Mazzolla’s sudden death stuns entire NA sports community

Photo by Jim Hague Nick Mazzolla, shown here in a picture taken with the Queen of Peace boys’ and girls’ track team last spring, died last week of an apparent heart attack. He was 60.
Photo by Jim Hague
Nick Mazzolla, shown here in a picture taken with the Queen of Peace boys’ and girls’ track team last spring, died last week of an apparent heart attack. He was 60.

The news filtered throughout North Arlington last Wednesday morning and suddenly cast a dark pall on the entire community.

Nick Mazzolla, a part of the fabric of all North Arlington sports, a former great basketball player who went on to coach thousands of kids over the last 40 years, suffered an apparent heart attack on his way to work Wednesday morning and died.

Mazzolla was so tremendously loved by everyone in the borough, transcended by his participation as a coach at both North Arlington High School and Queen of Peace. He was recognized for his dedication and devotion to the North Arlington Recreation program. He was a permanent fixture at programs at his beloved Jefferson School.

Everywhere you turned in North Arlington, whether it was a basketball game, a football game, a soccer game or a track meet, chances are that Nick Mazzolla was there, either coaching kids or offering his endless support.

For the last four years, Mazzolla had the dubious distinction of trying to patch together the boys’ and girls’ track and field program at Queen of Peace – and made the Golden Griffins respectable again, putting forth teams that featured standouts like Natalie Negroni, Kevin Momnohin and the Rozalski sisters, namely Michelle and Catherine “Kas.”

But before he began coaching at QP, Mazzolla was all North Arlington, from his basketball playing days on some of the greatest Viking teams in history, to coaching every sport practically imaginable.

Ed Abromaitis, who was a long-time friend of Mazzolla’s and was the athletic director and baseball coach at Queen of Peace for more than three decades, remembers the first time he ever got to meet Mazzolla.

“It was 1971, the first time I met Nick,” Abromaitis recalled. “We were in high school together at the time. Nick was the best basketball player at the time at North Arlington and we had a great player named Billy Hart. There was always talk who was a better player. Well, one night, a game was set up between Nick and Billy behind North Arlington High School. They made a bet who was better. They bet one dollar. There were cars parked to use their headlights so they could see the court. Nick won the game, 21-19, took his dollar, put his arm around Billy and they went to the deli across Ridge Road so Nick could buy Billy a soda.”

Abromaitis then became a long-time friend of Mazzolla’s.

“Nick was truly a North Arlington character, through and through,” Abromaitis said. “He drove around in a van from place to place. He worked for the North Arlington Youth Center and called me a couple of times to help him out, to drive the bus to go on trips. He knew I had a commercial license, so he needed a driver. He was so meticulous in everything he did, taking the kids on trips to Great Adventure, to Vernon Valley, down the Jersey shore, to the zoo.

Added Abromaitis, “Nick also coached practically every single kid in North Arlington, coaching Biddy basketball, soccer, football, track. He did so much and touched so many people. Without a doubt, he was a great, great coach, but never got the credit for being who he was and how great of an athlete he was.”

Mazzolla was a member of the North Arlington Athletic Hall of Fame as a basketball player, helping to lead the Vikings to a state sectional title in 1971.

After his playing days were over, Mazzolla coached six different sports at North Arlington High School, including a five-year stint as the head boys’ basketball coach, replacing the immortal Bill Ferguson when “Fergie” stepped down. Mazzolla served as Ferguson’s assistant after having played for Ferguson during his high school days.

“We were pretty close friends during those days,” said Joe Spaccavento, another fixture in North Arlington athletics. “He became the head coach of the boys when I became the head coach of the girls. Nicky was the kind of guy who would give you the shirt off his back. He was genuine. There was not a hint of phoniness in the man. He was very giving all the time. He touched a lot of lives. I know that if I was going to be in a fox hole in the military, Nicky would be the first guy I wanted right next to me.”

Bobby Crudele, who is now currently involved in great capacities as a youth coach and serves as the president of the North Arlington Youth Basketball program, has known Mazzolla since Crudele’s family moved to North Arlington from Jersey City when Crudele was 10.

