KENILWORTH, NJ — Tony Siragusa, matchmaker?
“My wife taught his daughter, Samantha, in kindergarten,” recalled close friend Mike Mancino. “At back-to-school night, Tony raises his hand and asks her, ‘Are you a Miss or a Mrs.?’ She answers, ‘Miss.’”
“Tony then shouts out in the middle of the classroom, ‘I’ve got a guy for you.’ We began to date shortly after and then were married three years later.”
Siragusa ended up being the best man at Mancino’s wedding.
The two Class of 1985 David Brearley High School graduates were scheduled to play golf on Thursday, June 23. That get-together of close friends who grew up together in the cozy confines of Kenilworth did not take place.
On Wednesday, June 22, Siragusa died in his sleep at his home in Toms River. He had just turned 55 on Saturday, May 14.
“It’s still a shock,” Mancino said of Siragusa’s death. “He was a big man, but he was in good shape. He was as active as anybody.
“He liked hunting and fishing. Twelve years in the NFL beats you up.
“I’ve known Tony since I was 3. We went to the same nursery school and grew up a block away from each other,” said Mancino, who this year was named the athletic director at Ramapo High School, after serving as the school’s assistant principal the past six years.
Mancino was also an assistant football coach at David Brearley High School and then became the head coach at Arthur L. Johnson High School in Clark. When Mancino was at Arthur L. Johnson, Siragusa made his presence felt at the school’s preseason camps.
“Tony was the kind of guy that befriended anybody that came his way,” said Mancino. “That was the type of guy he was. He had a big heart. He was a family guy and loved to be around kids.”
In March, Siragusa was inducted into the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association hall of fame. According to the hall of fame bio on him, “Tony Siragusa has always been about creating opportunities and making the most of them. … At 6-foot-3 and close to 250 pounds, he starred for the (David Brearley High School) football team as a lineman and was also the team’s kicker. He was an all-state first team selection as a senior in the fall of 1984. During the winter, he continued a family tradition of wrestling for the school. He was sensational in that sport, going 97-1 for his career and winning the state heavyweight championship as a senior.
“His next stop was to play football at University of Pittsburgh. He started at defensive tackle as a sophomore and junior, and was beginning to be touted as a potential NFL first-round draft pick when he tore the ACL in his left knee, forcing him to sit the following season. He wound up going undrafted in 1990. He was signed as a free agent by the Indianapolis Colts and became an immediate contributor on the defensive line. He remained with the Colts through the 1996 season and then signed with the Baltimore Ravens. He starred there as well, most notably as part of the 2000 team that set an NFL record for fewest points in a 16-game season and also defeated the Giants in the Super Bowl. He retired following the 2001 season.
“Having established a level of marketability for his outgoing personality, Siragusa joined the cast of ‘The Sopranos,’ playing the role of Frankie Cortese, and also worked 12 years as a sideline reporter on Fox NFL broadcasts. He’s also remained active in the community by donating funds to renovate the Brearley wrestling room and also creating the Tony Siragusa Foundation, which awarded grants to activities such as autism research, Make-A-Wish and Grant a Wish.”
“It was family and friends first in everything he did,” said Mancino, who attended the NJSIAA hall of fame ceremonies. “When he won the Super Bowl, on the field he held his daughter on his shoulders.
“Two weeks later, there was a parade in town (Kenilworth) for him. What he wanted the most was for every kid in town to be able to share in his joy of winning the Super Bowl.
“The children really meant a lot to him.”
Siragusa also had a desire to help those less fortunate than he. Mancino recalled a fishing trip with Siragusa and other friends; Siragusa took the leftover food and fed 15-20 homeless people.
“His foundation donated countless dollars to Make-A-Wish and the Kenilworth Police Department,” Mancino said. “Tony was also a big patriot. He loved the military and had a relationship with first responders. He was very interested in his country. He went to Kuwait and Parris Island to be with troops.”
