REMEMBERING COACH STEVE DIGREGORIO: Long-time Nutley grid coach dies aged 60

Coach with legendary Giants quarterback Phil Simms Observer file photo

Steve DiGregorio, a native of Nutley who played football at Nutley High School and then had two successful stints as the head coach of the Maroon Raiders, lost his battle to pancreatic cancer last week. He was 60 years old.

DiGregorio was first diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2019 and vowed to beat the disease, refusing to let cancer beat him. He stepped aside a bit that season, but remained as head coach, then triumphantly returned to the sidelines in 2020 to coach the Maroon Raiders to an undefeated 6-0 season that resulted in a Super Football Conference Divisional title. It was Nutley’s first undefeated season since 1939.

But when the cancer returned in March, DiGregorio retired to seek treatment for the disease.

In a Zoom meeting with his players, DiGregorio told them about his decision to step down.

“I told the kids that I’ll always be a part of them,” DiGregorio said in an interview done after his decision to step down. “I told them that I’ll always be around. I’ll always be a part of them. I’m a Maroon Raider. But in my heart, I knew that it was the right thing to do.”

So unselfishly, DiGregorio stepped aside, leaving the position he occupied from 2004 through 2011, then from 2017 through 2020. DiGregorio guided the Maroon Raiders to 85 victories during his two stints at his alma mater and led the Maroon Raiders to the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III championship game at the then brand new MetLife Stadium in 2009, falling to Morristown in the final.

“I’ll always remember the players,” DiGregorio said. “I’ll always remember taking those teams and leading them down the stairs of the (Nutley) Oval. That will never get old. I could have done that 1,000 times. It’s a great place to be a football coach. It was my job to build better memories for the players. It was my job to instruct the coaches and lead them as to do what they had to do. You bet I enjoyed myself. I really did. There are always going to be some bumps in the road and some games I’d love to have back. But I have nothing but great memories. The kids never quit.”

Some of those players recalled DiGregorio fondly.

“It was awesome that he went out with a win against our rival Belleville,” said All-State lineman Billy Searle. “We were all happy to do that for him. We knew how much of a fighter he was and it’s not easy fighting that disease.”

Searle said that DiGregorio was strong and vibrant in that incredible undefeated season of a year ago.

“You wouldn’t have had a clue,” Searle said. “He came in with a smile on his face every day and came ready to work. He was strict, but in a good way. I think we played so well because of the way he taught us. He wasn’t too nice and wasn’t too meek. He showed up every day. It was very special for me and my friends to be part of that team. And he ended his career with a win over Belleville. No Nutley coach could have ever wanted more.”

Searle said that he’s always going to cherish DiGregorio’s pre-game ritual.

“He would go up to every player before the game and shake everyone’s hand,” Searle said. “He’d tell us all good luck and what we needed to do. He did that with every single player. He’s a big reason why I became the player I am today.”

Matthew Harbison is the current quarterback of the Maroon Raiders who spearheaded the team’s 42-3 win over Barringer last Saturday, a game where the Maroon Raiders wore (COACH D, 1961-2021) decals on their helmets to honor the late coach.

“I’m fortunate to have had the chance to play for him,” Matthew Harbison said. “He was all about business and correcting mistakes. This guy really wanted the best of me. He saw potential in each and every one of us. He was a big part of my life. He helped me a lot with my recruiting process. He wanted me to go to a good school.”

Harbison continues to visit schools and has yet to make his decision about 2022.

Harbison was glad that DiGregorio went out on his term

“He deserved that last season to be as successful as we were,” Harbison said. “He earned that season and we did our parts to make sure we got it for him.”

J.D. Vick stepped in as the interim head coach during the 2019 season and got the full-time job

only a few years after DiGregorio decided to retire last March. Vick, a native of Alabama, came to Nutley after working for a Christian Fellowship and just asked to serve as a volunteer on DiGregorio’s staff during his first tenure.

“Here’s a guy from Tuscaloosa who showed up looking for a shot and Coach D gave me a shot when no one else wanted me,” said Vick, now the head coach at Nutley who has guided the Maroon Raiders to a 5-1 record this season. “I was so grateful that he gave me that opportunity. He obviously had a great impact on me. He was a great husband and father and it was a great honor knowing him. He always looked out for the interest of others. If he respected you, then he fought for you. He always looked out for those in need.”

Vick said that some of the members of his coaching staff joined him in visiting DiGregorio just a few weeks ago.

“He was still coaching football,” Vick said. “He was asking about our upcoming opponent (River Dell) and was still watching our games on Hudl (the video service). The last text I got from him was congratulating us on that win.”
The Maroon Raiders won 29-28 in thrilling last-minute fashion.

“I read that text to the team,” Vick said. “I know he was enjoying our success. Just considering the situation he was in and he sent us a text. It meant so much more.”

Vick said that DiGregorio’s legacy will live on.

