Imagine doing something you love and cherish for more than 50 years?
That was John Zappulla.
He coached football and taught physical education at Hillside for half a century and loved every minute of it.
Zappulla, who was on Hillside’s football staff as an assistant for 52 seasons – beginning with the 1963 campaign and ending with the 2014 unit – passed away June 27 at the age of 76.
To say he will be missed around the Hillside program would be an understatement.
“I was glad that I had the chance to meet him,” said first-year Hillside head coach Halim McNeil. “It was great motivation for me.”
Born in Plainfield, raised in Garwood and a resident of Rahway at the time of his passing, Zappulla retired from the Hillside school system after 50 years as a physical education teacher.
Zappulla graduated from Montclair State College in 1960 and was an avid fan of the New York Giants and Notre Dame football.
“He started coming around to practices,” McNeil said.
“Then we had a 7-on-7 at Giants (MetLife) Stadium and he came with us. He was a big Giants fan, so he had the time of his life.”
McNeil said that a “moment of silence” is planned to remember Zappulla before Hillside’s first home game, which is Sept. 26 vs. Rahway.
“We also plan to put stickers on our helmets, similar to the Snapple Bowl,” McNeil said.
Another way that the team is honoring Zappulla is the way it breaks out of a huddle.
It’s 1-2-3 Hillside, 4-5-6 Comets and 7-8-9 Coach Zap, according to McNeil.
“I’m so glad that I had the chance to meet him,” McNeil said. “He’s always with us.”
He was never the head coach at Hillside, but he was just as instrumental in guiding the young men that played football there.
And for more than half a century!
Zappulla was honored for his Snapple Bowl service with a plaque – the Outstanding Service Award – at halftime of the 2013 game at Kean University.
The following are excerpts of a one-on-one interview I conducted with Zappulla during halftime of the 2012 Snapple Bowl at East Brunswick:
“I love the game of football and I love the kids,” Zappulla, 73 at the time, said.
Zappulla had missed the previous two Snapple Bowls because of open heart surgery.
In addition to getting back to the game, he was also present at the Union County’s team practices, lending a hand with his coaching expertise.
“This is my 11th Snapple Bowl,” Zappulla said in 2012. “Coach (Scott) Miller gave me a chance to come back.”
Hillside’s then present coach – Kendall Ashford – became the 14th head coach that Zappulla worked under. The Hillside head coach before that was John Power, who is now gearing for his second season as head coach at Columbia High.
Zappulla’s first season as an assistant coach at Hillside was in 1963 when John Fitzgerald Kennedy was President of the United States. Hillside’s head coach in 1963 when Zappulla first came aboard was Jim Taigia, who passed away in February of 2008.
Zappulla was able to tell local gridiron fans all about Hillside’s lone playoff championship when the Comets, guided by head coach Jerry Alexander, won at Madison 13-12 in the snow in 1985’s North 2, Group 2 final.
He coached Jim Hopke when Hopke was a player – Hopke was a senior on the 1985 team – and he also coached under Hopke when Hopke was the head coach.
“Jim was an excellent coach and an outstanding player,” Zappulla said.
Zappulla was an ambassador for New Jersey high school football. He spoke, based on volumes of experience, very highly of the product.
“To me it’s equal to any state in the country,” Zappulla said three years ago. “It’s the success of the players that come out of the state.”
Union County not lost only one of its best assistant coaches of all time, but one of its finest gridiron men, period.
Zappulla will certainly be missed.