Siragusa’s daughters, Samantha and Ava, attended Morristown-Beard School, while his son, Anthony, played football at Delbarton School in Morristown and Villanova University. His wife, Kathleeen, was a standout gymnast who graduated from David Brearley High School in 1986.
Siragusa resided in Florham Park, as does former Penn State football captain Chet Parlavecchio. Both spoke at the National Football Foundation Essex County chapter’s Sports Nut Night in January 2020 at Mayfair Farms in West Orange.
Siragusa was never one to be shy about putting down his college rival, Penn State.
“If I wanted to learn the school song I would have gone to Notre Dame or Penn State,” Siragusa once said. “I wanted to kill people on the football field. That’s why I went to Pitt.”
When Siragusa was a 21-year-old student at the University of Pittsburgh, his father, Peter, then 48, died in Siragusa’s presence.
Siragusa was an all-state lineman who also kicked and punted for the Brearley Bears and was ranked as one of New Jersey’s top players in the 1980s. He did not play on varsity his freshman year, 1981, when David Brearley High School won the North 2, Group 1 state championship for the first time. His older brother, Peter, played on that team. David Brearley next won that section again the two years following his 1985 graduation, in 1985 and 1986. His younger brother, Elio, played on the 1986 team.
Not coming close to winning anything at Pitt and not making the NFL playoffs until his sixth year in the league were among the reasons why winning a Super Bowl championship with the Ravens meant so much to Siragusa.
“In high school, he was a tremendous competitor,” Mancino said. “He would want to beat you in anything. I remember a game late in 1984 where he was able to get to New Providence quarterback Al Niemela, forcing him to throw a pass in the end zone that was ruled intentional grounding. It turned out to be a safety and we won the game 16-14.”
En route to becoming the NJSIAA wrestling tournament’s heavyweight champion in his senior season of 1985, Siragusa beat several talented grapplers. He defeated Keith Sims of Watchung Hills Regional High School, who was a four-year starter at Iowa State and went on to play with the Miami Dolphins and the Washington Redskins; Dave Szott of Clifton High School, who played at Penn State University and then in the NFL with the Kansas City Chiefs, Washington Redskins and New York Jets; Andy Papathanassiou of Emerson Junior–Senior High School, who played at Stanford University then became a NASCAR pit crew coach; and Todd Goodwin of Millville Senior High School, who he pinned in the final. Siragusa beat Szott in the semifinals.
Siragusa was the Region 3 champion in 1985, and Szott captured Region 2 for the second of three straight seasons. Szott was then the state champion his senior year, in 1986.
“We connected early last week about playing golf,” said Mancino of the last time he communicated with Siragusa. “We texted each other about four times a week.”
Steve Shohfi, assistant football coach at Arthur L. Johnson High School from 1977 to 1997 and then at David Brearley High School for four years with Mike Londino and Dave Curtin, nominated Siragusa for the NJSIAA hall of fame.
“I was on the executive committee for nine years and was the president during the COVID year,” Shohfi said. “It struck me that, with all his success as a wrestler and his 97-1 record, in addition to his greatness as a football player, that he should be a shoo-in. He was.
“I went to his brother Elio’s house and got the information I needed for his application form,” Shohfi said. “Tony got, I think, close to the most votes.”
Having just relocated back to Jupiter, Fla., Siragusa flew to New Jersey to attend the event at the Westin Princeton at Forrestal Village.
“It really meant something to him,” Shohfi said. “He really took it as a compliment.”
Shohfi’s wife, Jami, was a math teacher at David Brearley High School and taught Tony, his brothers and also his wife, Kathleen.
“We were close to the whole family, although I think they liked my wife a bit more,” said Shohfi, who resides in Lavallette, not far from Bob Taylor, who was a longtime head football coach at David Brearley and Arthur L. Johnson high schools, and coached Siragusa in high school.
“I just couldn’t believe it when I heard the news. It’s still difficult for me at times to wrap my head around it.”
Photos Courtesy of Mike Mancino