SPRING LAKE – Get a bunch of guys together in a room at a football reunion and you find out about such things as: “the missed tackle,” “the play” and what player had the prettiest girlfriend, among other stories a bit less appropriate for publication.
However, the common thread Saturday night at Spring Lake Manor for over 50 former members of the Union High School football teams of 1977, 1978 and 1979 was honoring and remembering the legacy of their head coach, Lou Rettino, who passed away from cancer at the age of 54 on March 22, 1996.
Also in attendance were assistant coaches Fred Stengel and Jim Benedict and Rettino’s son, Lou Jr.
After having previously coached at Marist, St. Peter’s Prep, Somerville and Elizabeth, Rettino got to Union in 1977 as the next Farmers head coach, succeeding Joe Bizzaro, who had been at the helm since 1970.
“When Lou came in here you could see his determination,” said reunion organizer and 1979 Union graduate Ed Galisewski, who was a key two-way player on Union’s first of a record 10 North 2, Group 4 state championship teams his senior season of 1978.
This is the 35th anniversary of Union’s first playoff championship team, with the 1978 squad – that finished 9-1-1 – led by senior running back Dave D’Addio, who went on to star at Maryland and then play one year in the NFL with the Detroit Lions.
Galisewski, who resides in Littleton, Col., made varsity for the first time as a junior in 1977. He remembers, vividly, Rettino’s first season at the helm 36 years ago.
“In the locker room before our first game he gave us a speech, challenging us as men,” Galisewski recalled. “We would do whatever Lou asked us to. We would go through a wall for him.”
The first game in 1977 was an 8-8 tie against J.P. Stevens of North Edison, which would go on to capture Central Jersey, Group 4 titles in 1977 and 1978. Losses to Westfield, the eventual 1977 repeat North 2, Group 4 champ and Montclair sandwiched Rettino’s first win, which was a 14-0 triumph at Irvington on Oct. 8 – exactly 10 days before Reggie Jackson hit three home runs in Game 6.
“We started off slow and had a couple of setbacks,” Galisewski said. “Westfield had players like Butch Woolfolk and they were great teams. We turned it around and started to build some momentum, which we took into our next season.”
Union closed with a five-game winning streak, ending a successful 6-2-1 campaign with a 30-6 victory at Linden on Thanksgiving. That was Union’s first winning season since 1972.
Although the Farmers did not make the playoffs in 1977, they were primed to qualify for the first time in 1978.
“What I remember about Lou is that he knew how to place players in the right positions,” Galisewski said. “He didn’t have everyone moving around like dominoes. He just put people where they needed to be. The faster linemen were the guards and the larger guys were the tackles.
“Then when you have that system with (assistant coach) Fred Stengel doing the line, with his drills about footwork, wow.”
A guard on offense and an end on defense, Galisewski saw the potential the 1978 team had right away. It began with a huge 13-0 Opening Day triumph at J.P. Stevens, which was on an 11-game unbeaten streak at the time and was a defending sectional champion.
“That was a defining moment, going in there and realizing this was going to set the tone,” Galisewski said.
With only a loss to Westfield again in Game 2, Union – which had to play all of its home games at Linden that year while Cooke Memorial Field was being drained – won five straight before playing at Plainfield the week before the playoffs.
Union and Plainfield battled to a 0-0 tie at Hub Stine Field, with both making the North 2, Group 4 playoffs, Plainfield for the second time. Ironically, both Union and Plainfield lost to Westfield, but Westfield did not make the playoffs after winning the section in 1976 and 1977.
“It was at their field in front of an intense crowd,” Galisewski said of the 0-0 tie vs. Plainfield. “We played well and they played very well. They got down to our five-yard line and on fourth-and-goal we stopped them.”
In the North 2, Group 4 playoffs, Union was the fourth seed and had to travel to Newark’s Schools Stadium to face top-seeded Barringer, which was 7-0-1 and the winner of the section in 1975. Barringer also reached the final in 1977, led by future NFL Hall of Famer Andre Tippett.
“They were a phenomenal team,” Galisewski said, recalling standouts such as Norm Granger. “We had to come back and score late to win that game.”
Union rallied for a thrilling 23-20 triumph to reach its first state championship game.
“I remember Lou coming out to the middle of the field at one point and really looking at us and challenging us,” Galisewski said.
Plainfield, the second seed, defeated Morris Knolls 49-20 in the other semifinal, setting up a second Union-Plainfield matchup.
