As the sun began to set behind the home bleachers, providing a Spartan golden hue over the lonely gridiron, the conversations came easy for a half dozen people linked by a season few in Deptford Township will ever forget.
It doesn’t matter how many decades go by (it’s now four, for anyone counting). It doesn’t matter if some move down the shore or others are often too busy with work. They still find each other.
And when they do, the stories are endless because they were making history back then, in the fall of 1978. Their memories are still vivid, as if they were only a few years removed and in their early 20s and not their late 50s.
“It was the best,” Tony Orio said. “The best two years I had.”
“A lot of guys went on to do other big things,” Joe Wilson added. “But I’m going to remember that for the rest of my life, absolutely.”
On Thursday, March 13, 40 years, 3 months and 12 days since they finished an undefeated season with a 14-0 win over Collingswood for the South Jersey Group III championship, they reminisced. They gathered at their alma mater’s football field, shared memories, and made new ones, too.
The Spartan football heroes will gather again at Auletto’s on March 26 for the annual Gloucester County Sports Hall of Fame banquet, where they’ll be honored and when one of their own will be a part of the 2019 induction class: Daniel Greene, the quarterback and leader of the 1978 Deptford championship team.
Unfortunately Greene’s honor is a posthumous one. He passed away 11 summers ago, at 47 years old, of a heart ailment.
“(The induction) is so well-deserved,” said Wilson, who caught the game-winning pass from Greene in the ’78 championship game. “(Fellow Class of ’79 member) Joe McKenna worked on that, 100 percent. And it’s great for us, it’s well-deserved, so well-deserved. It should have happened by now, but nobody took the ball and ran with it. We have (a charity golf) tournament we run every year. His name is alive.”
In July of 2008, on their way from the viewing to the funeral in Mickleton, Wilson, McKenna, and Anthony “Dooley” Rastelli hatched a plan to remember their friend. This spring, the 8th Annual Danny Greene Memorial Golf Outing will bring the band of brothers together again at Riverwinds in West Deptford.
The event honors Greene and other fallen members of the community with all of the proceeds supporting Deptford youth organizations.
“We knew we had to do something,” Wilson said. “It was the biggest shock. He was in the most in shape guy, he was reffing football, doing everything (to stay active), he was getting ready to ref football when he passed away. That guy lived a straight-laced life.”
“I still have a picture of Danny in my closet,” Rastelli said. “He’s still a part of our life, every day.”
The impromptu meeting last week wasn’t a somber one, though. The smiles were contagious for Wilson, Rastelli, McKenna, Orio, Mike Beers, and Greene’s widow, Nancy Greene-Hagan, as they told stories of their friends and recalled memories on the field behind them.
Like the family atmosphere created by late, beloved head coach Joe Corbi, who many credited for breaking down racial barriers within the program a few years earlier. Or about the time Corbi and his coaching staff pulled the seniors into the office after a pre-season practice in ‘78.
“The thing I remember, and I’d tell my kids, is we were out there in practice hitting so hard, and one day (the coaches) brought the captains in, remember that?” Orio said.
“I remember that,” Rastelli said. “And I know exactly what you’re going to say.”
“We thought we were going to get our asses chewed out,” Orio said with a laugh. “(Instead) it was, “Tomorrow, no equipment, nothing. You guys are like sissies, no more pads for the rest of the year.’”
“And what did we say?” Rastelli said. “If we keep winning, we won’t have to hit for the rest of the year.”
“So for the whole year,” Orio said, “we didn’t have pads in practice.”
“No more hitting,” Rastelli said. “We didn’t hit at all.”
“We didn’t care,” Orio said. “We didn’t care if we were friends. You’ll knock over your best friend, it didn’t matter.”
The intense competitiveness in August practices gave way to a physically imposing and dominating team in September through December, led by a quarterback with a unique skill set that included mental toughness, football and book smarts, and sheer physical talent.
“He was a coach on the field, a tremendous leader,” former long-time Deptford High School athletic director and 1978 offensive backfield coach Irv McFarland said in a phone interview. “Those kids relied on Dan, because they knew he was one of the smartest kids in the school, if not the smartest. And he knew football, you could tell him something and he’d execute it. He had a tremendous passing arm. And we ran the wishbone and he directed that flawlessly.”
After leading Deptford to its championship win in December of 1978 and graduating in June of ’79, Greene made more history: he joined four his his Spartans teammates, including soon-to-be-roommate Tony Orio, at Villanova University. It was the first time in NCAA history five high school teammates would go on to play Division-I football together.
After Villanova dropped its football program in 1981, Greene transferred to the University of Georgia and Nancy moved south with him.
Last week, with a framed picture of her late husband in her hand and his lifelong friends by her side, Nancy Greene-Hagan paged through scrapbooks he had kept, which included old newspaper clips, team photos, and even a 1978 game program from the Group 3 championship game.
“He was a scholar-athlete, graduated second in his class,” she said. “I went through a box this morning and I have stats for every college game he reffed. … He had one paper that had all of his goals, how he wanted to play in college. There was someone else playing quarterback at Villanova and there’s an article here, and on the piece of paper he glued it to he had goals for himself, to ‘beat this guy’s records.’ And it’s written in a red pen with an asterisk.”
“And that’s how Dan was – self-motivated and driven. Very competitive,” she said. “And also a nice person.”
Daniel Greene’s widow will give the acceptance speech at Auletto’s a week from Tuesday. The couple’s daughters, Morgan and Courtney, will be there, too.
Before the hourlong, mini-reunion was over last week, Greene-Hagan shared one more memory of her late husband: two weeks before he died, on the night of July 4, just before midnight, the couple was on their way back from a Independence Day fireworks show in Philadelphia when Greene noticed a man broke down on the side of the road. He told his wife they should turn around and help out. The man was out of gas, and so Greene told him to stay put, made a run to find a station still open, filled up a portable tank, brought it back to the man and refused anything from the man’s wallet.
“That was the kind of guy he was,” Greene-Hagan said. “As a parent, as a mother, for my daughters, it just makes me so proud (he’s getting honored next week). Because this is another tribute to their father. And you can see from the men he was friends with and played football with, they’re really good guys. And Dan was a really good guy.”
The 39th Annual Gloucester County Sports Hall of Fame Banquet will be held on March 26 at 6:30 p.m. at Auletto’s. Tickets are $42. For additional information, contact Gus Ostrum at (609) 502-0424.
The Danny Greene 8th Annual Memorial Golf Outing will take place on April 29 at Riverwinds. Check-in is at 7:30 a.m. with a Shotgun Start at 8:30 a.m. Buffet and beverages at Adelphia’s afterward. The cost is $100 for golfers and $40 for non-golfers. For more info, contact Joe McKenna at 609-923-7866 or firstname.lastname@example.org.