This is a story of strength, a tale of determination, a saga that generally doesn’t have happy endings – but then again, this story is all about a remarkable man known as Steve DiGregorio.
It was a little over a year ago when DiGregorio began to experience some stomach discomfort. But at the time, the veteran Nutley High School head football coach didn’t believe his troubles to be serious.
“I had some issues with my stomach,” said DiGregorio, who has enjoyed two stints as the head coach of the Maroon Raiders (2004 through 2011 and then 2017 through 2019). “They were intestinal issues that made me feel uncomfortable. I just wasn’t feeling great. I just wasn’t myself.”
One of DiGregorio’s doctors thought that the coach looked “a little jaundiced,” according to DiGregorio.
After undergoing a series of tests, doctors revealed to DiGregorio that there was something blocking his bile duct. An initial endoscopy and biopsy determined that the source of the blockage was a benign tumor, but another biopsy performed July 5 found that DiGregorio had Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
“I called a lifelong friend, Dr. Andrew Pecora, who grew up on the same block with me (in Nutley),” DiGregorio said. “He runs the Theurer Center (at Hackensack University Medical Center) and he determined that whatever it was, it had to come out.”
DiGregorio, who lives in Princeton, decided it would be better for his family to have the surgery at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.
“They have done some of the best cancer research there,” DiGregorio said.
Dr. Kenneth Lee, the chief bile duct surgeon at Penn, discussed the surgery with DiGregorio.
Dr. Lee then performed the Whipple surgery July 29 on DiGregorio, surgery that usually takes five hours to complete, but DiGregorio’s was more intense, because the tumor was wrapped around and intertwined with his veins.
DiGregorio had some lymph nodes removed as well. It was a very intricate surgery.
“The doctors told me that the normal hospital stay after Whipple surgery is seven-to-10 days,” DiGregorio said. “But I was in such good shape that I was home in five days.”
However, the surgery meant one thing: DiGregorio was going to have to turn over the daily coaching duties with the Maroon Raiders to assistant coach J.D. Vick.
DiGregorio is an avid bicycle rider who keeps himself in good physical condition. That helped the healing process.
“I was told I was healing at an incredible rate,” DiGregorio said. “They had me up and walking the next day after surgery. I came home and did a lot of walks. I have a lot of friends who came for walks with me. I’m blessed with a lot of great friends who would pick me up and go for a walk.”
Eventually, DiGregorio was walking three miles a day, many of which was done motoring around the track at historic Princeton Stadium.
“My frame of mind was always good throughout,” DiGregorio said. “I was fully prepared what I had to do. The competitor in me kicked in.”
DiGregorio was a standout football player at Nutley, then Muhlenberg University, before beginning a career in coaching.
DiGregorio was reminded of his close friend Jimmy Grasso, the athletic director at Ramsey High School who died of pancreatic cancer two years ago.
“I saw what he had to go through,” DiGregorio said. “I didn’t need to have anyone tell me what the odds were. A lot of other people do research and find out the percentages. I didn’t do anything like that. I just had my oncologist (Dr. Richard Lee, no relation to the surgeon) and start me on the chemo (chemotherapy).”
That was last October. DiGregorio had to endure 12 sessions of intense chemotherapy, most of which lasted almost five hours each.
“I went every other week for chemo,” DiGregorio said. “My nurses were terrific with me. I went to the sessions with two pictures, one of me and my wife (Nadia) and the other of the five of us (Steve, Nadia and their three sons). I also had my friends come and sit with me and they were wonderful. They took the heat off of Nadia and she didn’t have to do everything.”
Even though he was battling cancer, DiGregorio remained the coach throughout the season.
“I tried to make it to every game,” DiGregorio said. “I talked to the members of the staff. We went over game plans.”
DiGregorio was present for the last game of the season last November, where he was carried off the field by the Maroon Raiders.
DiGregorio was honored at a special cocktail party last year at the Franklin Steakhouse, an event that outgrew the Nutley Elks because of the tremendous outpouring of love and support.
“I really didn’t know what to expect that night,” DiGregorio said. “It was a special night for me and my family and something I’ll cherish forever. There were guys there I hadn’t seen for 30 years. Eleven of my college teammates were there. Five of my offensive lineman I coached at Princeton (University). It was very humbling, a very special night. We come from Nutley, a place with such a strong sense of community.”
There might have been a lot of people who thought that night would have been a farewell to DiGregorio, but a lot of people are not Steve DiGregorio.
“When I was first diagnosed, I just thought of one phrase that has meant so much to me in my life,” DiGregorio said. “Don’t quit. I never use those words.”
In May, DiGregorio thought that he might have needed further surgery to have his pancreas removed, but he had radiation five days a week and took oral chemotherapy. He had his final chemotherapy session in the beginning of July.
So as we hit August and football practices – albeit with social distancing rules and such because of the pandemic – are getting ready to begin this month, DiGregorio is making plans to be on the sidelines for the Maroon Raiders – if and when the season begins, maybe in October.
“That’s the plan,” DiGregorio said. “I feel fine. The doctors are all for it (DiGregorio’s return). J.D. did a great job taking over. I’m blessed to have such a great staff, a coaching staff of Nutley people.”
DiGregorio recalled a stint in 2008, when his late father needed kidney surgery and Nadia’s mother was in the hospital at the same time.
“I said, ‘I’ll get to practice eventually,’” DiGregorio said. “I stopped at the fence of the (Nutley) Oval and just watched. The coaches had everything in control. I just took it in. I learned that if I believed in coaches who believed in the system, then everything works well. It’s a big thing in public school coaching and a homegrown staff. The town knows the staff and the staff knows the town.”
DiGregorio, who just turned 59, is ready to put a highly competitive Maroon Raider squad on the field.
“I think we have a pretty good team,” DiGregorio said. “I had some Google meetings and told them that the next place I want to see them all is on the field. I wasn’t on the field enough last year. Hopefully, we’ll all be out there soon.”
DiGregorio gives a lot of the credit to his recovery to Nadia, who has to spend most of her day caring for their wheelchair-bound son Derek, who just turned 23 years old.
“Nadia has dedicated her life to the care of Derek and has given up everything to help him,” DiGregorio said. “My wife is the backbone of our family. I’m lucky to have her. The last thing she needs is to worry about me. She’s remarkable. My strength comes from my family and my family and friends mean everything to me. Nothing is ever going to change that.”
It’s a remarkable comeback story, but it really isn’t that out of the ordinary in Steve DiGregorio’s eyes.
“We all face adversities every day,” DiGregorio said. “It’s how you embrace the adversity.”
Nutley head football coach Steve DiGregorio (center) is making plans to return to the coaching sidelines this season after making a remarkable recovery from pancreatic cancer surgery a little more than a year ago. Photo by Jim Hague
Nutley head football coach Steve DiGregorio (left) enjoyed a special moment with long-time friend Phil Simms, the New York Giants’ Super Bowl MVP quarterback, at the night honoring DiGregorio in Nutley last November. 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.”