BEACH HAVEN – After making his way slowly to the couch inside the small apartment on Long Beach Island, Lonnie Burgess carefully opened the scrapbook, its pages long since detached from the binding.
Almost immediately the nearly four decades since their last game were bridged and the names began pouring out: Ron Mangarelli, Richard “Gumby” Kelly, Frankie Brown, Timmy Skinner, Bobby Bruno, Frank Flaherty, Jeff Marino, Brian Blaine, Mike Mahon and on and on.
Turns out there are teams that can’t be broken up by graduation. Their ties are forever, like the ones that bind Red Bank Catholic’s 1976 NJSIAA South Jersey Non-Public A championship team.
Thirty eight years ago this weekend it was Burgess who carried the Caseys in a 40-6 romp over Notre Dame of Lawrenceville in Trenton.
He ran for 233 yards on just 14 carries and scored four times, even though he broke his jaw that afternoon. And he managed to throw a touchdown pass using the right shoulder that Atlantic City’s Earl Wilson, who later played for San Diego Chargers, had dislocated during a regular-season slugfest.
And for Burgess it’s been the Caseys who have carried him since he was lying in a Philadelphia hospital fighting for his life exactly a year ago, paralyzed from the waist down by the Lyme’s disease that ravaged his body and still impacts his daily existence after going undetected for two years.
With trips to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, and later to the unit on West Maryland Avenue, along with letters and phone calls of support and personal deliveries of whatever he needed, they proved they’re still champions.
“It really is … ,” said Burgess, pausing to compose himself. “We’re still teammates, best buddies. People laugh. That’s almost 40 years ago. But so many of us still hang with each other. It’s like we never missed a beat. There’s really nothing like it.”
Mangarelli has known him since fourth grade, when Burgess’ family moved from Jersey City to the projects on Red Bank’s west side. Mangarelli lived a few blocks away, and they were in the same class at St. James Elementary School.
“He’s godfather to my kids and I’m godfather to his kids,” said Mangarelli, a flanker who lives in Middletown. “There are over a dozen of us who are still really close, and even more who we’re still friends with.”
And on Sunday afternoon, a bunch of them will pile into a van and make their way to MetLife Stadium, where the Caseys take on Delbarton in search of their first sectional or state championship in 38 years.
Burgess picked up a paperback from the coffee table titled “The Road Back,” by Michael Vitez, sent earlier in the week by Harvard coach Tim Murphy, his former teammate at Springfield College.
“Tim Murphy had his own health problems with triple bypass surgery,” Burgess said. “Inside the front cover, he wrote, ‘Whatever doesn’t kill you brother only makes you stronger.’ I’m flying up to Boston next week to see him and have dinner.”
As Burgess reminisces, his stories weave their way through a golden era of Shore Conference football.
Like the day in early 1983 he declined Sam Mills’ offer to join him in Philadelphia to try out for a team in the newly formed USFL, already having undergone knee surgery and knowing he still had to have his shoulder rebuilt.
When they gave out the first Sam Mills Award in memory of the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers’ Pro Bowl linebacker at the 2005 All-Shore Classic, Burgess’ son Garrett, who played at Southern, got it. And handing it to him was Bill Hill, the current head coach at Asbury Park and a former Howell High School standout who battled with Burgess and Red Bank’s Tim Johnson for the 1976 Shore Conference rushing title.
Or when Donald Brown Sr., who Burgess used to play basketball with, called to tell him his son had just broken Burgess’ school-record postseason rushing total. The younger Brown is now in his sixth NFL season.
He was roommates at Springfield with Sean Cosgrove, star of the 1976 team at St. Joseph’s of Toms River, now Donovan Catholic, which won their only sectional or state championship, beating RBC during the regular season that year.
And then there was the day he showed up as a freshman at RBC and Lou Vircillo, then a young assistant who would go on to lead Lacey to four sectional championships, was trying to assess the newcomer.
“He asked, ‘How fast are you?’ I said, ‘I don’t know?’ ” Burgess recalled. “He wanted me to run the 40-yard dash. I didn’t have any shorts so I ran in my boxer shorts. I had shoes on so I borrowed sneakers from Tim Guinnessy, who became one of the best offensive guards around. I’ll never forget. They were orange converse. I ran a 4.6 and Vircillo said, ‘OK, you’re playing for us.’ “
Those were the days.
And the players from those teams relive them every time they get together, which is surprisingly often given the time that has passed.
Just the beginning
The season couldn’t have started any better for the Caseys in 1976.
After making the short bus ride to Little Silver, they ended what was then the state’s longest winning streak at 28, drubbing Red Bank, 20-6. Burgess ran for 134 yards on 20 carries, scoring twice.
But it wasn’t until November that the Caseys actually hit their stride, beating St. Peter’s Prep to qualify for the NJSIAA playoffs, then in their infancy. In the South Non-Public A semifinals they hammered St. John Vianney, 27-3, as Burgess ran for 135 yards.
“Realistically, we should have won two state championship, having lost to Camden Catholic when we were juniors,” said Brielle’s Rich Kelly. “That game was a heartbreaker at Cherokee High School.”
A year later, they left no doubt. And in retrospect, their 40-6 win over a previously unbeaten Notre Dame was just the start.
“They were a good bunch of kids in many, many ways,” said Lou Montanaro, head coach of the 1976 Caseys. “They had a lot of courage and just played football and had fun. I talked to Lonnie a bunch of times in hospital and when he got home. That’s why they were so successful, because it was just about the team. That’s all they cared about. And they’re still a team.”
Burgess spent 34 years in education, much of it working with at-risk teenagers. He had a stint coaching the football team at The Glen Mills School in Concordville, Pa., a facility for teens who have had run-ins with the law.
Now, he’s slowly trying to regain his strength, having lost 68 pounds during his ordeal. He’s able to walk with a heavy limp, the nerves in his legs damaged by Lyme’s disease regenerating slowly.
“Football was such a big part of my life, in terms of structuring it and teaching valuable lessons,” Burgess said. “I’ve been lucky to have been able to work with kids. Football teaches you there’s nothing better than a team sport. The camaraderie, don’t know if you can get that anywhere.”
And regardless of the outcome of Sunday’s game, the current group of Caseys have a powerful blueprint for football and life are inexorably intertwined.
Staff writer Stephen Edelson is an Asbury Park Press columnist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @SteveEdelsonAPP.