Kearny soccer and athletic legend Briscoe dies at 79

Santiago Formoso is one of the most storied soccer players to come out of “Soccertown USA” namely Kearny. Before he became a member of the famed New York Cosmos teams of the late 1970s, a team that featured Pele and constantly filled Giants Stadium to the rafters, Formoso played at Kearny High School, where he played for a man with strong Irish roots like a good portion of the town named Tommy Briscoe.

“He tried to teach the game correctly,” Formoso recalled about Briscoe, who died last week after a battle with brain cancer. “He was more into fitness first. We would come in for training and then run like crazy. After a while, we got used to it. He was a total gentleman who cared about people. He was just a wonderful man.”

Briscoe was a great soccer player in his heyday, eventually going to Jersey City State College (now New Jersey City University), where he was regarded as the school’s all-time greatest player. A charter member of the school’s Hall of Fame in 1979, Briscoe was the all-time leading goal scorer at the school when he graduated in 1966 and still stands seventh on the all-time list more than five decades after he last played for the Gothic Knights.

Briscoe played both right back and forward for the Gothic Knights and was a four-time First Team honoree in the old New Jersey State College Athletic Conference at both positions. In 1965, Briscoe scored an astounding 13 goals in nine games. He was selected as a participant for the East Coast Olympic Tryouts in 1966 and later that year, was the placekicker for the first-ever Jersey City State football team.

His kicking prowess eventually earned him a tryout with the Dallas Cowboys.

After graduating from JCSC, Briscoe took a teaching and coaching job in his native Kearny, where he remained for 40 years. Briscoe became the head boys’ soccer coach, where he mentored players like Formoso, and was also the head girls’ soccer coach for several years. Eventually, Briscoe was elevated to the role of athletic director at the school, handling both roles as a history teacher and athletic director.

Mike Granelli coached soccer at nearby St. Peter’s College for more than 25 years and resided in Kearny when Briscoe was the soccer king of the town.

“He was an educated man,” Granelli said. “He was very friendly, a nice guy. I can’t say that he was in the “in” crowd, but I’d see him from time to time. He was strong, built like an athlete should be.”

Bruce Reed is another Kearny soccer legend who was a teammate at Kearny High with Formoso.

“He was a great influence on my life,” Reed said. “He took over a .500 team and turned it into a state champion. He was based in tactical strategy. He would work us like we were in an Army boot camp. But I liked it. He worked us hard, but he got about 95 percent of his tragedy rubbed off on kids.”

Reed sang glowingly about his former coach.

“He was a heck of a guy,” Reed said. “He was a complete Irish gentleman who best represented a Celtic warrior. He pulled no punches.”

And Reed cherished the last few years with Briscoe.

“He was a true friend,” Reed said. “I admire him for that.”

Reed became a coach himself at Middlesex County Community College for three seasons and he used to call Briscoe regularly for advice.

“He was a major influence on me there,” Reed said. “We spoke a lot on the telephone a lot. He was the best guy to do anything for you.”

John Millar, the legendary Kearny soccer coach, was just starting his coaching career when Briscoe was stepping aside.

“He just loved the game of soccer,” Millar said. “He loved just going to the field, getting down on the field and mixing and playing with the players. Tommy could strike a ball better than anyone. He had a cannon of a shot. He was the man who hired me and gave me my shot. He was absolutely a great guy. After I became the head coach, Tommy and would talk. He was a kind hearted guy who was willing to help anyone. I’ll always remember Tommy singing Irish and Scottish songs.”

Jim Cifelli, the legendary track and field coach at Kearny High, also recalled Briscoe fondly.

“Tommy was the AD (athletic director) when I started,” Cifelli said. “He was the kind of guy who let you do your own thing. He cared so much about the kids. He made sure the kids were treated properly. He was an honest guy, a straight forward guy who didn’t put up with the political crap. He was easy to talk to. He was kind spirited.”

Cifelli recalled a time where he played golf with Briscoe.

“We were playing golf in Belmar and a branch from a tree came down and knocked his contact lens out,” Cifelli said. “He had to go home because he couldn’t see. That’s my last memory of Tommy. He was just a nice guy.”

Rutgers University women’s head soccer coach Mike O’Neill, a Kearny native who will lead his team to the NCAA College Cup Final Four this weekend in Santa Clara, California, also recalled Briscoe with fondness.

“He was so good to so many people,” said O’Neill, speaking on the phone en route to Briscoe’s services. “He was so loved. He was so involved in my career and Robert (McCourt, the Monmouth University head men’s soccer coach). He was always supportive of who we were and where we are today. He was loved by so many people. He was like a second Dad to me. He’s what Kearny is all about.”

Briscoe left Kearny in 1988 and moved to Marco Island, Florida, where he lived his final years. He taught history at Lely High School in Naples, Florida for 21 years and coached the boys’ soccer team at Lely, as well as both the boys’ and girls’ soccer teams at St. John Neumann High School.

Briscoe’s funeral services were held in Spring Lake earlier this week. He is survived by his wife, Patricia, four daughters and a son. Tommy and Pat Briscoe were married for 36 years.

Incredibly, Briscoe was diagnosed with brain cancer in late October and passed away just three weeks later.

He will be sorely missed by all who loved him.

“I’d look forward to his phone calls to talk about soccer,” Formoso said. “It was good to hear someone else’s thoughts about a game. We would watch the Champions League games and then comment on them. We talked about once a week. We were both soccer addicts. Once you have a friend like Tommy, it doesn’t matter how much time passes. You reconnected with him and you had him for life.”

“I just spoke with him about three weeks ago,” Reed said. “He said that he took his wife to the store. He didn’t want to talk about his illness. That’s who he was. He was my Coach until the end. Something like this shows you that life is a gift until the end. I’ll always remember his integrity and his fighting spirit.”

Learn more about the writer ...

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.”