“He left the standard for us to live up to,” Vick said. “It’s up to us now to keep that standard. It’s my privilege to keep that going. I think that playing Saturday is what Coach D wanted. He would be saying, ‘Don’t think of me. Just go out on the field and play like a Raider.’”

No one was closer to DiGregorio than Nutley athletic director Joe Piro, who served as an assistant coach on DiGregorio’s staff and then became the AD.

“My coach Gene Carpenter at Millersville University used to say that good things happen to good people,” Piro said. “Well that last season was for Steve DiGregorio. There’s no better way to sum up his life. He could have easily said, ‘Oh, woe is me and I’m giving up,’ But he didn’t do that. He hunkered down and fought it with love and passion.”

Piro said that he’s going to always cherish DiGregorio’s friendship.

“My heart hurts because I just miss my friend,” Piro said with emotion in his voice. “Take football out of it. He’s the best guy I’ve ever known. I wish I could be half the man that Steve DiGregorio was.”

Piro said that he recalled his father and uncle coaching Midget football in Nutley a long time ago and one of his father’s favorite players was Steve DiGregorio.

“Steve’s first experience in football was playing for my father,” Piro said. “Then I became his offensive line coach and I loved it. I learned so much from him. I always wanted to do something to impress him.”

Then, Piro became DiGregorio’s boss.

“I was the luckiest guy in the world, because with him, I never had a thing to worry about,” Piro said. “He always had the best things in mind for Nutley. Not just Nutley High School or Nutley football. But Nutley.”

Piro said that he’s always going to remember DiGregorio’s postgame ritual.

“I’m going to miss those hugs,” Piro said. “More than anything in the world, I’m going to miss those hugs. I’ll miss when he would pop into my office just to talk. I mean, we went to (Bruce) Springsteen concerts together. It was friendship more than anything.”

Jim Kelly is the current head coach at Caldwell University, but it was when Kelly stepped down at Nutley in 2004 that DiGregorio stepped in. The two were friends from their days growing up on Margaret Street and playing sandlot football in what is now known as DeMuro Park.

“That’s how we met,” Kelly said. “We were just a group of neighborhood kids playing football.”

Kelly said that he’s always going to remember DiGregorio’s passion.

“It’s the one thing that stands out,” Kelly said. “In the classroom, in football, he had such passion. Steve and I had a lot of private conversations over the years over things. He would always say, ‘Win the mini-battle and you eventually win the war.’ Those are the types of things we shared. The relationship deepened over the years, holiday phone calls and texts. When he came back to coach (in 2020), he made sure I was there to watch his team. There were so many bad things going on, with COVID and all. But he still had that passion, the passion to be successful in whatever he did. He lived life with a purpose.”

Bob Harbison, the current assistant football coach and head baseball and basketball coach at the school, recalled how he became an assistant football coach.

“I really didn’t know him well before,” Harbison said. “In fact, he was a little intimidating. He ran a tight ship. I found out we were very similar. He let us do our job as assistants. He said that he wanted to be inspired by the kids. I learned that from him. I always try to get kids to lift us up and lift up the team. He was great to work with. He’s the one who talked me back into coaching football. With all he had on his plate, he always still had time for everyone. He did everything the right way. He lived his life and never complained. He was just a wonderful guy to be around.”

Some of his opposing coaches also spoke highly of him.

Ken Trimmer, the legendary coach at Caldwell High School and current assistant to Kelly at Caldwell University, said that his daughter and DiGregorio’s wife Nadia were friends at Caldwell High.

“I’ve known Nadia since she was in high school,” Trimmer said. “No matter what the situation was, he always had a smile on his face. He was a great person who cared deeply about his family. Not only was a good father, but a great coach. And he kept making himself a better coach.”

The Essex County Football Coaches Association inducted DiGregorio into its Hall of Fame last year. Trimmer has headed that organization for years.

“He was an exceptional man,” Trimmer said. “We’re all going to miss him. I’ll remember how brave and strong he was to the end. He was doing the best that he could, giving 100 percent of himself. I loved that about him.”

Long-time Bloomfield head coach Mike Carter said that DiGregorio was “a class act, a terrific guy who fought the battle of his life with distinction. He certainly left his mark. It was always great to see him. He really left a hell of a mark.”

Belleville head coach Jermain Johnson owns the distinction of being the last coach that DiGregorio defeated in that game last November.

“My brother Rashone and Steve worked together at Princeton University,” Johnson said. “With those two, I always felt like I was a part of them. When Steve died, I felt like a part of me just left me. He was a great inspiration to everyone. We don’t get to choose the path that the Lord gives us. If anyone wants to know what a fighter is, he was it. He fought it and fought it to the end. He was someone who cared for everybody. When I got the job at Belleville, he was one of the first people to call me and told me if I needed anything to give him a call.”

Steve DiGregorio leaves a wife, Nadia and three sons. His youngest son, Derek, is handicapped, but a charity was formed called Derek’s Dreams that helps those with handicaps. Steve DiGregorio was committed to that charity, like he was committed to Nutley, the football players and the thousands of people he called friends. He will be sorely missed.

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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.”