A fitting way to pay tribute to ‘Coach D’

NUTLEY —  One step inside the banquet room on second floor of the Franklin Steak House last Thursday night and the first reaction was one of astonishment and amazement. It wasn’t hard to utter a “Wow” for the turnout of people that assembled there, some 400-plus.

People like New York Giants Super Bowl MVP and famed television analyst Phil Simms, current Rutgers University interim head coach Nunzio Campanile and famed ESPN Radio host and former MSG Network high school sports guru Mike Quick were just some of those in attendance.

But when you consider the reason why everyone was packed into Franklin, then the turnout wasn’t as surprising.

It was a night to honor long-time Nutley native son Steve DiGregorio for his four decades of commitment to Maroon Raider athletics, predominately football.

DiGregorio, a native of Margaret Avenue in town, has served two stints as the head football coach at Nutley High School and was a great football player during his days as a Maroon Raider. He’s been a teacher in the district for more than 20 years and has enjoyed a stellar career as a coach, not only at Nutley, but also Princeton University and Paramus Catholic High School.

DiGregorio is currently battling pancreatic cancer and his medical bills have become astronomical, so Nutley High School athletic director Joe Piro decided to throw a tribute night for the man affectionately known as “Coach D” to the players at Nutley and as “Digger” to DiGregorio’s friends and teammates from Muhlenberg College.

Maybe a night like last Thursday could help raise funds to ease a little bit of that financial burden that the hideous disease like cancer can bring to someone and his family.

“I know that he would do the same thing for me,” Piro said of the reason for throwing the fundraiser. “Steve’s a proud man and would never ask for help, but after what he’s done for our kids in Nutley for 40 years, he deserves this. I never had an older brother, but if I did, he would be Steve DiGregorio. It’s the least I could do.”

Piro had no idea that the night would take off the way it did. The night was originally scheduled to be held at the Nutley Elks, but when Piro sold more tickets than the Elks’ capacity of 200, Piro had to move it to the Franklin Steak House.

“It blew up in the last 48 hours,” Piro said. “My phone hasn’t stopped ringing with people calling and wanting to come. I think it says a lot about what kind of a man Steve DiGregorio is.”

Simms spent many hours working out with DiGregorio’s son Zack, who aspired to learn about being a quarterback from the Giants’ legend.

“It’s an honor for me to here,” said Simms, who spent most of the night posing for pictures and signing autographs. “Steve and I have been friends for about 30 years. Zack and I spent many nights together, throwing the ball around. We have a lot of great memories and have a special kind of friendship. I’m really honored to be here for Steve. I admire him a lot. I hope things turn out great for him.”

Quick said that he became friendly with DiGregorio when he did a special for the MSG Network about the best Thanksgiving Day rivalries. Instantly, Quick thought of the old Nutley-Belleville showdowns.

“I made one call to Steve and he graciously welcomed us,” Quick said of the meeting during DiGregorio’s first stint as head football coach at DiGregorio’s alma mater. “I think we all wanted to come out and show support to Steve. He’s someone who has been there for every kid over the last 30 years or so. He’s made a difference in everyone’s lives. I think this is our time to say ‘Thank you’ to Steve and tell him to get well soon.”

Current Belleville head coach Jermain Johnson was in attendance. Johnson faced off against DiGregorio on Nov. 3, 2018, in the NJSIAA “regional crossover” game that took the place of a state playoff contest, a game that Nutley won, 20-13, in a game that had the feel and excitement of an old Turkey Day clash at the Nutley Oval.

“Steve and I are good friends,” said Johnson, who this season guided the Buccaneers to their best season in more than 30 years, finishing 7-3. “It means everything in the world for me to be here. I would drop everything on a dime for him. He’s family on my end. Steve is such a well liked guy that I knew there would be a turnout like this for him. It’s really what I expected.”

A ton of DiGregorio’s coaching brethren and colleagues were there as well.

“Steve is such a man of great character and strength,” said Nutley native Greg Butler, a former assistant Nutley assistant football coach for seven years under DiGregorio who is currently the athletic director at Northern Valley/Old Tappan High School. “Steve is such a role model for so many for so long. Everyone loves Steve. He’s one of Nutley’s own. He’s shown so much loyalty to Nutley. This is a fitting night.”

“Steve has done so much for everyone,” said Nutley head basketball and baseball coach Bob Harbison, who has also been an assistant football coach under DiGregorio for the last few years. “He’s helped players, coaches, administrators, everyone. Whatever we could do to make Steve feel a little better, then we’ll do it. When I heard about what was going on, I knew a lot of people would show up. There are a lot of faces here that you don’t see on a regular basis.”

Needless to say, DiGregorio was obviously moved by the tribute. Many of his teammates from Muhlenberg College were there. So were players from his days at Princeton University and players from Paramus Catholic.

But it was a Nutley evening through and through, because after all, DiGregorio is a Nutley guy.

“It’s beyond humbling,” DiGregorio said. “It’s overwhelming. I had no idea it would be this big. This is just crazy. It’s really unbelievable. Some of my oldest friends in the world are here. I never expected anything like this.”

When it came time for DiGregorio to speak – a little after Zack DiGregorio spoke about his father – Steve DiGregorio issued powerful words.

“My heart is full,” DiGregorio said. “I promised everyone that I wouldn’t go long and I wouldn’t be emotional. I don’t know if I can live up to that promise now. I could not move an inch without my wife Nadia. She’s the rock upon which we built our family. I’m always going to be a proud son of Nutley. This has just been so overwhelming.”

And DiGregorio ended with the strongest words of the evening, words of strength that best personify who Steve DiGregorio truly is.

“I have cancer,” DiGregorio said. “We all know that. But I’m going to knock this thing out.”





“If you think this party is big,” Piro said, “well, it’s nothing compared to the one we’ll throw when he beats it.”




Nutley head football coach Steve DiGregorio (left) poses with New York Giants Super Bowl MVP Phil Simms at the “Night For Coach D” last week at the Franklin Steak House. Photo by Jim Hague


Nutley head football coach Steve DiGregorio says a few words, while son Derek watches. 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.”