This time the setting would be Giants Stadium in East Rutherford. Giants Stadium opened in 1976, with the first North 2, Group 4 final being played there the 1977 game that Westfield defeated Barringer 33-12 before a crowd of more than 30,000 fans.
Both Union and Plainfield were 8-1-1 going into the Dec. 2 clash in Bergen County, each with only a loss to Westfield and a tie against each other.
“The first half was tight,” Galisewski said. “Near the end of the first half we were up only 7-0.”
Quarterback Dom Lorusso, in attendance Saturday night, threw a touchdown pass right before halftime to give Union a two-touchdown lead.
Union managed to keep the Cardinals off the scoreboard for another two quarters en route to a decisive 27-0 triumph for its initial playoff championship.
D’Addio scored two touchdowns, carrying the ball 25 times for 150 yards.
“We ran the ball over and over again with Dave leading the way,” Galisewski said.
Galisewski remembered first practicing at Giants Stadium.
“The adrenaline just at practice was something else, being out there on that field,” Galisewski said. “For the game, I remember getting on the field and looking up. We had a pretty good crowd for that game.”
Asked what he was thinking right before the final gun sounded and the game was over, with Union winning the championship for the first time, Galisewski said, “this is why we’re here tonight, celebrating this championship 35 years later.”
Union repeated as North 2, Group 4 champions in 1979, finishing 10-1 with only a loss at Westfield. The Farmers won both of their playoff games at Giants Stadium that season, first downing Belleville 15-12 in the semifinals.
In the championship game against Livingston, the contest was tied in the third quarter before a huge defensive play propelled Union to go on and score the game’s final three touchdowns.
Union’s 35-14 triumph was sparked by a stop made early in the third quarter by senior linebacker Tommy Blazak. On fourth-and-goal from the Union three-yard line, Blazak – a team captain that year along with Mark Ignatowicz – knocked Livingston running back Fred Apicelli out of bounds before he could reach the end zone.
Livingston, coached by Al Jacobson, argued that Apicelli was in. The referee didn’t see it that way, giving Union the ball at the Livingston one. The Farmers then went 99 yards for what turned out to be the winning touchdown. Union added two more TDs before celebrating a second straight state championship.
Here’s how Blazak describes what the former Union players refer to as, “The Play,” which ended Livingston’s second-half opening drive: “With the score tied 14-14 at halftime, we really felt that momentum would go to the team that scored next. Stan Yagiello, their quarterback, was phenomenal. Things were happening so fast in the secondary that, with the goal line behind us, we really felt the game slipping.
“On fourth down they decided to go for a touchdown. It was a pitchout option to the right. I jumped off one blocker and had the goal line right at my feet.
“Then at the last minute I just made one lunge at the flag and it was enough to knock him (Apicelli) out of bounds. The referee was right on the play and he watched the play in review. He (Apicelli) was out of bounds.
“We got the ball, went 99 yards and scored; final score 35-14.
“It seems like it was yesterday.”
Lou Rettino Jr. grew up in Westfield and played quarterback for the Blue Devils in the late 1980s under head coach Ed Tranchina before graduating in 1990. At age 5 he remembered one of his father’s first wins in 1977.
“The first year they struggled the first couple of games, but I remember this vividly: he came home after beating Plainfield and kissed my mom saying that he knew he had something special,” Rettino Jr. said.
As good as Westfield was in the 1970s, Union was even better in the 1980s, with the changing of the guard among legendary Union County coaches going from Westfield’s Gary Kehler to Rettino.
While Rettino’s Union teams won back-to-back North 2, Group 4 titles in 1978 and 1979 right after Kehler’s Westfield squads did so in 1976 and 1977, it took Rettino some time before he finally beat Westfield. Rettino was 0-5 in the regular season vs. Westfield from 1977-1981 before his Farmers finally beat the Blue Devils in the 1981 N2, G4 semifinals. Rettino’s first regular season win against Westfield didn’t come until 1982. Union then posted a long winning streak against Westfield before falling to the Blue Devils again.
“Westfield was the team of the decade in the 1970s and Union in the 1980s,” Rettino Jr. said. “We lived a block-and-a-half away from Gary (Kehler). Union played a ball-control, opportunistic offense.”
As Lou Jr. was growing up, Union would go on to win North 2, Group 4 again in 1982 and then in 1984 began a stretch of four straight seasons where they would capture the section, beating Montclair and Roxbury both back-to-back.
