NUTLEY – The association between a proud and polite Southern gentleman from Alabama and the people of Nutley in northern New Jersey began so innocently in 2004.
At that time, J.D. Vick, a native of Tuscaloosa, Alabama and already the head football coach at his alma mater Tuscaloosa Christian High School, paid a visit to a church in Bloomfield for a seminar. On the advice of the legendary University of Alabama head coach Gene Stallings, Vick came calling to then-Nutley athletic director Angelo Frannicola, who earlier this year passed away after a battle with COVID-19.
Apparently, Frannicola and Stallings established a relationship a while back when Stallings brought his Crimson Tide football team north to Giants Stadium for a Kickoff Classic and needed a place to practice. Someone told Stallings to call Frannicola, who of course obliged and allowed the Crimson Tide to practice at the Nutley Oval.
From that point on, Stallings and Frannicola were like long-time bosom buddies, as long as Frannicola suggested a good restaurant in the area, which wasn’t hard for Angelo, who knew how to eat and knew how to frequent the best eating establishments in the area.
So Vick, a native of the football-driven hometown of Tuscaloosa, a place where people don’t say goodbye or farewell, but rather a sendoff of “Roll Tide,” in honor of the University of Alabama Crimson Tide, made a courtesy call to Frannicola while visiting in Bloomfield.
“I showed up here as a kid from Alabama not knowing anyone except the name of Angelo Frannicola,” Vick said. “I miss that man.”
As does everyone in Essex County – and beyond.
Vick took a gamble and left his alma mater to take a volunteer assistant coaching position at Nutley, under the tutelage of head coach Steve DiGregorio, who enabled Vick to work with the Maroon Raiders’ special teams.
Later that season, Vick was invited to spend Thanksgiving with the family of then-assistant coach and currently athletic director Joe Piro, after the Maroon Raiders squared off with archrival Belleville in their annual Turkey Day showdown.
“Gosh, there was so much food there,” Vick said. “And there were a lot of people there. I never forgot that. It was a great day.”
“He said something at practice that he wasn’t going home to Alabama for Thanksgiving,” Piro said. “I said, ‘Well, now you’re coming to my home.’”
Vick went back home for a while, but returned to Nutley to join DiGregorio’s coaching staff in 2009. A year later, the 2010 season, was a magical year in the history of Nutley football. The Maroon Raiders made it all the way to the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III championship game at MetLife Stadium, the first year of the high school state championships in the new facility.
Vick was in charge of advanced scouting for that team.
“I remember Coach D telling me that I had to go to Teaneck,” Vick said. “I said, ‘What is a Teaneck?’ I had all the directions written out and I still got lost. I knew then I wasn’t in Alabama any more.”
Coaching football at a small school in Tuscaloosa is a lot different than coaching in Nutley. For one, Vick’s coaching staff consisted of three people.
“It was really great coaching in my hometown,” Vick said. “I knew everyone and everyone knew me. But coaching football is different in the South because I had to take care of the field.”
That’s right – Vick rode the lawnmower to make sure the grass was cut before game time. And Vick also had to line the field.
“That’s what coaches do,” Vick said. “We got there early in the morning and work together to get the field ready for kickoff Friday night. It formed a tight bond between the coaches and the players. We talked about life and such. To this day, I have close relationships with a lot of those guys.”
Vick took a job at that church in Bloomfield, doing community outreach. He wasn’t about to get rich quick, but he had a job and he was coaching football. While he was working at the church, Vick got his Master’s degree and was fortunate enough to get a job in the Nutley school system.
With that, the soon-to-be 50-year-old Vick was not going to coach football again in Alabama. Instead of “Roll Tide,” he was now part of Raider Nation.
Since 2009, Vick has served as an assistant football coach, junior varsity basketball coach and assistant baseball coach at his adopted hometown.
“I’ve only coached at two schools,” Vick said. “Tuscaloosa Christian and Nutley.”
Last week, the Nutley Board of Education accepted the recommendation of Piro, who wanted Vick to be the one to replace the recently retired DiGregorio.
Vick gladly accepted the position and began the hard work of trying to replace DiGregorio, who stepped down after leading the Maroon Raiders to a perfect 6-0 record in 2020 – the first undefeated season in 81 years – and the New Jersey Super Football Conference-Freedom White Division championship.
“Having the support of Coach D means so much to me,” said Vick, who stepped in for DiGregorio in 2019 while the Nutley native was undergoing cancer treatments. “He’s basically a legend here. He’s one of the most respected guys in all of New Jersey football. He’s been a great mentor to me.”
