SPRINGFIELD, NJ — After signing a contract last week with the New York Jets, Anthony Cioffi is the talk of the town. But for Cioffi, a 2013 graduate of Jonathan Dayton High School, being the topic of conversation is nothing new.
Over a career that spans stops in Piscataway, Oakland by way of Napa Valley, Ottawa and now New York, Cioffi has always been a Springfield favorite. And in an interview at his family home, Cioffi, as well as his father Jerry and mother Josephine discussed his football past, present and their hope for the future.
In a small bit of serendipity with his current stop, Cioffi's first team was the Jets. Not New York, but Kenilworth. He had success with that program, winning the Pop Warner Junior Pee Wee Championship.
"I remember when he was six years old, I brought him to Kenilworth, because that's where I was from and I played," his father Jerry said. "A big tradition there, and he saw the young little kids running around with the Kenilworth Jets helmets on ... and he fell in love with football, fell in love with the whole part of it."
"One of his first practices, he ran and fell and cut his chin, because his chinstrap wasn't on, and he ended up in the urgent care for some stitches," his mother Josephine said. "And as a parent I was like 'yes, maybe he won't play football cause he'll be scared,' because I was hoping he'd go for soccer or something like that. But no, he's like 'Ma, did you see, I got stitches from playing football.' I'm like, 'that's not what I wanted to hear!' So [football] was in his blood from a very young age for sure."
His play eventually caught the eye of then-Jonathan Dayton head football coach Joe Goerge, who pushed gently for Anthony's family to move him to Springfield football and put him in the pipeline to come to Dayton.
“Coach Goerge, he would always come in the shop. He’d see games of mine," Anthony said. "Not really recruiting, but softly saying ‘Ant, what are you doing? How’s everything? I’m going to mold you into a great young man.'
"So I was totally keen, and he had great values as a human being alone where my family was like ‘Ant, honestly, he’s a great human, and overall great person, and you want to have people in your life who impact you positively throughout your whole life, not just for this moment.’"
Jerry highlighted not only Coach Goerge, but also Coach Bob Martin as men who were able to coach as an extension of what the family believes in, and the life lessons they looked to extend to Anthony. Following his transition over to Springfield football, Cioffi continued to excel.
"You could always tell he had a gift," Josephine said. "He was gifted with speed. But one thing that you can't teach is the ethic of working hard, and he always prided himself on wanting to be the best and continued in working hard in developing his skills, because he knew he wanted to do that."
"You could always tell he really separated himself a lot amongst his peers, and he took on a lot of challenges and was harder on himself than anybody else," Jerry added. "He always wanted to be the best in what he did, and never really settled for just being part of, he wanted to be more than that."
He would eventually play at and graduate from Jonathan Dayton and make it to Rutgers, where he became a key cog in head coach Kyle Flood's defense for all four years as a starter. While he was un-drafted out of college, Anthony would eventually land with the Raiders, who brought him in as a free agent.
That stop was much shorter than he anticipated, when he became one of the last cuts out of training camp, with his coming after the final preseason game. During his time in Oakland, he had six tackles and a forced fumble in four preseason contests. His parents discussed the challenge of Anthony being cut and said that while it was a setback, it was not the end of the road.
"I think it's a challenge, mentally," Josephine said. "But it's part of life to deal with adversity. He's always had a strong support network with family and friends and lots of encouragement through faith and just believing that he'll get there. Just praying and having that confidence that he'll get to that next step, and not to stop working hard, to keep on trying and persevering."
"He learned a lot from that period of him being cut," Jerry said. "But he also learned to develop himself into something that he dug down deep. Sometimes God puts us in situations where you need to have that sort of pressure and to have that to know exactly what you"re made of. To go out there and not give up"
While he was able to put some highlights on tape, the most valuable thing Cioffi took from his time in the Napa Valley was a mindset shift being around megawatt stars.
“I took the work ethic that I saw from a lot of guys there," Anthony said. "Khalil Mack, Marshawn Lynch, Reggie Nelson. Those were the guys. Veteran-type names, where they established a culture and established who they are.
"So, I just wanted to learn from that situation and establish who I was with the game of football. I just continued to try to be consistently better each day, to try to get something accomplished, you know?”
That work paid off when he signed with the Ottawa Redblacks of the Canadian Football League (CFL). While up north across the border, he had 97 defensive tackles, two interceptions, three forced fumbles, a fumble-recovery touchdown in his rookie CFL campaign, and four sacks.
The biggest adjustment for Cioffi as a defensive back during that time was learning to play in a game where the receivers he was covering had a full running start behind the line of scrimmage. As he noted, for his game, finding the receiver's break off point of the route was a key skill to learn, and one that feels will translate to the NFL. No matter what the league, Cioffi also said it comes down to really knowing the opponent.
Following his stint in Ottawa, Cioffi bided his time as a free agent, before eventually coming to the Jets just last week in free agency.
One major advantage to signing with the Jets is that Cioffi gets to be around the community that has given him so much support over the years.
“It’s a big support system honestly, where you feel like the whole town’s behind you and that support is huge, honestly," Anthony said. "Being able to be home, literally 18 minutes away, it’s really surreal. Honestly, I check every morning to make sure it all checks out. I’m on the roster. ‘Okay, let me check it out every morning.’"
He also mentioned his gratitude to his hometown, for embracing his grandfather and grandmother when they came over and opened the deli.
As for the new challenge of cracking an NFL roster, both parents expressed confidence that Anthony has what it takes to be successful.
"I think he's ready for it," Jerry said. "I believe that we have all the faith in the world in him to be able to make the roster, and to be able be an asset to the team. And ever since he was young, and he was little, I told him, 'don't be a part of it, be the man.' Be the person, be the one that they need. And don't settle, you can't settle. And I don't think he's going to settle this time."
"He's going to play, and he's going to put his whole heart and soul into it like he does everything else," Josephine added. "And if it doesn't work out the way it is, he doesn't have any regrets, because he knows he put in all the effort that he possibly could have. But we're hoping for the best, and God willing, it will work out."
As he wrapped up the interview, Anthony again took the time to share his thankfulness for the opportunity at hand.
“I’d like to thank God for this opportunity with the Jets," he said. "It’s huge honestly in my eyes, because I went through a lot with the Redblacks, even with this offseason. Continuing to work out, basically having the opportunity to finally be a free agent and work for something that I’ve been trying to work for and trying to establish a culture with myself."
"It’s pretty rewarding but the work doesn’t stop, so I need to continue to keep going, and that’s the big point about it, where I won’t really settle, because I’m in a situation where I can’t. I have to continue to prove myself. And I look forward to that, so each day I’m ready to hit it,” he added.