However, Lou Jr. was not part of that success. He didn’t get to play for his father. The lefty-throwing signal-caller ran the offense – in addition to starring in lacrosse – at rival Westfield.
“It was tough seeing my father on the other side,” said Rettino Jr., who now resides in Rumson. “I was a football and lacrosse player and lacrosse wasn’t offered at Union High School. Plus, all of my friends I grew up with were from Westfield.”
One of Benedict’s coaching stops after Union was as the head coach at Westfield. Now residing in Georgia, Benedict capped a 51-year playing-coaching career in 2010.
“I really thank you for the opportunity to be able to coach you guys,” Benedict said to the former players in attendance. “You’re the best players I ever worked with, not because of my coaching, but because of all of your hard work.”
Benedict, who also coached at Summit and Watchung Hills and in college at his alma mater Rutgers, had a very strong coaching relationship with Rettino.
“He helped Fred (Stengel) become one of the great coaches in the state of New Jersey and he helped me have a great experience as a coach at (college) my alma mater,” Benedict said. “He helped us all.”
Stengel is a 1967 UHS graduate who was an assistant coach at Union for 16 seasons from 1972-1987 before becoming a highly-successful head coach at Bergen Catholic beginning in 1988.
A line coach with the Farmers, Stengel had a special relationship with the players that played their guts out in the trenches.
“I was determined that we were going to be the best football team that we could make ourselves,” Stengel said to his former players.
They all got a chuckle after he said this: “there was a method to my madness.”
Stengel continued: “I can’t thank you enough for giving me the opportunity to coach you guys. I know there were times when you said, ‘what is with this guy?’”
Stengel, a Union kid born and raised, thought about what would have happened had Rettino “coached Larry Kubin (class of 1977, Penn State, Washington Redskins Super Bowl winner) and those guys” if he got there a bit sooner.
“I’m telling you Kubin was so good it was ridiculous. One play against Carteret – this is one of the great athletic feats I ever saw in my life – he runs 88 yards with an option play and three quarters of his way into the end zone a flag is thrown because somebody was off sides or it was holding or something stupid like that.
“So what are we going to call here? We ran the same play and Kubin runs 85 yards for a touchdown. We had guys, which is what I’m saying. If Lou Rettino was coaching it would have been a much different story.”
While at Bergen Catholic, Stengel’s Crusaders clashed with Union in pre-season scrimmages. In the early 1990s, Union and Bergen Catholic were among the top teams in the state.
“As much as what Lou meant to you guys (the players) and to the program he meant to me personally,’’ Stengel said. “You want to learn interpersonal skills and you want to learn how to deal with people, there was nobody I ever met in my whole life like Lou Rettino.
“He could talk to the janitor, who was his best friend. He could talk to the superintendent of schools, who was his best friend. He could talk to every kid, put his arm around them and make them feel like he was their dad.”
It was appropriate that Stengel made that last claim the night before Father’s Day.
Rettino had that kind of impact, beginning with his first three Union teams in 1977, 1978 and 1979. The latter two went on to win state championships.
They began a football legacy – and more – that lasted a generation.
“He made all the difference not only in your (the players) lives, but in mine too,” Stengel said. “How many of you guys have degrees, are lawyers, chemical engineers, businessmen are successful guys?
“You look around this room and there are a lot of successful guys. I’m tremendously, tremendously proud of all of you.
“But the guy that really got this thing going and affected you guys – not Jimmy and I, we affected your lives – but the guy that really did was Lou. Did he do it with magic? I don’t know what else to say other than that.
“In closing I would like to say that I’ve won a lot of games and a lot of championships, but I’ve never forgotten you guys.”
Now in their early 50s, all of the former Union players that celebrated the success they enjoyed on the football field in the late 1970s had one more chance to share that special bond with each other.
They also gathered one more time to thank their mentor – Lou Rettino – for leading the way.
The first game was at home vs. J.P. Stevens of North Edison. Union quarterback Dom Lorusso scored on a one-yard run in the fourth quarter and Pat Caprara’s two-point run gave Union an 8-2 lead before J.P. Stevens drove 60 yards for the tying touchdown.
The second game was a 43-0 loss at Westfield, which went on to repeat as North 2, Group 4 champions.
The third game was Rettino’s first victory, a 14-0 win at Irvington on Oct. 8 – exactly 10 days before Reggie Jackson hit three home runs in Game 6. Sophomore running back Mark Ignatowicz scored both touchdowns in the third quarter on runs of three and 10 yards.
Union then lost at home to Montclair 14-0 for a 1-2-1 start before closing with five straight wins for a 6-2-1 finish.
