Nutley High School head football coach Steve DiGregorio has been around the game of football – high school and college – for more than two decades.
So when DiGregorio was asked about the versatility of his current senior Vinnie Russo, the coach didn’t pull any punches.
“Vinnie’s right up there with the best,” DiGregorio said of Russo’s incredible versatility. “We ask him to do lots and lots of things. I thought he was one of the best defensive players in the state last year. He has shined in a lot of big games and validates how good he is every week. When we ask him to do something, he comes through every time.”
Russo has played running back and wide receiver on offense this season. He’s also lined up as a defensive end, been a linebacker and just recently became a defensive back as well. That’s incredible versatility, giving the term “jack-of-all-trades” a new meaning.
“I love it,” Russo said. “I love the fact that Coach (DiGregorio) has the confidence in me to play all of those positions. Because he has that much confidence in me, it makes me perform to the best of my ability.”
Last Friday night, the Maroon Raiders, struggling with a 1-6 record before this latest contest, asked Russo to run with the ball, which he did twice, catch passes, which he did twice and return kickoffs, which he did for an 80-yard touchdown that put the capper on a 37-6 victory over Snyder of Jersey City.
“I try to treat every game the same way,” Russo said. “I knew we needed this one big time. So I was going to do everything to the best of my ability and we were able to come out with a victory. I think the kickoff return definitely played a big part in the win and gave us a bigger boost toward finishing the game strong.”
For his efforts, Russo has been selected The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week.
Russo was a little leery of Snyder, which had three top-ranked players on offense, especially quarterback Jahleel Baker, one of the best signal callers in the state.
“They definitely had some talent, no doubt,” Russo said. “But I think we’re a better team that what we’ve showed this season. We wanted to put it all together and it just clicked in this one.”
Because of Baker’s ability to throw the ball, DiGregorio moved Russo to defensive back.
“This was the week that I got placed in a different position so I could make plays defensively,” Russo said. “I was able to make some plays there.”
“He plays all three positions defensively,” DiGregorio said of his senior standout. “We put Russo in the best position for this game. Obviously, having a kid like that makes your job easier because he can play anywhere. Very few people can handle playing all three. That’s a credit to him.”
While Russo plays a big role offensively, he admits that he’s a much better defensive player. Russo has collected 79 tackles in eight games with one interception, two fumble recoveries and four sacks.
“When I was little, I used to love to score touchdowns,” Russo said. “But when I got to high school, I loved playing defense more. There’s no better feeling that making the big defensive play, making the big hit.”
Russo vividly remembers the moment when his mentality changed, thinking more of a defensive player than an offensive one.
“It was freshman year and we were playing Caldwell in the last game of the season,” Russo said. “I made a one-handed interception and took it to the house, 90 yards for a touchdown. That’s when I knew I liked the defensive side of the ball.”
DiGregorio said that there isn’t anything Russo can’t do well.
“He goes from zero to 60 pretty quick,” DiGregorio said. “He has absolutely no fear of contact whatsoever. He is a relentless defensive player. He goes to the ball so well. We need players who are resilient and Vin leads the way. He proves his resiliency every single game. He also runs well and jumps well. He can change his direction instantly.”
DiGregorio knows Russo will be able to play college football.
“He’s going to continue to play after this season,” DiGregorio said. “I have no doubt. He’s on his way. We just need to find him a spot.”
Russo said that he would love to play college football.
“Everything is still up in the air,” Russo said. “But I’d love the chance to play.”
Russo was asked if it was a downer that some college hasn’t come calling yet.
“It is a little bit disappointing,” Russo said. “But I know something will happen. We have to see how it pans out. It’s definitely my goal to play in college.”
Russo wants to major in criminal justice in college. He would love to work in forensics one day.
“He’s definitely a defensive player on the next level,” said DiGregorio, who was a running backs coach at Princeton University before coming back to coach his alma mater Nutley in two stints (2004 through 2011 and 2017 until now). “I can see him as a weak side linebacker or an outside linebacker. He’s definitely a smaller school guy, a (NCAA Division) I-AA kind of guy). It all depends on how it shakes out.”
Russo plans on running track during the outdoor spring season. He’s a sprinter, competing in the 100-meter and 200-meter dashes, as well as taking on hurdles for the first time last spring.
“I liked it a lot,” Russo said. “It was nice.”
Russo cannot comprehend that his football career at Nutley is drawing to a close. The Maroon Raiders face Caldwell this weekend and will get a consolation game from the NJSIAA in two weeks.
“It’s crazy how fast time has flown by,” Russo said. “One minute, I was a freshman and the next thing I know I’m a senior. It’s crazy to have it all come to an end.”
Maybe Russo has one more interception return in his bag of tricks.
“That would be really nice,” Russo said. “I just wish I could have done more. Playing for Nutley has meant so much to me.”
Russo doesn’t have to worry about doing much more. Despite the losing record, Vinnie Russo will always go down as one of the most versatile performers in Nutley football history.
Nutley senior WR/LB Vinnie Russo. Photo by Jim Hague
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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.”