In the pandemic-ravaged year of 2020, when COVID-19 grabbed the headlines, there were some beloved people in the local sports world who we lost and will never be forgotten.
In August, it felt like time stood still when word that Lou Taglieri had passed away suddenly at the age of 59. Taglieri was as much Hoboken as Frank Sinatra, as beloved as fresh bread and fresh mozzarella.
It was such a tragic loss that even legendary Super Bowl Most Valuable Player Eli Manning of the Giants expressed his sadness when Taglieri, the former Hoboken head football coach, passed on. Taglieri had secured JFK Stadium for Manning, then a Hoboken resident, for use for Manning and his teammates during a work stoppage in 2011.
“Coach Tag was so helpful to us,” Manning said then. “He didn’t tell anyone at all. We were able to come in and get our work done. I just remember how excited he was that we came and worked out at Hoboken High. I think it was so important that he told no one, that we were able to come in and get our work done. We were there for business. We weren’t joking around. We had work to do.”
Manning appreciated Taglieri’s discretion.
“If anyone knew, there would have been a lot of media there and it would have been a distraction,” Manning said. “Coach Tag made sure that no one came in to bother us. To his credit, he didn’t tell anyone. He was adamant about keeping it quiet. He knew we wanted to get our work in and get out. We signed a few autographs or so, but mostly, we weren’t bothered. Coach Tag saw to that.”
So when Manning was informed about Coach Taglieri’s untimely and shocking passing in August while vacationing with his family in Virginia Beach, Manning was deeply saddened like the thousands of others who loved and admired the man known in the Mile Square City as “Coach Tags.”
“I was very sad to hear about the loss,” Manning said. “I couldn’t help but think about his family. He was a great man and a wonderful coach. He was so helpful to us over the years. We never had to use the field again after that one year, but he was willing to do anything for us. He loved the game of football.”
Manning said that he remained in touch with Taglieri from time to time ever since the two became friends in 2011.
“We made some donations to the Hoboken football program,” Manning said. “We did that a few times. I would keep up with how the Hoboken football team was doing, follow their seasons. We developed a bond between the two of us, a bond we had all these years. We stayed in touch, sending texts to each other. He was always willing to support us. I think he played a part in that [Super Bowl] championship that year. He played a big part.”
Taglieri’s close friends and coaching colleagues were also devastated by the loss.
“We always had a lot of fun,” St. Peter’s Prep outgoing head coach Rich Hansen said. “We talked a lot about what we wanted to do with our lives. We had a lot of great times together. He had a PhD in ball busting. We loved doing it to each other and loved laughing. I’d bust his chops and he’d bust mine. We go back and forth and then laugh about it. Louis had a lot of friends. I’m happy to say that I was one of them. I had a different level of friendship.
Added Hansen, “He had a tough guy exterior and that might have overshadowed his great heart. His persona was one thing, but the genuine Louis was the one who truly loved people. He loved his family and his friends. I know he would be honestly proud of the mark he left. I feel so horrible for Gabby and his children. He always talked about one day us coaching together.”
His wife Gabriela remembered her husband fondly.
“He’s a legend,” Gabriela Taglieri said. “He touched so many people. He was just a complete loving and caring man. He would give the shirt off his back to anyone. And I saw him do that. He would help kids from other schools, from Memorial, North Bergen, Union City, Lincoln, it didn’t matter.
Added Gabriela Taglieri, “What I found unbelievable was his way of speaking to adults, to boy or girl, woman or man. He could always comfort them and give them confidence. He gave people strength to go through tough lines. I used to watch in amazement the way he used to act. He had such a way with people. It was so remarkable. It was soothing and comforting in whatever situation it was in. He was also a wonderful storyteller without putting his opinion into it. He had a way of getting to someone and helping them out by soothing them and listening to them.”
And there was another side to the man.
“Every single holiday, he would call, text, send a message,” Hansen said. “With every achievement my kids got, I’d hear from him right away.”
“He never forgot anyone’s birthday or anniversary,” Gabriela Taglieri said. “He would sit there with his phone and go through the list, wishing everyone a Merry Christmas or Happy Thanksgiving. He’d sit there with his phone for hours.”
I know I’ll miss that phone call this week. He never forgot.
In July, our hearts ached again when long-time official Gibby Lewis lost his battle to cancer at the age of 70. He was the kind of guy who was known by just one name like Cher, Madonna or Elvis. He was just Gibby.
“He could embellish a story and make that story last 20 minutes,” said former North Carolina All-America and New Jersey Net Mike O’Koren, who became friendly with Gibby when O’Koren was playing basketball at Hudson Catholic and became closer when O’Koren headed to Gibby’s beloved North Carolina to play for the legendary Dean Smith in 1977. “When Gibby told a story, all you could do was laugh your ass off. He had an incredible sense of humor.”
Legendary Naismith Hall of Fame coach Bob Hurley, who was once the Department of Recreation director for a stint, also had a long-time relationship with Gibby.
