MONTVILLE, NJ – What started out as two teens attending a basketball game, ended in a nightmare for two families.
Sam Cali and Leo Vagias were going to a basketball game on Father’s Day 2016, but never made it home. A tragic car accident ended both their lives at the young age of 19. They had both just finished their freshman year of college.
The next few days went by in a blur, Sam’s mother, Theresa Cali, told TAPinto Montville. Thousands attended the funeral and wake. And two families had to bury their young sons.
The Cali family began the Samuel D.J. Cali Foundation in honor of Sam. The foundation board is mostly made up of family members. Sam’s father Michael, a police captain, is the president; he works on events, logos, and spearheading the foundation. Theresa is the treasurer. Sam’s brother Michael Jr., a chemist, is the vice president; he handles the social media, events and branding. Friends of the family serve in other roles, such as Missy Levinson, who is project manager; Michael Pecci does branding and is a board trustee and Greg Schmitt, who does the graphic art. The family makes decisions together, sitting at the kitchen table, Theresa said.
The first Samuel Cali “Battle for the Belt” was held in January of 2018 at West Orange High School. A wrestling competition, 400 high school athletes competed for two days, and $500 scholarships were awarded to the winners of each weight class, with a customized championship belt. Five thousand people attended, Theresa said.
“We wanted to help the students; we wanted to help other people,” Theresa says of the event.
The idea for the large event came out of Sam’s passion for wrestling. He placed third in the 2015 NJ state championship in Atlantic City and was a two-time All American in 2013 and 2015 when he was a high school student at Don Bosco Prep. At Rutgers University, he was Redshirt Freshman.
“The best of New Jersey wrestled at the Battle for the Belt, and the top 20 NJ teams attended, 12 out-of-state teams came, and college coaches came to watch,” Theresa said.
Funding for the scholarships came in part from a golf outing, the second of which will be on Sept. 24 at Montclair Golf Club in West Orange.
“There will be a Porsche 911 for any person who achieves a hole-in-one,” Theresa said.
When Sam was 17, Theresa said, he broke his foot and she broke her ankle. Sam refused to throw away all the equipment they needed for their injuries – the crutches, the boots – and wanted to give them to homeless veterans.
“This is how Project Serve started,” Theresa said. She said the Cali Foundation just donated 500 pairs of new eye glasses, hearing aids, and a blood pressure machine to Vets4Warriors. The foundation donates similar items to organizations such as the Vietnam Vets and the VFW.
Another initiative the foundation will be starting is Wrestler2Wrestler, a counseling hotline for wrestlers.
“Rutgers is a Big Ten wrestling team,” Theresa said, “and it can be overwhelming, the stress that wrestlers are put under. You have to travel, make weight, you can be injured, you have maintain your grades. Sam used to practice in the morning, have classes, then have more practice afterwards. It’s a lot of pressure. This program will offer confidential peer mentoring and resources for elementary, high school and college-level wrestlers across the country, through Rutgers.” The hotline number is 1-833-929-2255, Theresa said.
Rutgers has done a lot for the Cali family, according to Theresa. The university has the Sam Cali Redshirt Award for wrestling, given to the wrestler who demonstrates the qualities that Sam did. After the Rutgers wrestling program sold 2,000 season tickets for the 2017-18 season, reaching its goal in memory of Sam, an anonymous donor donated $100,000 back to the program towards the naming of a Rutgers wrestling assistant coach’s office at the new athletic performance center after Sam. His locker is still intact in the wrestling locker room there, every item in the locker as it was the last time he hung it there.
“They had a day of remembrance for Sam,” Theresa said. “I’m glad he went to our state flagship school. His coaches still call me and come to our events.” Sam had been studying computer engineering and finance.
Coming up on Saturday, July 21, the foundation is offering a benefit called Sam Jam, featuring the music of Glenn Haines, Owl Kill, Zach Kahn, Turkish Royale, Garrett Gardner and Gina Royale. Vendors will include Fragetti's Artisan Deli, Marra's, and Mr. Sam's Ice Cream. Tickets are $10, with VIP tickets $40 offering premiere seating and swag. The concert will be at noon at the amphitheater behind the library.
The Cali family is working on the Sam Jam, the golf outing, and all of its events, to keep up Sam’s legacy, Theresa said.
“I want people to know that we want to raise money for U.S. veterans, children’s hospitals and people in need so they can fulfill their dreams,” she said.
The Cali family is especially thankful for the love that has been expressed by the Montville Township community.
“Sam loved Montville, and his friends, the team; he loved life,” Theresa said. “And the people of Montville have been so good to us.”
Find the foundation on Instagram @Cali_Foundation, email Mike@SamCali.com and on Facebook @SamuelDJCaliFoundation
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