Two Observer Athletes of Week from Belleville with same passion

In February of 2006, Bobby Cozzarelli shocked the local sports scene, when the Belleville High School junior wrestler won the Essex County championship as a No. 5 seed. That title earned him the distinction of being The Observer Athlete of the Week.

Cozzarelli went on to Quinnipiac University and earned his doctorate in physical therapy.

He is now employed by Hackensack University Medical Center and works out of the HUMC/Giants facility in Maywood.

Twelve years later, Eric Rivera, another Belleville High product, made similar headlines by scoring 11 touchdowns in his first four games of the 2018 football season. Rivera’s explosion onto the local scene earned him the right of being The Observer Athlete of the Week last month.

When Rivera was interviewed for his AOW feature, he expressed interest in possibly becoming a physical therapist someday.

That interest ignited an idea. What would it be like to have two Observer AOWs together to discuss their interests for a possible career?

Sure enough, the 30-year-old Cozzarelli returned to Belleville High recently to meet Rivera to discuss his career in physical therapy.

“I knew I wanted to help people,” Cozzarelli said. “I thought that working in physical therapy would make me happy and satisfy me. When I was in high school, I was a wrestler 24 hours a day, seven days a week all year. It was all I knew. When I graduated, I knew I wanted to do something in sports. So I realized that I wanted to be the best student of physical therapy that I could be. I used the same motivation I had when I was an athlete. I had the same drive.”

It was hard for Cozzarelli to fathom that his athletic days were over. He had offers to attend college and wrestle, but his dream of becoming a physical therapist won out.

“It was extremely difficult and not like any other college student,” said Cozzarelli, who was part of a select group of students accepted into Quinnipiac’s five-year doctorate program. “I was already dealing with patients’ lives. When you’re dealing with lives, every patient is a test and it’s a test that you have to ace.”

Through it all, Cozzarelli remembered his athletic roots.

“I remember Coach (Joe) Nisivoccia telling me that I had to be perfect every day,” Cozzarelli said. “Then I remembered getting that same advice in learning to be a physical therapist.”

Cozzarelli said that when he was accepted into Quinnipiac’s prestigious physical therapy program, there were 120 students.

“But I graduated with only 62,” Cozzarelli said. “A lot of people realize that it’s just not for them.”

Rivera then gave a little bit of his background to Cozzarelli. Rivera was not the best student through his time at Belleville and found himself academically ineligible to play football as a sophomore, a year after undergoing knee surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

“I think I became foolish with my time off,” Rivera said. “I was childish and didn’t realize how important my grades are. I think the time off made me realize that I needed to mature to become a better student and a better football player.”

Rivera said that he was motivated to study physical therapy because of the rehabilitation process he had to endure after his knee surgery.

“I saw the atmosphere involved and that’s why I wanted to become a physical therapist,” Rivera said. “When I was a sophomore, I just wanted to be the cool kid and play sports. I didn’t realize I had to do well in school.”

Rivera has since remedied his ways and is on a better path, thus the meeting with a proven Belleville High product working in the field that he desires. Rivera will have to take a different route, like perhaps a junior college, before heading off to a four-year or five-year program like the one Cozzarelli mastered.

“I think I’m on the right track now,” Rivera told Cozzarelli.

Cozzarelli told Rivera the importance of maintaining good grades.

“No school is going to just let you in,” Cozzarelli said. “Your grades need to get you in. You have to have blinders on. You have to set goals every day. You have to stick with it.”

Rivera told Cozzarelli that his grades have dramatically improved over the last year.

“I’m getting all B’s now,” Rivera said. “I’m seeing the results of my hard work.”

Cozzarelli told Rivera about what he does now, working with a wide variety of patients.
“Where I am now, I treat everybody,” said Cozzarelli, who spends a good portion of his week during aquatic therapy at the HUMC/Giants pool, as well as inside the facility’s training center. “I work with orthopedic patients, stroke victims, geriatrics, pediatrics,” Cozzarelli said. “I see some people who were unable to walk then manage to walk just 10 feet. And that means so much to me. I’m doing what I wanted to do. Every day, I enjoy what I do. It’s very rewarding. I’m helping people get back to do what they normally do.”

One of the patients Cozzarelli helped was the sportswriter who wrote the Athlete of the Week story 12 years ago and the same one who wrote the one about Rivera last month.

When I was prescribed water therapy by my doctors from Kessler Rehabilitation Institute in West Orange (Dr. Cristin McKenna, who by the way is a Kearny native) as part of my recovery from a severe bout with amyotrophic bilateral neuropathy and spinal stenosis five years ago this week, my first physical therapist was none other than Bobby Cozzarelli.

Bobby recognized me from the minute I stepped into the pool and remembered the AOW story.

Rivera mentioning physical therapy in his interview for being AOW made me think about paying it forward, the same way Kessler and Dr. McKenna helped me, the same way Cozzarelli helped me in my recovery.

“My mom always tells me that if I want to do something, I have to be passionate about it,” Rivera said. “You have to love it.”

So Rivera has been steered in the right direction, hopefully by a fellow Buccaneer and a broken down sportswriter who was fortunate enough to write about both of them in a simple weekly feature that has graced this newspaper for the last 16 years.

“It’s great to finally meet someone who was like me, another Athlete of the Week,” Rivera said. “I think it puts me on the right track and gives me some sort of direction. He gave me all the right advice.”

“It’s nice to see another Athlete of the Week from Belleville,” Cozzarelli said. “Any piece of advice I can give to help, I’m glad to do. He has a lot to figure out. He knows that he’ll never get a chance to do it all again.”

Cozzarelli then took a brief tour around his former high school, saw some former teachers, took a trip down Memory Lane. Belleville has certainly changed over the last 12 years, but apparently, its athletes have not. Once a Buccaneer, always a Buccaneer.



Two former Observer Athletes of the Week from Belleville, namely current senior Eric Rivera (left) and Bobby Cozzarelli (right) got together recently to discuss a possible career in physical therapy. Cozzarelli is now a doctor of physical therapy at Hackensack University Medical Center. 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.”