NUTLEY, NJ – Who better to help lead Nutley through the anxiety of dealing with COVID-19 fears than Nutley High School Head Football Coach and cancer survivor Steve DiGregorio.
DiGregorio, raised in Nutley and tackling a battle with cancer head-on, recently competed six months’ worth of chemotherapy treatments. As coronavirus concerns arise within the township, Steve knows what it’s like to fight in the trenches facing a life and death struggle.
“Nutley is a strong, resilient, caring community - and it always has been since I was a kid,” DiGregorio told TAPinto Nutley. “Lots of communities are strong, but I really believe that there's something in Nutley's DNA that has made it special for so long.” Nutley has a long and storied history of great leadership, along with tremendous civic pride and participation.
“When anyone needs help, the community always jumps in – Nutley's heart is gigantic, and I don't think that will ever change,” DiGregorio said. “All squabbles are immediately put aside when someone in Nutley needs help or if a group needs some type of assistance. This coronavirus challenge we have is certainly different in that Nutleyites have been affected in many ways.”
As of Tuesday morning, Nutley had 101 known cases of COVID-19 coronavirus with five deaths.
“It is heartbreaking, and I pray that those numbers will lessen soon, but all of us have to prepare ourselves for a long haul,” DiGregorio explained. “The great businesses in town will continue to be affected. I am positive that the community through its leadership, civic organizations and the thousands of Nutleyites, will band together and get through this and help all those who need support.”
Nutley students started virtual learning from home on Monday, March 16. That will continue until at least Friday, May 1, according to Governor Phil Murphy. All Spring sporting activities have also been canceled through at least May 1.
“It's a challenge for all educators and coaches during this crisis,” said DiGregorio. “Our Spring-sport athletes lost lots of time and opportunities. Athletic Director Joe Piro and district administers are trying to address all aspects of our students. From my perspective, my communication with our football program reinforces our town guidelines during this time.”
DiGregorio played football for Nutley High School and graduated in 1979. Steve and his wife, Nadia, raised their three sons in the Princeton area, where he currently resides.
In 2004, Steve returned to Nutley High as a teacher and head football coach, a position he held for eight seasons.
After serving as volunteer assistant coach at Princeton High where he had the opportunity to coach his sons, Steve returned as Nutley head coach in 2017.
“Our players need to pay close attention to their schoolwork,” DiGregorio stressed. “The delivery of education is greatly modified with the introduction of virtual learning. The teachers in our district are doing all they can to continue the learning process in a very different environment and they are doing an outstanding job.”
With social distancing and stay-at-home mandates in place, student-athletes are finding it difficult to maintain their strength, speed and agility.
“I've asked our strength coach, Matt Bustos, to put together in-home workouts for our players to do,” said DiGregorio. “It’s been posted along with videos on specific exercises they are asked to do. We have no idea when we will get into the weight-room, so these types of individual home workouts are a way to maintain and improve their strength.”
It’s been a challenge for Coach DiGregorio also, with a compromised immune system following his surgery in July. The procedure confirmed that Steve did have cancer and would have to undergo chemotherapy. It caused him to miss the 2019 Raiders season.
“I have finished my treatments – they took about six months,” DiGregorio stated. “I could not have handled this without my faith, family and friends. A battle like this takes a long time, but so far, things are going well. My family and I are forever grateful to the Nutley community for its incredible support and love. The (Friends of Coach D) event on November 14 was so unexpected - it will be in my heart forever. I'd especially like to thank Joe Piro for putting that night together. It was very special.”
While recovering from surgery, DiGregorio heard from many former students, players and their families.
“It was absolutely incredible – so many called and texted to check in on me,” DiGregorio said. “I've really enjoyed hearing from so many. It means the world to me. There is no question that the Nutley community that includes the town commission, my colleagues in our district, lots of life-long friends, and my current players have helped me meet this challenge head on.”
Throughout his treatments, DiGregorio volunteered at Mercer County's largest food bank.
“It’s been a tremendous experience – the issue of hunger is very real and very large,” stated DiGregorio. “I worked with some amazing people who are so devoted to make sure that people who need food can get it and that kids will not go hungry. It’s been an honor to do this.”
Dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic after long, intensive chemotherapy has been a challenge for DiGregorio, but nowhere near as great of a challenge for his son, Derek, who was born with a rare genetic disease called Ataxia Telangiectasia.
“Only 500 Americans have the disease and he is at high risk to COVID-19,” said a concerned DiGregorio. “He's an incredibly tough young man who is my role model in how to deal with adversity. I get strength from him every day. So we are both hunkered down here, getting fresh air when we can and washing our hands relentlessly.”
DiGregorio continued, “as I have watched Derek fight this disease for over 20 years, he has given me the template as to handle adversity and do it with perseverance, toughness, grit and grace. My wife Nadia and our other two sons, Zack and Aaron, have been terrific through this whole ordeal. It’s great to know that the five of us are part of great communities who care so deeply; Princeton and Nutley.”
During these uncertain times, Nutley can take some comfort in knowing they have an experienced coach guiding them toward the light at the end of the tunnel.
Since 2016, TAPintoNutley.net has been the only locally owned news organization serving the Township of Nutley, and is a member of the New Jersey Press Association. The Nutley Board of Commissioners first named TAPintoNutley.net the township's 'Official Electronic News Source' in 2019.