“The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high…”
— An excerpt from A.E. Housman’s poem “To An Athlete Dying Young.”
Over the years, no local school has had to endure more tragic moments than St. Peter’s Prep.
For some reason, tragedy has not escaped the fine house of education located on Grand and Warren in downtown Jersey City, a school that produced this columnist (Class of 1979).
Going back to the days when I attended Prep, we lost classmates like Nick Kapakos, Kevin Stawicki, and Bobby Davis, budding athletes with their entire lives in front of them, all gone before they reached the age of 16.
As a reporter, I’ve had to report the tragic lives of people like Jeff Kachel, a baseball player who died as a teenager after bravely battling cancer, and Kyle Witkowski, a sensational cross country runner whose life ended suddenly in a senseless traffic accident during his senior year.
There were the sudden deaths of good people like John McGovern, who died of a heart attack playing basketball, or athletic team manager Jerome Pederson, who also passed on way too early. The memories of McGovern and Pederson live on in annual basketball and football tournaments for the school’s alumni.
Seven years ago, the Prep community was devastated by the sudden loss of former soccer and basketball standout Dan Finn, whose legacy lives on in the annual basketball get-together that bears his name.
Now, the Prep family gathers together once again in sadness, sorrow, and shock. The Prep family feels a senseless loss, the pain of yet another athlete dying young.
B.J. Giannone was a St. Peter’s Prep senior who already declared his intentions to attend Virginia Tech next fall. He was a four-year member of the Prep baseball program who decided to join the Prep swim team this season.
Last Monday, Giannone stepped out of the pool at St. Peter’s College, after competing in an relay event at a meet against Marist and Ferris. He said he felt a little light-headed, then collapsed. A little more than an hour later, Giannone was gone. He was 18 years old.
We reached out to the heart and soul of St. Peter’s Prep, namely the school’s spiritual leader, Rev. Anthony Azzarto, S.J., who has presided over many of the services for athletes dying young at the Prep.
The man affectionately known as “Father A” was able to share some of his best memories of the fine young man who left us all way too soon last week.
“He was an only child,” Father A said in an e-mail. “He was on the baseball team all the time, but tried out for the swim team this year for the first time and made it. He started a Comedic Club this year, where guys would watch funny movies together [It was reported elsewhere that Giannone liked Will Ferrell movies, thus the reason for the club]. He was once part of an Italian exchange program and later hosted an Italian student in his home. He had a lot of school spirit and dressed up in paint at football games and helped the freshmen do the same.”
Azzarto said that Giannone showed his true colors as a man of Prep when just last Sunday, a day before he died, he led a group of students to watch the Prep hockey team face Don Bosco Prep at 10 p.m.
“He had a great sense of humor and was a big brother to 20 or more freshmen,” Azzarto said.
It seems as if another great Prep man who knew what it was like to be a member of the Prep community has tragically left us too soon, another athlete dying young at Grand and Warren.
It should have been a week of celebration at the school. Standout running back Savon Huggins announced he was going to Rutgers with teammate Keith Lumpkin. They were set to sign their national letters of intent on National Signing Day, along with Sheldon Royster to South Carolina. James Fox (Harvard) and Blake Shipshinsky (Middlebury) were set to announce their college intentions as well.
And the Prep wrestling team enjoyed their fourth straight Hudson County Duals championship in grand fashion, solidifying their stranglehold as the area’s top wrestling program.
But it was all overshadowed by the sudden loss of another athlete, who was scheduled to be waked Friday with a funeral Mass in the Prep gym on Saturday.
Anyone wishing to make a donation to the B.J. Giannone Memorial Fund can do so in care of St. Peter’s Prep…
Another local standout football player made his decision about college official after originally changing his mind.
Union City’s Josue Matias, who originally declared his intentions to join the fine recruiting class at Rutgers, changed course right before Signing Day and signed with Florida State instead, joining what experts called the top recruiting class in the country.
The 6-foot-5, 290-pound Matias, a native of the Dominican Republic who never played football before arriving in the United States as a youngster, missed all of last season with the Soaring Eagles after suffering a knee injury that required surgery.
“The first thing that went to my head when I got hurt was that it was over,” Matias said. “I thought I would never get a chance to play in college; that people would forget about me. But that’s what motivated me during rehab. I also received phone calls from coaches who said that they still liked me and wanted me, so that was a plus for me.”
Matias said that he changed his mind about Rutgers after talking with his family.
“It was a tough process, but after talking with my mother, father and brothers, Florida State was the best place for me,” said Matias, who was ranked as the top offensive lineman in New Jersey before the injury. “My parents liked Florida State and that was a big plus. It was tough for me to tell Rutgers I changed my mind. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. But when I went to visit Florida State, it was a big opportunity for me to leave New Jersey.”
It’s not a bad opportunity for a kid from Union City whose only sport was baseball, like his older brother, Jose.
“My Dad was pushing me to play baseball like my brother, but I just fell in love with football,” Matias said. “I played baseball on the same team with my brother until sixth grade, but I loved football more. I’m very grateful to get this chance, because I never thought it would happen, especially after the knee. I feel so happy. It’s hard to describe. But I’m ready for it.”
More than likely, Matias will redshirt as a freshman to strengthen the knee, but he said he could play right away…
Khadeem Wilson of St. Anthony became the first Friar football product to sign with a Division I school when he signed with Temple. It’s not known whether Wilson will be a tight end or a defensive end with the Owls…
Former Hudson Reporter All-Area honoree and former St. Peter’s Prep standout Ronald Roberts has really put together a recent run of fine games for St. Joseph’s in Philadelphia. The freshman Roberts has been a bright spot for the struggling Hawks and had a career high 17 in a game against Temple last week. Over his last three games, Roberts is shooting 73 percent from the floor, averaging 14 points and four rebounds…
The Demarest/Hoboken High School Sports Hall of Fame is seeking nominations for the Class of 2011. Anyone wishing to nominate an athlete must list the athlete’s accomplishments. Candidates had to have graduated at least 10 years ago from the school. For further information, contact Buddy Matthews at (201) 424-5435 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. The dinner will be held April 16, 2011 at the Hoboken Elks…
Hudson Reporter Boys’ H.S. Basketball Top Five: 1. St. Anthony (16-0). 2. Hudson Catholic (14-3). 3. St. Peter’s Prep (12-3). 4. Memorial (11-3). 5. St. Mary (10-6).
Hudson Reporter Girls’ H.S. Basketball Top Five: 1. Bayonne (15-1). 2. North Bergen (14-2). 3. Secaucus (12-2). 4. Lincoln (8-4). 5. Holy Family Academy (10-3)….—Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.