It’s the type of story that is usually only found in a Hollywood script, because it’s almost too unbelievable to be true. You almost have to pinch yourself as a reminder that stories and settings like this do come true from time to time and aren’t only found on the silver screen.
Last Friday night, on the 11th day of the 11th month in the calendar year of 2011 – that’s right, 11/11/11 – Vin Ascolese took the field at the stadium that was renamed only last week after his grandfather, the legendary North Bergen gridiron giant Coach Vince Ascolese.
And it was only appropriate that the younger Ascolese was donning uniform No. 11. It had to be his day, right?
After all, it was the last time that the younger Ascolese was going to play on the field that was just renamed after his grandfather, the most influential man in his life – and the lives of thousands of North Bergen youngsters over the years.
It was the first round of the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV playoffs against Passaic County Tech. If the Bruins lost, it would also mark the end of the elder Ascolese’s remarkable 50-year career as a head coach, 39 years in North Bergen and 11 in Hoboken. Ascolese officially announced last week that this would be his final season coaching, so a loss would have ended it all in a heartbeat.
“It definitely played big in my heart,” the younger Ascolese said. “I knew it wasn’t going to be our last game. We worked too hard to get knocked out in the first round. We all knew once it came time for the state playoffs, we had to step it up a notch. We didn’t want to go home. I liked that kind of pressure. I thrive on that. It gives me an edge.”
Before the game, the elder Ascolese knew one thing: He was going to have to use his grandson more on the offensive side, because regular starter Anthony Calabrese was hobbled with a sore ankle.
The younger Ascolese has been a stalwart all season long at linebacker, one of the better performers in all of New Jersey. Already being recruited by several major NCAA Division I schools for his ability as a defender, his role for the Passaic County Tech playoff game was about to become magnified.
“We knew Calabrese was more valuable on defense, so we had to keep him on the defensive side of the ball,” the elder Ascolese said. “So we then knew we had to give Vinnie the ball.”
“I told Coach that we had to get the ball in my hands,” the younger Ascolese said. “I wanted to run with the ball. Just put the ball in my hands and I’ll get it done.”
Well, that’s exactly what happened – and in dramatic fashion no less.
First, doing what he does best, the younger Ascolese made a tackle at the 1-yard line, on a play where it appeared as if the Passaic Tech running back was going to score the go-ahead touchdown in overtime. A play later, the go-ahead field goal attempt was blocked and the Bruins had life.
In the extra session, the younger Ascolese took matters into his own hands, churning up the yards, eventually scoring the touchdown that gave the Bruins the thrilling 20-14 victory, setting up a state sectional semifinal showdown with Union City this weekend – with the winner heading to MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands for the overall Group IV state championship in two weeks.
All totaled, Ascolese had 114 yards rushing on 14 carries and the game-winning touchdown. Defensively, he collected 10 tackles, including the game-saving stop before the goal line and also had two sacks.
For his efforts, Ascolese has been selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week for the past week.
Yes, almost a fairytale story, too good to be true.
“It’s really unbelievable,” the proud grandpa said. “It was just one of those nights. I would be happy for any one of my players to have a game like that, but for it to be my grandson, it’s beyond belief. It’s really amazing.”
Coach Ascolese had no hesitation where he was going with the football in the overtime.
“He was gaining huge chunks of yardage toward the end of the game,” the elder Ascolese said. “He was getting five yards, seven yards, four yards. They couldn’t stop him. So we kept going to him and he put it in the end zone. The line blocked well, but he exploded with the ball.”
The elder Ascolese said that his grandson never once took anything for granted. “He never talked about it being uncomfortable for him, playing for me,” the coach said. “He is very motivated and works very hard. He goes to the gym three times a week. He developed a good relationship at the gym with [former Bergen Catholic and USC linebacker] Brian Cushing [currently playing with the Houston Texans]. Cushing has advised Vinnie and that’s been a plus. He goes about things the right way. He doesn’t need me to motivate him.”
“I always knew I had to get the job done,” said the younger Ascolese, who has already received solid offers from schools like Illinois, Mississippi, and Cincinnati. “I knew I had to work hard. I have a good work ethic and the right frame of mind. I refuse to lose.”
So when the game went into overtime on the field named after his grandfather, Vin Ascolese found a second gear – and then a third one.
“In my head, I realized it could be my last game,” the younger Ascolese said. “I told myself that I had to turn it up. I was going to make sure no one was going to stop me. That’s exactly what happened.”
So on the 11th day of the 11th month in the year of 2011, the kid wearing No. 11, playing for the very last time on a field named after his grandfather, scored the game-winning touchdown in overtime in the state playoffs. It’s the stuff that legends are made of.
“Probably, as I grow older, it’s something that I’ll reminisce about,” the younger Ascolese said. “It’s most definitely a moment to remember.”
For the guy with the five decades of experience, he’ll hold onto the moment fondly as well.
“Well, it’s definitely in the top five,” he said with a laugh.
The Soaring Eagles await in a rematch of a game played three weeks ago, won by Union City, 14-12. The winner goes to the state championship in the Meadowlands. Is there another memorable Ascolese family story in the making? – Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.