Editor's note: In my travels I have discovered there is a strong tie between New Milford and Fort Lee--many people from New Milford grew up in Fort Lee, are or were police officers and firefighters there, or have some familial connection. Even the VFW's of both towns have strong ties to each other. I was asked by a New Milford resident to print this Thanksgiving Day football story so that young athletes can understand how deeply rooted the identity of team remains in your life.
On a clear, crisp Thursday morning in late fall, they came together at the VFW with the same energy they once took the football field with--the hubris of their youthful invincibility still palpable, though scarred by age and experience.
For years now, every Thanksgiving morning, Bridgemen travel from near and far to come back home to Fort Lee. They come together not so much to re-live their glory days, but to resuscitate every pass, every play, every laugh.
Teammates from the 1940s to the 1990s were represented at the annual reunion of Fort Lee football players held at the VFW on Center Avenue. The gathering together of every team was the brainchild of Joe Viola ('70) and Frank Aiello ('72).
Viola, who scored three touchdowns against Leonia during the Thanksgiving day game of his senior year, said, "I feel like I'm a senior again getting ready for the Thanksgiving game. I have pre-game jitters."
"Just being here with all my idols, the guys I looked up to as a young player, is amazing," he said. "I'm still in awe to be around them."
Traditionally, the former players would meet each year at the Thanksgiving homecoming game, but when Fort Lee stopped playing a Thanksgiving day game, Viola and Aiello decided they had to do something to continue the tradition of bringing the teammates home every year. And what a crowd they draw--once again, the room was packed tighter than any huddle.
Men who would probably pause to remember the date of their wedding anniversary shouted out their jersey numbers, worn 40 or more years ago, without a moment's hesitation.
One former player, surveying the room, said, "You can't stop time, but here it's like we're back on the field again. Right here, right now, we're all 17-years old on the field together, playing our best game."
Former tight end and defensive end and current Fort Lee varsity football coach Billy Straub ('92) said that coaching at the school where he played is surreal. Important to him is making his team understand that there's a long and rich history to Fort Lee football.
"Listening to the stories here is to understand that there's a deep tradition to being a Bridgeman," he said. "I want my team to understand that; this is the team they're really a part of."
Below is a list of just a few of the Bridgemen who came to Fort Lee Thursday to represent:
- 1949: Al "Jose" Gonzales (17)
- 1950: Tony Macri (35)
- 1956: Mike Villano
- 1960: George Makroulakis (34)
- 1961: Jack Meserole (73)
- 1963: Richard Greenberg (61), Harry Gallo (52), Donald Danarotti (87)
- 1964: Dr. John Richardson (83)
- 1965: Tom Mancini (88), Tom Ripoli (6)
- 1966: Santo Pillari (32), Jimmy "Berlingo" Moretti (57)
- 1967: Matty Pillari (11), Dennis Conway (69)
- 1968: Leo Volpe, Michael Casoria (89)
- 1969: Louie Sarapochillo (74), Lou Deangelis (42/37), Pete Mancini
- 1970: Joe Viola (47), Marty Leuzzi (22), Steve Spano (45), Russ Defilippis (67)
- 1971: Joe Conway (55), Richard DeSimone
- 1972: Frank Aiello (73), Dominick Pillari (15)
- 1973: Frank Capozzi (53), Carl Dogalli (79), Frank LoBuono (30)
- 1974: Ron Train (61), Tom Daurizio (25)
- 1992: Billy Straub (88)