“We were life-long friends, going back to since we were teenagers,” Hurley said. “We were contemporaries growing up. He was just a tremendous guy, a man’s man. He was a terrific athlete, a guy who could play with anyone. He was a loyal friend if you ever needed one. He loved my kids and was respectful to my wife. He was always a complete gentleman to them.”
When the coronavirus was still in its infant stages, it claimed a local sports figure. In March, Alexis Demby, who was a standout athlete during her days at Memorial High School, died after contracting the coronavirus during a stay with family and friends in West New York. Alexis was just 32 years old.
Demby was one of the best basketball players ever to come out of Memorial High School. Demby earned Hudson Reporter All-Area honors three times, once earning First Team All-Area in 2003 among the five very best players in Hudson County. She was a Third Team selection her sophomore campaign of 2002 and was a Second Team choice as a senior in 2004.
Demby formed a dynamic duo at Memorial with Mercedes Nunez, another player who earned All-Area honors as well. Nunez was the Hudson Reporter Female Athlete of the Year her senior year.
“She was strong and didn’t take any crap,” said Craig Kuzirian, her head coach at Memorial. “When she was on the floor, she busted her tail. She was just a wonderful person.”
Kuzirian was asked how he would best remember his player.
“Her smile,” Kuzirian said. “She always had a smile on her face. No matter how much I would yell at her – and I yelled a lot – she still smiled. She was just a sweetheart.”
In April, we bid farewell to Danny Rochford, who was 61 years old. was a sensational basketball player at St. Anthony, one of the first legendary players in coach Bob Hurley’s rich and storied coaching career with the fabulous Friars.
Danny was 6-foot-6, yet he played like he was a 5-foot-10 point guard. His ball handling skills were incredible. He could make a bounce pass through his legs while on a fast break. He could put the ball around his back and confuse defenses like “Pistol” Pete Maravich.
Danny could shoot the lights out of the basket and then some. He played relentless, nasty defense and rebounded like he was 7 feet tall. Danny could then take the ball off the backboard and drive the length of the floor and make the shot. Danny had no flaws as a basketball player, absolutely none.
In 1975, Danny had a brilliant senior season at St. Anthony, averaging 18 points, seven rebounds and five assists per game, leading the Friars to one of their countless NJSIAA state championships. He earned All-Hudson County First Team honors with Darryl Strickland of Ferris, Luke Griffin of St. Mary’s, Chuck Wilt of Weehawken and Mike O’Koren of Hudson Catholic.
O’Koren and Rochford had a war in the 1975 HCIAA Championship game, the last one held at the Jersey City Armory. In front of nearly 4,000 people, O’Koren’s Hawks defeated Rochford and the Friars, 63-53, a game for the ages.
“Nothing was easy when you played against Danny,” O’Koren said. “Danny was very physical and played every play hard. He was as tough as they came. He was a tenacious defender and he played on some great teams.”
O’Koren and Rochford were both named First Team All-Parochial by the Star-Ledger.
After high school, Rochford went to American International College in Springfield, Massachusetts, where he was coached by another coaching legend – namely Jim Larranaga, who later coached George Mason to the NCAA Final Four in 2006 and is now the head coach at the University of Miami.
Bob Hurley recalled an incredible game that Rochford enjoyed at AIC.
“He scored the last 18 points of the game in a game that AIC won in overtime,” Hurley recalled. “Jim Larranaga begged Danny not to go home [to Jersey City] after the game, but Danny did. It was the last time Larranaga ever heard from Danny.”
In September, we lost legendary football coach Jack Stephans, who coached Jersey City State College in its heyday in the early 1970s, coaching such legends as Bruce Naszimento and local coaching legend Ed Stinson. Stephans, who also had a stint as an assistant coach at Weehawken High in the late 1990s into the early 2000s, was 82 years old.
Speaking of Weehawken, the township lost two instrumental people in long-time athletic secretary Raye Ferullo and former Board of Education president Rich Barsa, who also died from COVID-19.
There was also the loss of Hudson County Sports Hall of Famer Kevin Hennessey, who was a track and field legend at St. Aloysius High School and Seton Hall University.
There was also the loss of former St. Mary’s High School girls’ basketball coach Terry LaBruno, who also had a stint as a councilwoman in her native Hoboken. Over the last 10 years of her life, Terry taught at St. Peter’s Prep and embraced the school like she had been there forever.
Speaking of Prep, one of the school’s all-time best athletes Phil Martorelli also passed on. Martorelli was a football and baseball standout at Grand and Warren and is the lone athlete to be inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame three times, once as an individual and on two different teams in 1958.
And Prep suffered two other losses when former football players Richie “R.J.” Zadroga and Brendan Dolaghan both died before their 30th birthdays.
All in all, it was a tough year for everyone, but especially to the families of the loved ones we sadly lost.
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com, follow Jim on Twitter @ogsmar and listen to the Hudson County Sports Podcast, brought to you weekly by Stan’s Sports Center, 528 Washington Street in Hoboken, on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Listen to this week’s guest, namely former Jersey City track and field standout and Hudson County Sports and Track Coaches Association Hall of Famer Keith Davis.