By Jim Hague
Steve DiGregorio knew for weeks that he was going to step down as the head football coach at Nutley High School, but he didn’t tell a single soul outside of his immediate family.
“No one in Nutley knew,” said DiGregorio, who officially announced his resignation last week after eight successful seasons at the helm of the Maroon Raiders, including five appearances in the NJSIAA state playoffs. “I wanted to keep it to myself. I didn’t want things to get too crazy. I wanted it to end on a good note. It was special for me to have my whole family there and we walked off together. It was pretty neat.”
It was his commitment to his family that DiGregorio cited as his main reason for stepping down.
“There are two really strong reasons for this,” DiGregorio said. “I have three boys and my middle son, Derek, has a very rare disease.”
Derek DiGregorio, who is 14-years-old, was born with ataxia-telangiectasia, or “A-T,” as it is called in general terms. It’s a progressive, degenerative disease that affects a variety of the body’s systems. It begins with a degeneration of the brain that leads to a lack of muscle control and eventually leads to the patient being confined to a wheelchair.
“It’s a brutal disease,” DiGregorio said. “It’s taken away Derek’s ability to walk and has destroyed his immune system. It was misdiagnosed for 12 years and the life expectancy is only to age 20. So my family has put in the investment to help support research for it and that takes up some time.”
DiGregorio’s older son, Zack, is a junior at Princeton High School and he’s the starting quarterback there.
“I missed a portion of his games,” DiGregorio said. “A lot of other coaches have the wonderful opportunity to coach their sons. I felt terrible that I didn’t get to see his games. My wife and I discussed the possibility of Zack coming to Nutley, but we felt it wasn’t the right thing to take Zack away from his friends.”
So DiGregorio’s responsibilities as a father took priority over his responsibilities as a head football coach.
“Those were the two main reasons why I’m leaving,” said DiGregorio, who will remain as a teacher in Nutley High School. “I loved everything about coaching at Nutley, coming back to coach at my alma mater. I had great support, great leadership from the superintendent, principal and athletic director. Leaving now is something I had to do. I wish I didn’t have to, but the decision was pretty self evident. Was the decision difficult? No, it was something I had to do.”
DiGregorio said that he was pleased with what he was able to accomplish at Nutley, turning around a program that was mostly downtrodden and making it a viable state playoff contender. After not making the NJSIAA state playoffs for over a decade, the Maroon Raiders made the North Jersey Section 2, Group III playoffs five times over the last seven years, including the last three years in a row. In 2010, the Maroon Raiders made it all the way to the state sectional title game in MetLife Stadium before falling to Morristown. Nutley lost to Parsippany Hills in the first round of the 2011 state sectionals.
“I’m very proud of what the kids did in my eight years as head coach,” DiGregorio said. “The kids were tough and resilient and showed great character and great work habits. The kids really believed in what we were teaching. That’s what I’m really proud of.”
And he’s proud of the kids he coached. Not only did some make a journey to Alabama last summer to help the victims of the tornadoes that ravaged the Tuscaloosa area, but 67 members of the program went out the day after Thanksgiving to rake leaves for senior citizens in Nutley.
“On Monday, they were back in the weight room,” DiGregorio said. “That’s how dedicated they are. I’m so proud of them. That’s the way we wanted to approach this, have them become community oriented.”
It wasn’t exactly that easy eight years ago, when DiGregorio and current athletic director Joe Piro were driving door-to-door to prospective football players, asking them why they weren’t at the weight training sessions.
“We had about five or six kids in the weight room back then,” DiGregorio said. “So Joe and I drove around going to every home, wondering why they weren’t there. I had total belief in those kids and I’m real grateful to them. We never stopped believing.”
DiGregorio sat down with his players last week to inform them of his decision to step down.
“I think they were taken a little off-guard,” DiGregorio said. “But when I told them why, they understood. Sure, I think some were disappointed, but they’ll get through this. They’re going to continue to do well.”
DiGregorio thanked two assistant coaches, namely Tom Basile and Keith Smith, who were with DiGregorio from the outset.
“I’m very proud and honored to have worked with them,” DiGregorio said. “They shared my mission. I’m very proud of my entire staff. It was an excellent group.”
DiGregorio insisted that his retirement isn’t permanent.
“I don’t think I could ever leave football entirely,” DiGregorio said. “But the program is much better now. It’s well respected, not just only in our community, but in Essex County and the entire state. We have good kids, tough kids, who play hard and play well. That’s a lot to be proud of.”