SCOREBOARD By Jim Hague Hall of a night for inductees into Hudson Sports Hall
Apr 11, 2006 | 922 views | 0 0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Everywhere you looked last Thursday night, there was a wide smile, a hearty handshake, a warm embrace. The Casino-in-the-Park in Jersey City was the center of the universe for a host of athletic greats from yesteryear, all converged to honor the 16th induction class of the Hudson County Sports Hall of Fame.

It was a chance to rekindle old relationships and create new ones. It was an opportunity to greet old friends and remember what was. It was a way for families to become reunited, for players to remember former coaches, for coaches to recall those great players, for everyone to just get comfortable with the nostalgia that is Hudson County sports.

That's what the annual Hall of Fame induction dinner does. It gives everyone a chance to reflect on how truly great of an area for sports Hudson County is and perhaps recapture some of those glory days of breaking the ribbon, hitting the home run, scoring that touchdown, sinking the huge jump shot.

For many of the 21 men and woman inducted into the Hall of Fame, those glory days are long gone, a thing of the past. That is an era that is tucked away in some dusty attic, along with the faded yearbook and the shrunken letter sweater. You don't get many opportunities to open up those memories and share them with everyone else, like the honored guests did last Thursday night.

It's also amazing how intertwined the Hudson County sports world truly is.

For example, inductee Jack Stephans, a veteran of some 50 years of football coaching, was an assistant coach at North Bergen High School when the school first opened its doors in 1962. Among those first players at North Bergen were fellow inductees Eddie Petersen and Gene Pagnozzi.

Pagnozzi later went on to become a coach himself, where he worked with Stephans at places like Fordham University, until he became an assistant coach at Memorial High School, where he was introduced to a guy who would become his colleague, good friend and fellow inductee Matt Sinisi.

Pagnozzi and Sinisi would almost become synonymous, with one (Sinisi) becoming the principal at Memorial and the other (Pagnozzi) becoming the vice-principal.

Another example is the incredible pipeline of basketball greatness that has stretched from Hudson County to a Massachusetts town called Worcester and a school called Assumption College.

It's a place that has seen local legends like the late Joe O'Brien, Fred Barakat, Tom O'Connor, Eric Inauen and Mike and Jim Boylan establish themselves as basketball legends from their Hudson County roots, and now the newest of Hudson Hall of Famers, Serge DeBari, who also starred there and just happens to be the coach at the school now.

It's hard to fathom the idea that all of those great basketball people all went to the same school after starting their careers in Hudson County.

Last Thursday night was a night where a dedicated track coach named John Nagel got a chance to share his induction night with one of his finest athletes ever at St. Dominic Academy, Liane Sullivan-Rae; only fitting that coach and athlete get a chance to share the moment together, making the night that much more special.

Sullivan-Rae came back to her Jersey City stomping grounds from her home in Portland, Ore., where she is the mother of three boys and a school teacher. More importantly, she is also a track coach, giving kids in the Great Northwest a little taste of what she learned and absorbed as a kid growing up in Jersey City.

The night was a chance to honor the amazing achievements of George Maguire from Hoboken, who, at the incredible age of 44, went back to try to play major college football at the University of Oklahoma, more than two decades after his last season with the Sooners.

It was also an opportunity to recall a 93-year-old living legend from West New York named Gene Wettstone, who only went on to become perhaps the greatest gymnastics coach in the history of the sport, having won an amazing nine NCAA championship during his time at Penn State.

It was a chance to listen to the stories of Dr. Ernest Tolentino, who, at the age of 12, played on a Biddy basketball team from Jersey City that won the national championship and got to meet then President Dwight Eisenhower and then Vice President Richard Nixon.

Incredibly, that one Biddy basketball team produced four Hudson County Sports Hall of Famers, guys who excelled in all different sports like the late Vinnie Ernst, the late Lou Rettino and Danny Waddleton.

What other team anywhere could lay claim to having four Hall of Famers, never mind a 12-year-old Biddy team? It was a chance to honor two baseball legends who have been long gone, one deceased for more than 40 years, the other gone for 30, but earned distinction as being only the second set of identical twins to ever play Major League baseball.

Maurice "Red" Shannon and his twin brother Joe made the majors with the Boston Braves in 1915, with Red Shannon eventually becoming a teammate of the immortal Babe Ruth.

But the Shannon twins were brought back to life for a brief moment and their achievements remembered by everyone in attendance.

Incredibly, the induction enabled long-lost cousins to become reunited, when one of Joe Shannon's grandsons, Rick Kroeper, brought the award from the dinner to cousins (Red Shannon's grandchildren), relatives whom he hadn't seen in years.

It was a night to honor the coaching excellence of two active baseball mentors, Joe Urbanovich and Mike Hogan, guys who have reached the pinnacles in high school baseball and still continue to coach after three decades of dedication.

In fact, if there was a predominant theme to the evening, it was honoring coaches. Every single athlete that was honored made it a point to remember the great coaches that they had growing up, how those coaches were gigantic influences and helped them to achieve. It was an endless parade of thanking coaches for the thankless job that they did over the years, watching over kids, instructing them, making sure that they stayed on the straight and narrow path.

That was perhaps the one item that came out of the night of nostalgia and reminiscence. These great athletes didn't forget their humble beginnings, when some coach somehow steered them in the right direction toward success.

The smiles were bright, the hugs genuine. The memories were restored and brought back to life. The old dusty scrapbooks with yellowed newspaper clippings were hauled out and shown off with pride.

That's what having a Hall of Fame is all about. It's one gigantic history lesson. It's the history and the nostalgia. These people, these memories should be treasured, because the achievements can last a lifetime. In fact, they already have.

In the future, there will be a Hudson County Sports Hall of Fame outreach program, where some of the 225 or so inductees over the last 16 years will go to schools and youth organizations to share their stories, to let the kids of today fully appreciate the kids of yesteryear.

And that will become the greatest award, far more than a winged, bronzed eagle sitting on a wooden pedestal. It should be all about giving back and keeping memories of 40, 50 years ago as alive and as fresh as possible.

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