“He used to show up at Jefferson School every single night to watch the kids play,” Crudele said. “He would be in the schoolyards with us and coach us for hours. When I first came here from Jersey City, I knew nothing and no one. Mr. Maz saw something in me. He pulled me aside and made me play against kids much older. He would tell me that basketball was all about being physical and taught me how to play physical. He always had a kind word to say about me. He was just a real good coach.”

Added Crudele, “He had such a good history of coaching, so when I became a coach, I’d talk to him for hours about it. He was very into coaching and helping kids.”

Darren Czellecz, perhaps the greatest athlete ever produced in North Arlington, a standout who went on to have a great football career at Rutgers and had a tryout with the New York Giants, is now a member of the United States Secret Service, having provided protection for Vice Presidents Al Gore and Dick Cheney.

Czellecz was also a product of Mazzolla’s youth programs back in the 1970s.

“Coach Mazzolla was always the one to get the most out of you,” Czellecz said. “He always had the best interest of the kids in heart. He was always there for the kids of North Arlington. He was a true gentleman and a true gentle man as someone who always really cared.”

Anthony Marck was another of those impressionable kids that Mazzolla worked with over the years.

“He had such a tremendous impact on my life,” said Marck, now the head football coach at North Arlington. “Mr. Mazzolla was my physical education teacher at Roosevelt School at a time in my life that I needed a role model. He guided me through some tough times.”

Marck’s parents divorced when Marck was an adolescent and moved far away from each other.

“He was such an important part of my young life,” Marck said. “He ran the summer programs that we were all a part of. He created such a comfort zone for me, because he was always there. You knew he cared about all the kids. The one thing that always resonated to me was that you always had his undivided attention. No matter what was going on, if you had something to say, he was listening and he was going to guide you through that situation.

Added Marck, “He had to put on a persona of being a tough guy, but deep down, he was a soft guy. He had that tough side, but he wasn’t afraid to cry in front of others.”

Just last Tuesday night, Mazzolla went to the wake of a former North Arlington athlete Erica Hamilton, who was also beloved by many in North Arlington. Hamilton was just 31, so many people were devastated by her loss.

Mazzolla saw Marck at the wake.

“He came over to me, gave me a hug, gave me a big kiss on the cheek and held me across my arms,” Marck said. “He said, `I love you, Ant,’ and he walked away. That was a little different this time. He was a little emotional being at the wake and all.”

The next morning, Mazzolla was gone and the family was planning his wake at the same funeral home.

“It’s just too unreal to believe,” Marck said. “He played such a huge role in my life, in my wife’s (the former Kim Nelson) life, in her family’s lives. Hundreds, thousands of kids felt the same way as I did. He was a tremendous man. It’s amazing, here today, gone tomorrow. You just never know.”

Negroni, who won several NJSIAA state championships as a hurdler for Mazzolla’s Queen of Peace programs over the last four years, is now a freshman at Monmouth University, where she earned a scholarship for track and field. Mazzolla saw the potential in Negroni and turned her into a premier hurdler, even though QP had one single solitary hurdle to practice with.

Negroni scored 835 points in dual meets over her career, the highest total of any QP track and field athlete, boy or girl. Last spring, Negroni won three state sectional championships in the 100 and 400-meter hurdles and the high jump and two overall Non-Public B state titles in the two hurdles events.

“It’s still pretty shocking to me that he’s gone,” Negroni said. “It hit me pretty hard.”

Negroni had special memories of her coach.

“I’d be over thinking things before a race and mess up my steps,” Negroni said. “He said, ‘Nat, you do the doing and I’ll do the thinking.’ It definitely helped me a lot.”

Negroni put her thoughts about Mazzolla to words in an e-mail.

“Coach Maz was like a second father to me. He pushed me to be the best version of myself on and off the track. He was the greatest coach I could ever imagine having. Coach knew that the track was where I belonged. He saw my potential and never stopped believing in me. With every direction he gave, I could feel the love he had for me and the sport. Coach Maz was dedicated to us all. He gave everything he had to every person in his life, every second of every day. He demanded the best from us simply because he gave us all he had. He loved us and loved to coach.

