Ron Hertel was your typical Union City kid back in 1961. A resident of 31st Street and Summit Avenue, Hertel came from a family of modest means, much like every other family in Union City after World War II. Back then, if you had 50 cents in your pocket, you were one of the richest kids in your neighborhood.
And back then, before the Cuban and Hispanic influx into Union City, the area was a complete melting pot, with many different descents featured throughout.
“I was from a German family and so were some of my friends,” Hertel said. “We had Germans, Italians, Irish, Polish, all living together in the same neighborhood.”
Hertel was a football player at Emerson High School. He didn’t begin to play football until his junior year.
“That was the beginning of the changing of my life,” Hertel said.
Hertel remembered a trip past the old Robert Waters School one day.
“I remember walking past the big gates of the school and I heard a voice,” Hertel said.
The voice was coming from Union City sports and political legend Nick “Whizzer” Mastorelli.
“I knew him a little bit from my coach, [long-time Emerson High School grid coach] Pep Novotny, but I wasn’t really close to him at the time,” Hertel recalled. “He stopped me and said, `Hey, Ronnie, do you want to go to college?’ I said, ‘Where?’ He said, ‘The University of Vermont.’ I didn’t even know where Vermont was. I was geographically challenged. I was a young kid from Union City. None of us knew where Vermont was.”
But “Whizzer” Mastorelli certainly knew where Vermont was, because he managed to carve his niche permanently in the New England state.
In 1945, “Whizzer” Mastorelli played four sports at Emerson High School. He was a standout in track, football, baseball and basketball at Emerson.
“I was in Roosevelt Stadium almost every day,” Mastorelli said. “We had nothing back then, except sports.”
Mastorelli spent two years in the Air Force after completing Emerson High School. In 1949, he was selected to play baseball in the Atlantic Coast Baseball League in Burlington, Vt., a team that was coached by legendary Montclair State head coach Clary Anderson.
“I fell in love with New England,” Mastorelli said. “At the time, the Emerson athletic director was George Manfredi [a standout baseball player at NYU, who later pitched in the New York Yankees’ organization] and he was like the father I never had. He sent a lot of Jersey City kids to Champlain Junior College in Vermont. So I went there to play baseball and basketball.”
After his stint at Champlain, Mastorelli went on to the nearby University of Vermont in 1950, where he was a Little All-American in basketball, as one of the nation’s top players under 6-feet. He also continued to play baseball, even playing minor league baseball in Canada for a stint under the pseudonym of Nick Aversa, because he wanted to keep his amateur status at the University of Vermont. Someone caught on, the gig was up and Mastorelli was done with college sports.
Mastorelli got the nickname that would remain with him for life because of his fleet feet.
“There was a football player back then named [Byron] “Whizzer” White [who later went on to become a member of the United States Supreme Court],” Mastorelli said. “People said that I ran like him, that I had the wheels like ‘Whizzer’ White. The nickname stuck. After a while, after I got older, I didn’t mind. It was my name. All anyone would call me was ‘Whizzer.’”
But “Whizzer” never lost his love for Vermont. He became a scout for his alma mater, sending kids from the area to the school.
Hertel and Emerson teammate Frank Foerester were the first two.
“I was such a young kid,” Hertel said. “It was remarkable. It’s like something out of a storybook.”
Foerester’s first association with Mastorelli goes back even further.
“My first encounter with ‘Whizzer’ was when I was playing Little League ball,” Foerester said. “He was good friends with Pep Novotny. These guys were like mentors to us. He was also my coach for Build Better Boys baseball and we did very well as a team. I had a number of scholarship offers, but once ‘Whizzer’ mentioned Vermont to me, I was interested. As soon as I went there, it was so different from where I grew up [13th and Bergenline].”
Hertel and Foerester both went to Vermont together and started the train of local athletes who headed north on Mastorelli’s recommendation.
“I had a lot of offers, but ‘Whizzer’ directed me to the right one,” Foerester said. “When I was a freshman in college, my father passed away, but ‘Whizzer’ stayed on me and made sure I finished school. He was like a substitute father for me. He’s the favorite person in my life.”
Others would follow, like Rich Reynolds, a solid fullback from Memorial. Bill Librera, a solid basketball star from Union City, headed to Burlington. The stream continued. Some 53 athletes in all earned scholarships to Vermont thanks to the work of the “Whizzer.” That’s 53 teenaged kids from Hudson County, kids who didn’t have two nickels to rub together, were able to go to college for free, thanks to one man.
“I guess I did it for about 15 years,” Mastorelli said. “It wasn’t an official thing. I didn’t get paid. A lot of them could have gone anywhere else, but I guess they listened to me.”
There were times that the entire starting five of the Catamounts’ basketball team were courtesy of Mastorelli. Another year, the whole offensive line were Mastorelli products.
“Other schools would call me,” Mastorelli said. “I helped them as well.”
One was a little-known school called St. Mary’s of the Plains in Dodge City, Kansas. Mastorelli helped guys like Fred Constantino, the great St. Michael’s of Union City athlete, who played football at St. Mary’s, and basketball legend Gerald Govan of Jersey City, who was one of the first-ever stars of the old ABA.
Other Union City greats like Rich Gronda knew of the generosity of Mastorelli.
“He’s been a part of my life since I was a kid,” said Gronda, who had a fine athletic career at St. Peter’s Prep and Villanova. “He ran all the leagues, basketball, Little League, 4B. Nick was a fireman and he spent a lot of time with kids, so he had a good relationship with them. I went to Villanova and got hurt bad. But he got me a scholarship to play at Vermont. My leg was so bad that I couldn’t play, but we became very close over the years. It’s unbelievable the way the man has spent his whole life with the same dedication to kids, to his friends. His dedication to Union City is tremendous.”
Mastorelli’s products became very successful in life. Foerester is now a retired attorney, living in Austin, Texas. Hertel is the managing director of Wells Fargo Advisors, an investment firm located in Boston. He resides in nearby Winchester. Librera eventually became the commissioner of education for the state of New Jersey.
Bob Fazio, who will retire next month as the assistant superintendent of schools in Union City, also has a long-standing relationship with Mastorelli.
“He’s an icon,” said Fazio, who played Biddy basketball for Mastorelli. “He took me under his wing when I was younger and we remained close. He showed me the ropes and taught me how to be an honest man and do the right things. He’s one of a kind and the thing I love the most about him is that still to this day, he has such passion and love for Union City. It’s amazing.”
“He just cares about people,” said Ed Peterson, who had a long career with the FBI and later worked top security for Major League Baseball and the NFL. “He was special because he was so willing to help others. It’s tough to match his loyalty. Having him as a friend is a blessing. He’s part of a vanishing breed. He was such a positive influence on so many. You don’t see that often today. He’s simply a legend.”
Hertel couldn’t come up with the right words to express his feelings about Mastorelli.
“What do you say about someone who changes your life?” Hertel said. “My whole life was centered in Vermont. I met my wife there. I got married there. I sent my son there. My connection with Vermont remains strong. I’ve stayed involved, helped to raise money, received awards from the school. I’ve watched the school grow and prosper. What do I owe this man for doing this for me? He changed my life and changed a lot of people’s lives. I’m just so grateful.”
Mastorelli still lives in Union City. He’s 83 years old now, still going strong. He doesn’t think what he did was anything special, as truly remarkable as it is.
“A lot of them are big shots now,” Mastorelli said. “It’s fantastic for me. I am proud of all that.”
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.