HILLSIDE, NJ — It’s been 31 years since the Hillside High School Comets won the state’s football championship, but that great accomplishment has not been forgotten. In fact, Hillside is about to celebrate these homegrown football heroes and their momentous win at a celebration that will highlight that unique and talented team of 1985.
The dinner, which will be held on Sept. 30 at the Knights of Columbus in Hillside, will honor former Hillside High School championship players, coach Jerry Alexander, and others who were a part of the football team’s year of glory.
Anthony Salters, Chairman of the Hillside Democratic Party, told LocalSource that he heard about the milestone and that no celebration had taken place in 2015 — the 30th anniversary of the team’s win — and that the committee decided to rectify the situation. “We decided to step in to highlight this great accomplishment,” Salters said in an email. “When new Head Coach Barris Grant asked me about Hillside HS football tradition, neither I nor he knew anything since we did not attend the school.”
Salters said that he decided to brush up on Hillside’s high school history, and that’s when he learned of the championship win. “We reviewed the history and realized the school actually won the NJSIAA Football Championship in 1985,” said Salters. “The event was not celebrated or recognized at all in 2015. We decided, better late than never.”
Salters said that he reached out to his Omega Psi Phi fraternity brother, Jeff Barron, who set up meetings with former players. “From there, with their effort, it took off,” said Salters.
According to Salters, it was Halim McNeil, Athletic Director at Hillside HS, who found the trophy “buried away somewhere in the school. He has promised to find a prominent place to display it within the school after our celebratory event,” said Salters.
Alexander, who was the team’s assistant coach before becoming head coach that same year, spoke to LocalSource about that memorable year. Alexander said that he, along with others, convinced the administration to let him take over as head coach so that the school would not have to search for another coach. “They decided to take a shot with me,” said Alexander in a phone call. “The superintendent jokingly said, ‘Well, if I hire you, you only have one year to shape up this program.’ I said, ‘It’ll only take one year — I want my gold watch.’”
Alexander, who was the first black head coach at Hillside High School, said that he was involved with kids in a variety of different capacities, and everyone knew him. “I was a neighborhood guy,” said Alexander. “I was always around kids.”
Alexander, who retired to Virginia after many happy years in Hillside, was a busy man, teaching phys-ed at Hillside’s Calvin Coolidge Elementary School, as well as being the assistant basketball coach, baseball coach and football coach at Hillside HS. “I had a close relationship and rapport with the kids,” said Alexander. “That’s what got them to win. When we came to the field, we were considered as one family. I wanted to set an example to kids of how to behave. When we’d pass each other in the hallways, we would speak to each other as people. I always said about games against other teams, ‘It’s my sons against their sons.’ We treated them as if they were our own family. The African-American players, the Caucasian players. We made sure that they had good meals before games, and if someone needed a tie, we made sure they had a tie.”
Alexander recalled an evening, all those decades ago, when he received a phone call from the local White Castle fast food restaurant. “I got a call that our kids were on their way over there,” Alexander said. “We went over there before they got over there, and we sent them home. They had a game the next day and we didn’t want them to get stomach problems after eating all of that fast food.”
Alexander believes that he, along with the other coaches, worked hard to instill the right values in their players, and to involve the parents. “We always told them, ‘You do the playing, we’ll do the coaching,’” said Alexander. “We met with their parents and told them their involvement with the sport was a must. As staff, we had to be up on our P’s and Q’s. And no matter what happened, I always told my kids that they should stick together.”
According to Alexander, all of the coaches mentored the players both on and off the field. “We first worked on ourselves and made sure that we were doing what we supposed to do as coaches,” he said. “Instead of going to lunch, we would go and talk to the kids,” Alexander said. “We wanted them to know that they meant more to us than just Saturday kick-off. We always expressed to them that we wanted them to grow up and be community-minded.”
Alexander has maintained a close relationship with his “kids” throughout the years. “The kids still call me, and I call them,” he said. “They call me every once in awhile and it means a lot. We were one of the first families in Hillside. I’m very proud of them. I’m only hearing good things about them.”
Alexander said that when he left Hillside HS, his kids gave him something that he will always cherish. “The kids made me a keepsake book,” said Alexander. “I carry it around like I carry around my wallet.”
Tari Sellers, a student at Hillside HS at the time, also worked for Hillside’s community paper, and was also the editor of the school newspaper. Sellers remembers with fondness the team’s win against Madison borough, with a close score of 13-12. “The most amazing aspect of that particular year was the community being supportive of our teams during this decade,” Sellers told LocalSource in an email. “Hillside during this period had some close encounters flirting with championships in both basketball and football. Our community had been starving for validation from the sporting community.”
Sellers vividly recalled that glorious day back in 1985. “Mother Nature played a critical role on that championship day,” Sellers said. “The cold and slight rain really slowed down our explosive offensive weapons. Our running game was our strength, with Norman Ford and Tony Tucker both capable of breaking long runs at any time of the game. Our game plan this day was to control the ball and surprise them with calculated passes by our overshadowed quarterback, Tat Tucker. The biggest play of the game was provided by our defense with a game-winning defensive stop on a 2-point conversion at the end of the game that sealed the victory.”
Sellers credits much of the team’s success to Alexander who, after years as the team’s assistant coach, took over as head coach and led the team to victory. “The mood was electrifying all year because we had a new head coach, Coach Jerry Alexander, who was promoted from defensive coordinator to the head coach that year,” said Sellers. “Coach Alexander introduced us to this word called ‘swagger,’ and this attitude was infectious throughout the locker room.”
Sellers said that although that year was the last victory for the school’s football team, it remains a great source of pride. “The 1985-86 year was the first and last year we won the state’s in football, therefore giving us bragging rights among alumni that are always passionate about Hillside Comet athletics,” said Sellers.
“We lost one game that year, and that loss helped us to stay focused on the ultimate prize and not allow any outside distractions to interfere with our unified goal of bringing a championship to the Hillside community.”
According to Sellers, the team was made up of many talented guys. “We had plenty of great individual performances all year from different guys during different games,” he said. “I recall Kenny Hines getting an interception against Ridge that help spark a defensive domination early in the year. His defensive counterpart, Chris Linton, was our shutdown defensive back that would match up against the opponent’s best wide receiver. What a great luxury to have.”
Other unsung heroes included Darrell Casey, Thayes Frazier and Mike Kicera. Leaders of the pack, according to Sellers, included James Ross and Jim Hopke.
“Our superstars allowed others to flourish, knowing the importance of each individual on the team,” said Sellers. “Everyone’s role was key to our success, and our offensive line understood their role in giving our dynamic duo opportunities to run wild that entire year. It’s very rare for one high school team to have such a powerhouse backfield, including future NFL tight end, David Jones.”
Salters said that the upcoming celebration is not only important for the team that won that championship so many years before, but for today’s ten players as well.
“It is important for our community, current high school football team, Hillside Pop Warner players and parents to see that championships are possible here when we work together for the greater good,” said Salters. “Not only is it possible, it actually happened. As the democratic chairman, my central responsibility is to worry or be concerned about everybody in Hillside. Politics aside, this is an achievement everyone in Hillside, from Hillside, or thinking about moving to Hillside, can be proud of.”