Some of the biggest names in J.P. Stevens High School football history, dating as far back as the 1960s, paid tribute to legendary Hawks gridiron coach and Rutgers University star Tony Simonelli during a memorial scholarship dinner in his name at the Pines Manor in Edison on Thursday night.
Simonelli, who helped lead the Scarlet Knights to an undefeated season in 1961 and captained the team a year later, went on to become one of New Jersey’s finest scholastic mentors, compiling a 183-86 career mark as an assistant and head coach.
Sports writer Greg Tufaro takes viewers inside the scholarship dinner. The event, which raised more than $25,000, also featured some former Rutgers University greats such as Bert Kosup, one of the best quarterbacks in school history, and venerable J.P. Stevens football coach Joe Gutowski.
Sports writer Greg Tufaro wrote the following column last November about Tony Simonelli, shortly after the legendary coach died.
The first interview I ever conducted as a scholastic sports reporter followed a J.P. Stevens High School football game against Woodbridge during the 1989 season.
I don’t recall who won, but I do remember my indoctrination into the business being pleasant, for the coach I interviewed was Tony Simonelli, a quintessential gentleman whose distinctively calm voice put others at ease.
Veteran East Brunswick mentor Marcus Borden, whose Bears had some classic battles with the Hawks in the mid 1980s, may not have known Simonelli as well as those who played for or worked alongside him, but he best defined the legendary coach, who died on Thursday at the age of 71.
“There was not a nicer man that I have known in all my years,” Borden said. “He was so even keeled. He always had everything in perspective. What a great ambassador for the game of football. He was a gracious winner and a gracious loser. He was always the most personable man you’d ever want to be around. He was so well-liked by everyone. I don’t think anyone could ever have a bad word to say about Tony Simonelli. He did everything with class and dignity.”
Simonelli served as the head football coach at J.P. Stevens from 1983 through 1992, compiling a 63-33-2 record while winning back-to-back Central Group IV championships over East Brunswick in 1984 and 1985.
He starred on the offensive line at Rutgers University, playing alongside All-American center Alex Kroll while leading the Scarlet Knights to an undefeated 1961 season. The following year, Simonelli was named team captain.
“He was an outstanding lineman,” said Immaculata head football coach Pierce Frauenheim, who played running back for the 1961 Scarlet Knights.
“Our rushing yardage was incredible, and a lot of it was due to Tony. He was a giant gentleman and an outstanding football player. I was glad to have run behind him.”
Simonelli, believe it or not, was apparently a better father and husband than football player or coach.
He and his wife, Cookie, were to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in June. The couple met when Tony was in college and Cookie was a high school student in Metuchen, where they raised two daughters, Jill and Janis, and lived for the past 40 years.
“I didn’t see him too much growing up, he was just so busy with football,” said Jill. “But as busy as he was, he never missed one of my basketball games, never missed one of my softball games. He always made sure he did what he had to do to support us.
“He was remarkably patient and attentive. He was very caring. He always went without so that we would have.”
Jill has fond childhood memories of watching game film with her dad on Sunday mornings and running onto the field after the Hawks won back-to-back sectional titles, celebrating with some of the same players and coaches who just last week were reduced to tears in her mother’s living room.
Simonelli, who battled Parkinson’s disease in recent years, awoke the morning after Superstorm Sandy struck, complaining of shortness of breath. He asked Cookie to call 911. An ambulance took him to J.F. Kennedy Medical Center in Edison, which was operating on emergency power because of the storm. The plan was for Simonelli, whose vital signs appeared stable, to be released and admitted to Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, where he was to undergo angioplasty with a cardiothoracic surgeon on call in case a heart bypass was required. Simonelli never made it. Blood clots – a byproduct perhaps of the Parkinson’s disease limiting his mobility – floated from Simonelli’s ankles to his lungs. A pulmonary embolism caused his death.
“He died pretty much instantly,” said Jill. “The doctor feels he felt no pain. He didn’t suffer. He went peacefully.”
The irony that her father, renowned for being modest and humble, died without any fanfare in Sandy’s wake was not lost on Jill. With communication difficult after the storm, many, including Borden and Frauenheim, only learned of Simonelli’s passing Tuesday. There were no visitation hours and a private interment will be scheduled at a later date.
“He picked the most opportune time to slip away,” Jill, knowing how her father never drew attention to himself, said with a laugh. “While everyone was occupied with everything else, he’s like, “Now’s my chance.”
Simonelli looked upon former players as his own children, calling them his kids, and whether they were all-state running backs or seldom-used linemen, he regarded each equally.
John Peters, a reserve lineman who played for the Hawks in the late 1960s when Simonelli was an assistant under Joe Gutowski – another coaching legend – remembers Simonelli being able to recall the name of every former player who greeted him during last year’s Thanksgiving Day game against Edison.
“It didn’t make a difference if you were a guy who started both ways or a guy who came off the bench,” Peters said.
“He was a giant of a man (6-foot-3, 230 pounds) but very soft spoken. He rarely raised his voice unless it was really necessary. He commanded respect without saying it. There was almost an aura about him.”
Simonelli taught health and physical education in the Edison Public Schools for 35 years, retiring in 1999 as J.P. Stevens’ athletics director. After graduating from Rutgers, he earned master’s degrees from Montclair State and Kean.
He began coaching in 1964 alongside Gutowski. The two led the Hawks to a 120-53-5 record from 1964 to 1982, finishing undefeated once and winning three sectional titles along the way.
Current Metuchen head coach Sal Mistretta, who played under Simonelli, said his former mentor is the reason he became an educator.
“Contrary to myself, I don’t think I ever heard the man say a bad word,” Mistretta, known to be animated on the sideline, said with self-deprecation. “He was the consummate professional.”
Mistretta last saw Simonelli at a Metuchen game two weeks ago, at which time he playfully asked his old coach if he wanted to call plays.
After that 1989 game against Woodbridge, I had the pleasure of covering Simonelli’s Hawks many more times.
His demeanor, regardless of the game’s situation or outcome, always remained unflappable. I will forever remember his indelibly calm voice and the rolled up winter cap he frequently wore on the sideline.
I last saw Simonelli at a Metuchen game. He remembered me like he remembered all of his former players.
My only regret is that I didn’t get the chance to interview him one more time.