is so crucial. That’s where you make it or break it in terms of your love for the game. The fact that we are all coaching at Piscataway is a tribute to Tom Higgins. It (Tom’s passing) really motivates these guys and makes it a little easier to remind them of (Piscataway) tradition.”
Cook said the coaching staff decided that the Chiefs will be completely uniform for Friday night’s game in tribute of Tom Higgins, doing away with, for example, white-sleeved shirts under jerseys and colored socks.
“Everybody looked the same down to the mouthpiece,” Cook said of Tom Higgins-coached teams. “The dress code will be enforced. It’s not about how you look. It’s about how you perform on the field. We’ll be going out there old-school style, just going out there to play football and not look pretty.”
Piscataway athletics director Paul Schoeb praised his coaching staff, saying the Chiefs didn’t skip a beat in the absence of Dan Higgins, who buried his father on Thursday.
“The coaches and the kids know (Dan Higgins) is going through a hard time,” Schoeb said. “They are leaders and everybody is stepping up together to prepare for the game.”
Schoeb described Tom Higgins as a “true Chief” who “bled black and gold” and “took great pride” in every element of the program, from keeping the weight room floor clean to how the team performed on game day.
“He gave his heart to Piscataway football,” Schoeb said. “He always took great pride in the team and the whole community.”
Tom Higgins owned a 101-78-5 career record. Dan Higgins is currently 94-22-1.
The father and son, who Joe Kuronyi coached between, are responsible along with Kuronyi for transforming Piscataway into one of the state’s best public school programs, one that routinely develops major college and even NFL talent.
Tom Higgins, while feeling well enough, attended all of Piscataway’s home games during the first few years his son took over the program. After each game, Tom Higgins would offer his impressions of the team, always providing constructive criticism and positive encouragement.
The young Chiefs, decimated by graduation and who returned just 125 yards from scrimmage, can pay tribute to Tom Higgins with an old-school performance on Friday night.
Tom Higgins, in a way, will still be with them. He’ll just have a different seat — one with an aerial view — for the game.