NUTLEY, NJ-- J.D. Vick’s words have always resonated.

“Steve is our head coach,” said the interim head coach, of Nutley High’s head football man, Steve DiGregorio. “When he’s here, we’re all better, as a staff and as a team. And he’s here, every day, whether we’re on the phone, or he’s at the games. He’s our leader.”

The Town of Nutley Commissioners had voted to name Oct. 19 ‘Coach D Day’, in honor of DiGregorio, who is battling cancer. DiGregorio looked quite fit when he arrived at the Oval for the game, and was clearly excited about the event, mainly because it meant a day to spend with his players and staff, on ‘Homecoming Day’. 

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Coach D Day was a huge success, as Nutley responded with a big win over Lincoln, 27-7, on a picture-perfect weather day at the Oval. The Raiders improved to 3-4 on the season, and snapped a 2-game losing streak. It will be home again this Saturday, Oct. 26, to play Snyder, of Jersey City, at 2 p.m., with a NJSIAA playoff berth a possibility.

DiGregorio was at the Oval some 2 ½ hours before kickoff. As he spoke to friends in the parking lot adjacent to the Oval, it was noted how healthy he looked.

“I’m feeling good,” said DiGregorio with a big smile. “My doctors are aggressive, they’re letting me do a lot and I’m feeling good because of it. I’m walking regularly, and hope to start lifting weights soon.”

While he’s receiving cancer treatments, DiGregorio wasn’t there to discuss that.

“(The heck) with that,” he said. “We have a big game today. I’m fortunate enough to work with a great staff and they’ve done a tremendous job with this team. J.D. and I talk every day. He’s a really good man and we’re always going over stuff.”

We talked about Nutley’s 2010 team, which made a tremendous run to the state championship game at brand new MetLife Stadium.

“I had actually gone to a state championship game a few years earlier, between Wayne Valley and Wayne Hills (at the old Giants Stadium),” recalled DiGregorio. “And when I left that day, I said I wouldn’t go back for a championship game there, unless  we were in the game. Even though we lost in 2010, it was an incredible experience.”

As the Raiders concluded its pre-game drills and headed to the lockerroom for a final conversation before kickoff, Nutley athletic director Joe Piro invited me to visit.

As I walked in, I double checked with DiGregorio to make sure it was okay for me to be there. He smiled and said “You’re family. This is where you should be.”

Piro then gave a scintillating speech to the players.

“I never had an older brother,” said Piro, his voice cracking. “But Steve is that, for me. He may have been dealt a tough hand, but he’s doing his job and wants to be there for you.

“This is a man who drives an hour to work every day, and an hour home. He leaves in the morning, when it’s still dark and he gets home, when it’s dark again. His (professional) life is teaching and coaching at Nutley. He’s always been about his family, and you kids. And we’ve got his back. 

“So when you guys go out and play this game, give it all you got. Empty the tank. Because I know this, if you do that, if you play with all your heart today, you’ll win. I have no doubt about that.”

Piro and DeGregorio are Nutley High graduates, albeit 10 years apart. 

“Once a Raider, always a Raider,” said Piro. “Today was an emotional day. Steve is a great man. We don’t always agree, which is what makes a good working relationship. I love him with all my heart.”

While Piro spoke, DiGregorio’s three sons, Aaron, Zach and Derek sat and listened in the room. Once Piro finished and encouraged the team, the players cheered. 

In typical DiGregorio fashion, as the players stood up to leave, he said, “Let’s go to work, men.” 

And that was it. Because in Steve’s world, it’s never about him. 

Once on the field, there was a pre-game ceremony, as the official proclamation of ‘Coach D Day’ was read to the crowd. There was also the introduction of the Homecoming Court, for the King and Queen.

When the whistle blew, the Raiders made a statement, with its best performance of the season. A win would put the team squarely in line for a NJSIAA playoff berth, in Group 3.

Nutley opened a 21-0 lead by halftime and went on to a 27-7 win. Gennaro Longobardi caught a pair of touchdown passes from Justin Lucia in the first half and ended up with three TD catches, overall. Lucia’s fourth touchdown pass was to John Coppola. Lucia also kicked a point after and ran for a 2-point conversion.

“I felt it in my bones,” Piro would say later. “There was no question we were going to play well today.”

As the game concluded, DiGregorio was lifted upon the shoulders of two Nutley linemen and carried off the field, in a old-time football moment.

“That was really something,” said DiGregorio, who was his usual aggressive self on the sideline during the game, lending criticism when needed and support, as always. “Our team played well today, and that’s the most important thing. I’m so honored to have been a part of this day, but this is about our team, first and foremost.” 

Most importantly, there was Steve’s wife, Nadia, and the couple’s sons, at the game. They are, first and foremost, Steve’s world.

Nadia took photos during the game and the couple’s sons stood on the sidelines, rooting on their dad’s team.

It wasn’t just another day. 

 

Related Article: Community Support Pours In As Nutley Head Football Coach Steve DiGregorio Battles Cancer

 

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