DiGregorio, who is undergoing further chemotherapy to combat pancreatic cancer, wrote a glowing letter of recommendation to the Board of Education on Vick’s behalf.
Almost incredibly, Vick received confirmation as the new Maroon Raiders’ head football coach on April 27, 2021, 10 years to the date that a massive tornado ripped through Tuscaloosa and neighboring Birmingham, killing 64 people and causing an astronomical $2.4 billion in damages.
With DiGregorio, Vick took a group of Nutley football players to Tuscaloosa to help in any way possible, like clearing debris and painting fire hydrants for the fire department to easily find water.
“When I got there, I could recognize my hometown,” Vick said. “But we formed a real good bond. Coach D and his son Eric came down. We had about 15 guys who were with us and they still talk about it as the greatest trip they were ever on. We worked from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day. The people of Tuscaloosa were so good to our players and fed them well. They all learned a little bit about Southern cooking. I was able to gain some trust from the parents because of that trip.”
“For a while, the people of Tuscaloosa called me and sent e-mails, just wanting to thank me for allowing J.D. to bring the kids there,” Piro said. “That was really something special.”
Because of that trip, Vick was able to form a group called Huddles-A Fellowship of Christian Athletes that has regular weekly meetings outside of school. Because of the COVID-19 restrictions, the meetings had been virtual for the past year, but last week, they had their first in-person meeting – also ironically held on April 27.
“It was really a special day,” Vick said.
In 2012 and 2013, Vick helped to organize trips to Tuscaloosa to work with Habitat for Humanity, the volunteer group that helps to build homes for the needy. In Alabama, it meant the families ravaged by the tornado. Vick and the group of football players from Nutley helped to build some homes there.
“It’s cool to know people are living in homes that we helped to build,” Vick said. “Coach (Nick) Saban came over and talked to our kids. He said to them, ‘If you’re going to be a leader, then you have to be a servant.’ Players like D.J. Fluker and A.J. McCarron came over and also talked to the kids. It was pretty cool.”
Vick was an assistant coach under DiGregorio for two seasons and DiGregorio stepped down to spend more time with his football playing sons, Vick remained on with head coach Tom Basile for five years.
In 2017, DiGregorio decided to return as head coach. Two years later, DiGregorio was diagnosed with cancer and he entrusted his program to Vick.
“It was hard to put into words how I felt,” Vick said. “You hear the ‘C’ word and then hear pancreatic cancer and fear the worst. I think we’ve become closer friends since then. That season, we must have spoken four times a day. We spoke every single day. I just wanted to manage the program until he came back.”
And DiGregorio did come back to coach the Maroon Raiders for one final season, a magical undefeated championship year.
“I knew he’d be back,” Vick said. “I’m always going to lean on him for advice. One thing about Coach D that I admire is that there’s no one I’d rather have in my corner. He’ll stand up like a brick wall. His entire life has been about others. We’re good friends. He’s eaten my mother’s biscuits and gravy.”
So now it’s Vick’s baby.
“I kind of feel like Ray Perkins did, replacing a legend like Bear Bryant (at Alabama),” Vick said. “I’m following a legend. Last season was just incredible. We went from not knowing whether we would play and whether our coach would be there to winning a championship. That group of seniors we had didn’t want to talk about not having a season. The fact the way it all turned out, all the great memories, just makes us appreciate it more. I think we also appreciated Coach D more because he was here. We appreciated his leadership. This is why we love sports and what makes sports great. When we’re playing, nothing else matters. That’s special. The town is special, especially when we’re winning. Years like that just don’t happen often.”
Piro just thought that the hiring of Vick was a total no-brainer.
“He checks a lot of boxes,” Piro said. “He’s a teacher in the building. He started in the mailroom and gone to the board room, so he’s a good example for our student-athletes. He’s proven to everyone that he wants to be part of the culture here. He’s a gentleman who is truly committed to the kids. He has a compassionate heart and a passionate heart. Much like Coach D, he just brings so much to the table other than football. He’s the kind of person you want representative of your program. This is a hire I’m really excited about. I look forward to working with him and I know he’s going to be around long after I’m gone. He’s such a great guy and I know he’s going to have such great success.”
Vick said that he has received encouraging words from several alumni and current players since the recommendation was made official.
“But it’s time to get working,” Vick said. “We have to see if we can get into the weight room. I want to build a relationship with the youth programs. We have some work to do. Coach D left the program in good shape. I can’t imagine doing anything else, helping to build men for others.”
New Nutley High School head football coach J.D. Vick stands atop the gate to get into the Nutley Oval, which underwent a major facelift last year. Vick will replace Steve DiGregorio as the head coach of the Maroon Raiders for the 2021 season. Picture 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.”