“Coach Maz would always tell just about everyone he met about his track team. He always loved to tell the story of when I first started hurdling. He put one hurdle out in the middle of the field and told me, `Hey Nat, jump over that thing.’ He never mentioned that ‘that thing’ was called a hurdle. From then on, hurdling would become my signature event, greatest athletic talent, and greatest passion.

“From the day I won the conference championship as a freshman, Maz called me ‘Champ’ and he went far out of his way to make us all feel so appreciated each and every day. My senior year, I gave Coach an award that said ‘Greatest Coach Ever’; this was by no means an exaggeration. I owe all my success and accolades to him. He helped me progress to where I am today, and gave me the opportunity to pursue my dreams on the collegiate level. I, along with the rest of the Queen of Peace community, will always remember Coach Maz for his passion, his precision, and his commitment to getting everything that he could out of each of us, not just in sport, but in life.”

Negroni then expressed more during a phone conversation.

“I definitely would not be here (Monmouth) without him,” Negroni said. “He helped me with all my applications and helped me by talking to all the coaches. He even came with me to Monmouth on my first visit and completely sold me on it.”

Negroni was asked what she would remember the most about Mazzolla.

“His smile and his laugh,” Negroni said. “It was contagious. When he smiled or laughed, you did too. He touched so many people. We’d be on the bus going to a meet and he would see someone he knew and we had to pull over to say hello. And he knew so many people.”

Mazzolla just endured his own losses in the last 13 months, having buried his father first last spring and his mother a little over a month ago. Last week, Jeanne Mazzolla and her three children, daughters Jamie Lynn and Tammy-Jo and son Nicholas had to make funeral plans at Parow Funeral Home for the beloved athletic fixture in North Arlington.

“It’s such a shock that I still don’t believe it,” Abromaitis said. “You always knew that he was there for the kids, whether it was North Arlington kids or Queen of Peace kids. It didn’t matter. He gave all of himself.”

Two days before he passed, Mazzolla sat with Abromaitis and watched the QP football team practice.

“We must have been out there together for about 45 minutes,” said Abromaitis, who recommended Mazzolla to the powers-that-be at QP for the head track and field job three years ago. “We had a good time, talking and laughing like always. When it was time to go, I shook his hand and hugged him. I can’t believe that’s the last time I saw him. When we got him, we didn’t get a track coach. We got Nick Mazzolla. He was truly the character of the entire town.”

And now, the entire town mourns the loss. The flag at Rip Collins Field flew at half staff last week in tribute to the man who was North Arlington sports for so long. It’s an understatement to say that he will be sorely missed.

“There will never be another one like Nicky,” Abromaitis said. “To do as much as he did, coach as many sports as he did, touch as many kids as he did. You won’t find another one like him.”

Nicholas J. Mazzolla was only 60.

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Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer

Sports Writer Jim Hague was with The Observer for 20+ years — and his name is one of the most recognizable in all of sports journalism. The St. Peter’s Prep and Marquette alum kicked off his journalism career post Marquette at the Daily Record, where he remained until 1985. Following shorts stints at two other newspapers, in September 1986, he joined the now-closed Hudson Dispatch, where he remained until 1991, when its doors were finally shut.

It was during his tenure at The Dispatch that Hague’s name and reputation as one of country’s hardest-working sports reporters grew. He won several New Jersey Press Association and North Jersey Press Club Awards in that timeframe.

In 1991, he became a columnist for The Hudson Reporter chain of newspapers — and he remains with them to this day.

In addition to his work at The Observer and The Hudson Reporter, Hague is also an Associated Press stringer, where he covers Seton Hall University men’s basketball, New York Red Bulls soccer and occasionally, New Jersey Devils hockey.

He’s also doing work at The Morristown Daily Record, the very newspaper where his journalism career began.

During his career, he also worked for Dorf Feature Services, which provided material for the Star-Ledger. While there, he covered the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.

Hague is also known for his announcing work — and he’s done PA work for Rutgers Newark and NJIT.

Hague is the author of the book “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man.”