When someone dies at a very young age, it’s without question a tragedy, both for the person’s immediate loved ones and for the friends who were left behind.
When the person is an athlete or a former athlete, it hits closer to home, especially here, especially for a sportswriter who has had to endure these senseless tragedies over and over.
Too many times, the tragedies of athletes dying way too young have seemed to affected a school that happens to be my alma mater.
They are grieving once again at Grand and Warren in downtown Jersey City, bringing out the purple and black bunting, preparing for another funeral, and this one probably hurts more than any other.
St. Peter’s Prep lost one of its all-time great people. Agustin Gonzalez, known to his friends and family as Augie, was a Major in the United States Army.
A Jersey City boy through and through and a former standout football and baseball player at St. Peter’s, Gonzalez moved to join the army almost 20 years ago. He wanted to make the army a career when he left Jersey City with his wife Melissa. They eventually had four children.
The fourth child was born a little more than a month ago, which is why the Gonzalez family was delayed in moving to their newest home in Carson, Colorado. Gonzalez was intent on driving with three of his children to their new home while Melissa flew to Colorado with their newborn daughter, born in April.
Lives cut short
It wasn’t meant to be. On a highway in Kentucky, Gonzalez rear-ended a tow truck that was stopped in the right lane. The impact killed Gonzalez and his two daughters, Noelle, 6, and Gwen, 2. Their son, Nick, 8, was injured but survived.
How can anyone in their right mind wrap their head around this?
Augie Gonzalez was one of the nicest kids that Hudson County athletics has ever produced. He was kind, considerate, and caring. He was happy all the time and constantly worried about the welfare of others, including old sportswriters.
Just three weeks ago, Gonzalez sent a message over Facebook, asking about my health. He’d seen the pictures on Facebook, noticed the weight loss, and wanted to know if it meant better health. Just like Augie to be just as concerned with the health of a sportswriter as he was moving his family from North Carolina to Colorado.
Big brother remembers
Gonzalez’s brother, John, former head baseball coach at Lincoln High School and assistant principal at Snyder, shared some thoughts and memories of his little brother.
“Growing up, he was a pain in my ass,” John said. “But that changed over the years. As we grew older, we got closer. We became adults as opposed to being immature boys. Even though he was younger, he was always my inspiration. If everyone could be half the man he was, we would have a better world. He touched so many people and taught so many people. Without question, he’s going to be missed. I knew growing up that he looked up to me, but now definitely, the shoe was on the other foot, and I looked up to him.”
John recounts a recent event.
“It was about three weeks ago and we all went down to his graduation from Duke [He earned a Masters in Public Policy],” John said. “Augie never took a day off in his life. I got to watch him do his daily routine, his workout in his home gym, and I was in a rocking chair with a glass of scotch on ice.”
Last Saturday John came back to Jersey City to watch his young son Cristian play in a Little League tournament. A few hours later, his brother and nieces were gone.
Searching for solace
Gonzalez said that the outpouring of love after Augie’s death has been soothing.
“If I didn’t already know that Augie touched so many people’s lives, I know now,” John said. “From the military through college and high school, it’s amazing how many people he inspired and touched. It’s just all completely surreal. If Augie was home and knew that all of this would slow us down, he’d be so disappointed, so we all just have to push through.”
St. Peter’s Prep head football coach and athletic director, Rich Hansen, was equally saddened by the news.
“Augie was dedicated to the football and baseball teams,” Hansen said. “He was a true warrior. He was the type of kid you could count on, because he was as tough as nails. I think you remember the attributes he had that made him successful in the military. In football, his positions as being a safety and quarterback were so important. He played quarterback because we needed him, and he was committed to it. He was a smart, ferocious competitor.”
Hansen echoed the sentiments of others.
“Anyone who chooses a life of service has to care about people,” Hansen said. “He was a leader. Not everyone can do it. You need that special thread about you.”
Hansen shares one special memory
“It was 1998, and we were playing Hoboken,” Hansen said. “Billy Fitzgerald [Prep’s starting quarterback and current head coach at Seton Hall Prep who is one of Augie’s best friends] hits his head on the turf during pregame and can’t play. For the last 20 minutes of practice, I said to Augie, ‘Hey, it’s on you.’ He was getting zero reps [repetitions] and we’re facing the No. 2 team in the state. Well, Augie ran his ass off all game and we lost, 13-7. I was never more proud of a group of guys or a specific player in my life. Before the game, he just winked at me and said, ‘Let’s go, Coach. Let’s go get ‘em.’ He was at his best when the chips were down. When you doubted him, he was going to prove you wrong.”
Hansen tried to fathom the tragedy.
“It’s just unimaginable,” he said. “My heart is still sore.”
Hansen just lost his mother, Gail Verdi, a few weeks ago.
“It’s been a difficult time for a lot of reasons, but we’re not given anything we can’t handle,” Hansen said.
Tragedy stalks St. Peter’s Prep.
Going back to my personal days at Prep, we lost two excellent basketball players in Nick Kapakos and Kevin Stawicki, both gone before their 17th birthdays. A few years later, John McGovern, another fine basketball player, dropped dead on the floor playing basketball in Rhode Island. John had not reached his 25th birthday.
In the late 1980s, we watched Jeff Kachel battle leukemia. Leukemia won out before Jeff reached 20.
Equipment manager Jerome “Gee” Pederson died before his 26th birthday.
Cross-country runner Kyle Witkowski was the best runner in the county when he was killed in a car accident before he graduated from Grand and Warren in 1998.
Dan Finn was an excellent soccer and basketball player at Prep and had just started college when he was struck by a car and killed in Myrtle Beach, S.C. in 2004. His family organizes a top flight basketball tournament in his memory every year at the Jersey City Armory.
B.J. Giannone was a great swimmer who died right after competing in a swim meet before he graduated from Prep in 2011.
Devin Ruiz was a fine wrestler at Prep and a classmate of Giannone’s in 2011. Ruiz died two years ago.
In July of 2016, Prep junior Jeffrey Hoens, a goalie on the Prep hockey team, died while diving and spear fishing in the Shark River Inlet near Avon-by-the-Sea.
In April of 2017, former Hudson Reporter Baseball Player of the Year Dan Cooney took his own life while he was a baseball player at Babson College.
So this is another tragedy for the close community at Grand and Warren to deal with. There’s a slogan that is prominent at Prep, “Prep Man for Life.” That’s what you sign up for when you enroll. I became a proud member of the St. Peter’s Prep community in September of 1975 and graduated in 1979. And believe me, I’m a Prep man until I die.
Augie Gonzalez best personified what it meant to be a Prep Man for Life. He was all about service and faith in God and helping others.
To think that he’s gone and to try to come to grips how he’s gone and the fashion in which it has devastated his family is beyond comprehension.