There was a time when the start of high school football season used to be a tense situation in Union City. The city’s two high schools, namely Emerson and Union Hill, as fierce as rivals could be, had to share one practice facility.
It also led to some trying times for the schools’ respective soccer teams, all scurrying to find sufficient practice time, all on the same field, either Roosevelt Stadium, when it was still standing, or the new Union City Midtown Athletic Center, also known as Monastery Field.
So the start of the fall seasons meant that the two rivals used to have to come together and go to their respective sides of the field. It didn’t make things easier for anyone, especially not for the coaches, who had to try to protect their players and protect their game plans at the same time.
But as the 2008 football season approaches in the coming weeks, there is something definitely different going on in Union City.
There’s a sense of unity now, considering that the once-fiercely, long-standing rival schools have become one. It’s now all Union City High School now. There are no more Bulldogs and Hillers, only Soaring Eagles. There is no more blue and orange, only navy, silver, and white.
And it’s one football team now, not two. No need for sharing and carving up sections of the field. It’s all about Union City now. Perhaps it’s a fitting name, because there has been a union, an aura of unity.
Joe Rotondi, who was the head coach of the Union Hill football team for eight years, now has the distinction of being the first head coach of the Union City Soaring Eagles.
The team is bigger, with more than 125 kids in uniform. The NJSIAA Group classification is larger, with Union City High being placed among Group IV schools. And there’s no question that the expectations are larger.
“In my mind, there’s huge pressure to be good right away,” Rotondi said. “So we better be a good team.”
The idea of two rival schools coming together as one conjures up thoughts of the popular movie of a few years ago, namely “Remember the Titans,” starring Academy Award winner Denzel Washington, where Washington is brought on to serve as a head coach of a football team of a recently unified football team with kids from different racial backgrounds.
In the movie, there was a host of heated difficulties between the players from the two schools, but in the end, the kids came together and formed a state championship squad.
Rotondi admitted that he expected some tough times to start.
“Any time there’s something new, there’s always this feeling-out process to go through,” Rotondi said. “But now, that’s long gone. Kids are kids and they want to have discipline and structure. Initially, I was a little worried, with the kids who don’t know me saying, ‘What’s this guy all about?’ But if you show you care and you are willing to do the right thing by them, then they just fall in line. Football players just want to be coached.”
Rotondi, who was named as the new head coach of the unified high school in the spring, said that he started to work with the kids from both schools in the weight room.
“But I’m a different guy in the weight room,” Rotondi laughed. “I’m much nicer in the weight room than I am on the field.”
Rotondi said that he expressed his feelings about the two rivals coming together exactly once.
“I verbalized it once,” Rotondi said. “It was a big thing to me. I said everyone is starting with a clean slate and that there are no longer Emerson kids or Union Hill kids. There hasn’t been a problem since. Not one Emerson versus Union Hill thing at all. I think it’s because I stressed that everything is new. The helmets are different, the uniforms are different, the jerseys are different. Once I said it, I never had to reiterate it again. They understood and it’s evidenced by their actions.”
Rotondi said that the kids realize that there are no favorites, that the former Union Hill kids are not being picked over the kids who played for another coaching staff at Emerson.
“Whoever’s the best will play,” Rotondi said. “I promised them that.”
So the spirited practices have been something to behold thus far. Rotondi has never had to deal with such a deep roster in his entire two-decade coaching career, either as an assistant at Hoboken or as the head coach at Union Hill. Numbers were never an option at either school, but they are now.
“It makes life as a coach different,” Rotondi said. “I’m not held hostage to numbers. If some little stud sophomore comes along and wants to take a spot, I say, ‘Go ahead.’ That would be a good thing. I would say that 45 would have been the most I ever coached. Now, we have that number on one side of the locker room. We can get a lot of things done.”
The players all feel that sense of unity.
“I never expected there to be a problem,” said Eddie Gonzalez, who was the starting quarterback at Emerson last season. “We all grew up together and all know each other. Everyone is supporting one another. The best players will play. Everyone knows that. There’s nothing at all in terms of animosity.”
Jesse Ortiz, a two-way lineman who played last year at Union Hill, can see the similarity to “Remember the Titans.”
“It’s been a lot like that, only without the hatred,” Ortiz said. “We haven’t had any problems at all. As soon as we came together as one, we came together and that was it. We all have the same goal and we all know what we have to do. I think it’s real exciting that we’re all together now.”
“We really have a good mix of kids from both schools,” Rotondi said. “But it’s all one school now. Everything else is gone. This is all one team now and I’m a little surprised with how smoothly things have gone. Sure, we have problems. Double the kids, double the everyday problems. But most of that is off the field issues, like kids having other responsibilities, jobs, family crises. But we have a bunch of good kids, good character kids who have really come together to form this one team. I’m very impressed.”
The Soaring Eagles will play their first game as Union City High School on the road against Hunterdon Central on Sept. 12. By then, there should be a complete union of souls at Union City High School. Call it a case of team unity.