Local grid stars get one last chance to play high school football

Ryan Smith was convinced that his high school football career was finished. When Lyndhurst High School closed its season last November with a loss to neighboring Rutherford in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group II playoffs, Smith was sure that he donned the Golden Bears uniform for the very last time.

“I basically thought it was over,” said Smith, a fine two-way lineman for the Golden Bears. “I wasn’t expecting anything.”

Smith’s teammate Michael Cooper was a lot like Smith, thinking that his high school football career was history.

“I’ve played football my whole life,” Smith said. “I wanted to get another chance to play with my best friends.”

Buddy Matthew DeMarco was hopeful that the trio of friends could get selected to the Bergen County All-Star Classic, especially since the game this year was being held on their home field in Lyndhurst.

“I knew about the game and I hoped I would get a chance to be selected,” DeMarco said.

Sure enough, the trio of Lyndhurst buddies was among the South All-Stars in the 21st annual game played last Friday night at Lyndhurst, a game that was won by the North, 33-26, in an epic battle not usually seen in All-Star games.

Smith, Cooper and DeMarco were joined on the South squad by Michael Manzo-Lewis and Timmy Ford of North Arlington, giving the South a strong local flavor.

“It’s awesome feeling to be able to play one last time before we all go off to college,” said DeMarco, who started the game at middle linebacker. “It’s something I really wanted to do and didn’t want to pass up the chance to play one more game on my home field, play one last time with my long-time friends. That makes it all so much better, that I get a chance to share this with them.

Added DeMarco, “I wanted to play here. I am extremely excited to be here. When I heard we made the team, I was so hyped for it.”

DeMarco, a three-sport athlete at Lyndhurst (football, wrestling and baseball), just played his final baseball game in the state sectional title game against Parsippany the prior Friday.

“I’m still in baseball shape,” DeMarco said. “Going from season to season is tough, but I was able to do it.”

DeMarco will play football at Montclair State University in the fall.

“I was really happy to make the team,” said Smith, bound for Wilkes College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. in the fall. “I didn’t think I had much of a chance to make it. When I heard, I just flipped out and yelled, ‘Hell, yeah!’ I was ecstatic. I just tried to have fun. I know this is my last high school game, so I wanted to have fun in my last game.”

Smith registered a solo sack of North quarterback Tim O’Brien of Indian Hills in the first quarter.

Cooper is headed to play at Delaware Valley University.

“This game me the last opportunity to play in the Lyndhurst gold helmet,” Cooper said. “It’s where I played my whole life. It’s an awesome feeling. I’m having a good time, hitting people with my best friends.”

Michael Manzo-Lewis, the sensational North Arlington quarterback, was one of two signal callers on the South squad and threw a 32-yard touchdown pass late in the game.

It was the last time Manzo-Lewis would play quarterback, as he is headed to East Stroudsburg University on a football scholarship as a wide receiver.

“I’m just trying to make the most of it,” Manzo-Lewis said before the game. “I’m definitely happy to have made the team. I’m excited just putting the pads back on. I really missed playing football.”

Manzo-Lewis played basketball during the winter months and ran track in the spring.

“But football is my best sport,” Manzo-Lewis said. “I’m glad to be back playing. I’m extremely excited.”

Manzo-Lewis said that he didn’t do any football-related training before the game.

“This is the first time I’ve thrown in a while,” Manzo-Lewis said. “I’m definitely rusty, but I was itchy to come back. I’m ready to put on a show.”

Manzo-Lewis’ teammate Timmy Ford was also a member of the South All-Stars, playing safety. He was not present when this reporter visited a South practice.

The South coach was veteran Lyndhurst legend Jim “Chizzie” Vuono, with the Lyndhurst coaching staff, headed by Rich Tuero, offering assistance. North Arlington head coach Anthony Marck was also a member of the South coaching staff.

All in all, it was a great night for football in Lyndhurst, a picture-perfect cool night with some standout players getting their final chances to represent their respective schools.

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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.”