Union wrapped its non-playoff season with a 30-6 Thanksgiving Day victory over Linden at Linden’s Cooper Field. Fullback Joe Gruchacz and Caprara, playing halfback, each scored two touchdowns. Gruchacz led all rushers with 150 yards on 23 carries and Caprara rushed eight times for 45 yards.
Union’s first step toward its initial sectional championship was a big one, defeating J.P. Stevens 13-0 in its opener in North Edison. J.P. Stevens entered the contest with an 11-game unbeaten streak and as the defending Central Jersey, Group 4 champions. J.P. Stevens defeated Middletown North 35-0 in the 1977 CJ, G4 final and then repeated as champs in 1978, downing Watchung Hills 14-7 for the second of its six championships in the playoff era. Game No. 2 could not be played at Cooke Memorial Field because of renovation, so Union faced Westfield at Linden’s Cooper Field, which is where Union played all of its home games that season. Union fell 20-7 for its only loss.
The Farmers then reeled off five consecutive victories for a 6-0-1 start. Next came a 0-0 tie at Plainfield, with Union’s 6-1-1 record good enough to earn the Farmers enough power points to qualify in North 2, Group 4 for the first time as the section’s fourth seed.
Union went to Newark to face top-seeded Barringer in a semifinal at Schools Stadium. Barringer won the section in 1975, which was the second year of playoffs in New Jersey and the first year with power points and four teams making it in each section.
Before approximately 8,500 fans, Union upended a 7-0-1 Bears team 23-20 to advance to the final.
Union finished its season with two consecutive shutouts, blanking Linden on Thanksgiving 34-0 at Cooper Field and then whipping Plainfield 27-0 at Giants Stadium in the North 2, Group 4 championship game.
Union and Plainfield entered the N2, G4 final with identical 8-1-1 records, both teams losing only to two-time defending champion Westfield.
Union senior running back Dave D’Addio (6-4, 225) rushed for 150 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries vs. Barringer and finished the season with 98 points.
Union’s defense vs. Barringer was led by tackle Barry Amatucci, end Ed Galisewski, linebacker Tony Imbriaco and safety Bobby Hope.
1978 NORTH 2, GROUP 4 PLAYOFFS
SEEDS: 1-Barringer. 2-Plainfield. 3-Morris Knolls. 4-Union.
Union 23, Barringer 20 – at Barringer’s Schools Stadium in Newark
Plainfield 49, Morris Knolls 20 – at Plainfield’s Hub Stine Field
Union 27, Plainfield 0 – at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford
Union finished No. 5 in The Star-Ledger.
Union’s only blemish in eight weeks was its usual loss to Westfield, this time by a 20-0 score on the road in Week Two. Rettino’s first team to beat Westfield was the 1981 squad that lost to the Blue Devils in the regular season, but defeated them in the N2, G4 semifinals at Giants Stadium. Rettino’s first team to beat Westfield in the regular season was his 1982 squad, after going 0-5 against the Blue Devils from 1977-1981.
After the Westfield defeat, six consecutive victories put the Farmers at 7-1 and gave them enough power points to qualify in North 2, Group 4 again, this time as the third seed.
First up was Belleville at Giants Stadium and Union didn’t disappoint. The Farmers downed the Buccaneers 15-12 to earn a shot at Livingston in the sectional final. Livingston defeated Westfield 38-20 in the other semifinal.
Union tuned up for its clash with Livingston by drubbing Linden 45-0 at Cooper Field on Thanksgiving, which was the third consecutive year the Turkey Day game was played in Linden.
Nine days later a Marc Casale-led Union offense roared against Livingston at Giants Stadium as the signal-caller directed the Farmers past the Lancers 35-14 for the team’s second straight sectional championship.
Plainfield has still not won a championship in the playoff era, while Livingston has captured only one, that being the 2008 North 1, Group 4 title.
1979 NORTH 2, GROUP 4 PLAYOFFS
SEEDS: 1-Belleville. 2-Westfield. 3-Union. 4-Livingston
(seeds are according to www.gridironnewjersey.com)
if seeds above are accurate, 1 did not play 4 and 2 did not play 3
in the semifinals, which was and is the usual format
Union 15, Belleville 12 – at Giants Stadium
Livingston 38, Westfield 20 – at Giants Stadium
Union 35, Livingston 14 – at Giants Stadium
Union shared The Star-Ledger Trophy for No. 1 ranking with Madison.