PATERSON, NJ – Benjie Wimberly has spent his 22-year career as a high school head football coach helping Paterson teams win.
But on Friday, things will be different. Wimberly’s goal will be to send the Paterson team home on the losing end of the score.
In his debut season as head coach at Hackensack High, Wimberly faces back-to-back games against Paterson’s two high schools. The Comets will host the Ghosts of Eastside on Friday and then his squad comes to Paterson to play the Kennedy Knights next weekend.
In an interview on Wednesday, Wimberly downplayed the games. “On my end, it’s just another day at the office that happens to be against Paterson,’’ said Wimberly. But he also acknowledged that these will be opponents he knows like no others.
“Ninty-nine percent of these kids, I know,’’ Wimberly said of the Eastside and Kennedy teams, “either from recreation programs, from the schools, or from my own kids.’’
In many ways, Wimberly is more than just a coach in Paterson. He is a sports icon. He coached at Eastside for nine years and at Paterson Catholic for 13 years, winning more than his share of state championship titles, before the parochial school shut down in 2010. He also works as the joint recreation coordinator for the city’s school district and the municipal recreation division.
In 2010, Wimberly’s popularity propelled him to an easy victory in the at-large City Council election. In 2011, he handily won a seat in the state Assembly.
When Wimberly took the head coaching job at Hackensack this season, some folks in Paterson were disappointed. They wanted him to take over one of Paterson’s high school programs. But Wimberly said he didn’t want to poach a position from the city coaches already in place.
The players at Eastside and Kennedy know Wimberly. “They’ve been talking about it,’’ said Eastside Head Coach Jermain Johnson. “They’re having fun with it. It gives them a little something extra to play for.’’
Wimberly won’t be the only familiar face across the field. When he took the job at Hackensack, several paid and volunteer assistant coaches from Eastside made the move with him.
“They were Benjie’s guys,’’ said Johnson. “It was expected.’’
Hackensack is 2-1 under Wimberly and is considered the favorite against a 0-3 Eastside squad. “We’re young,’’ said Johnson. “We have six or seven seniors. We’re a junior-sophomore team.’’
Kennedy, meanwhile, is 2-1.