"Al Lopez was a man who was a role model to me back then," said Vega, who is currently the athletic director at Memorial High School, a member of the West New York Board of Commissioners and the Chairman for the Hudson County Board of Chosen Freeholders. "He wanted me to become a basketball player. However, when everyone else was playing, I would dribble around with the ball all day, running around the gym, but I never got a chance to play. I thought I would eventually get a chance to play, but I never did."
However, all the running around that Vega did was about to pay off in huge dividends, resulting in the greatest track and field career of any athlete to come out of West New York.
Vega was introduced to track and field as a freshman at Memorial.
"I was asked if I wanted to run cross-country," Vega said. "So I thought we were going to run to California. That's how much I knew about running back then."
However, Vega took to running like no other athlete before him at the school and quickly carved out a place in Hudson County's athletic history. From 1971 through 1975, Vega set a standard of excellence that has yet to be duplicated. He was the HCIAA Cross Country Champion in 1973 and 1974 and won the NJSIAA Group III State championship in 1973. He earned First Team All-State honors in both seasons and was a High School All-American in 1974. Vega continued his brilliant running career at the University of Tennessee, where he remained from 1975 through 1979. While at Tennessee, Vega was a two-time All-Southeast Conference honoree in cross-country, the 5,000-meter run and the 10,000-meter run. He was also the SEC champion at 10,000 meters in 1977.
After graduation from Tennessee, Vega continued his fine career as a road racer. He was named the New Jersey Road Racing Runner of the Year for a record five straight years, from 1981 through 1985. Vega placed 25th at the 1981 New York Marathon, 24th in the 1983 New York Marathon, 19th at the 1983 Boston Marathon and was ninth at the United States Olympic Trials in 1984 in Buffalo.
Vega was also the U.S. Track Association's national champion in the 25-kilometer run in 1984.
After his athletic career was cut short due to a severe bout with runner's induced asthma, forcing him to retire, Vega then pursued a career in education, culminating in becoming the athletic director at his alma mater. He later chose a career in politics, earning the two positions that he currently holds.
Last week, Vega earned his place to be remembered forever in Hudson County athletic history, when he was inducted, along with 17 others, into the Hudson County Sports Hall of Fame at the 11th Annual induction ceremonies at the Hi-Hat Restaurant in Bayonne.
Four Union City natives were also inductees. They were: Gordon Chiesa, the current assistant coach for the NBA's Utah Jazz, Bill Baird, who played basketball at Union Hill (1945-1949) and the University of Rhode Island (1949-1954) before moving on to a career in athletic education in Rhode Island, the late Phil "Muggsy" Miller, a basketball pioneer, and his son, famed referee and trainer Phil "Doc" Miller, Jr.
Others who were honored included Bayonne's John "Bucky" Connelly, posthumously, for basketball; North Bergen's Brian Guaschino for track and field; Jersey City's George Waddleton, Dennis McGovern, Richie Long, Mandy Johnson and Cathy Meyers O'Callahan for basketball.
Also, Jersey City's Peter and Paul Berezney for football; Hoboken's Joe Palermo for basketball; Jersey City's Ray Bellino for baseball; the late Morris "Rosie" Rosenberg for sports journalism, and Harvey Zucker was named as the Marty Seglio Memorial Community Service Award inductee.
Although Vega is more recognized these days for his political presence in the community, he said it felt good to be honored for his athletic talents.
"At my age , I almost feel a little embarrassed to be inducted with all of these guys who waited so long to receive their honors," Vega said. "It is absolutely amazing for me to think that I'm part of that select group. I've attended every dinner before this one and I sat there and listened to all the stories that these other great people have told. I didn't think it would come to me so soon."
Vega also holds another distinction. He is only the second Hispanic to ever receive induction into the Hall of Fame (former New York Cosmos soccer star Santiago Formoso was the first in 1995) and he is the first of Cuban descent to earn induction.
"It really is a good feeling," Vega said. "I think a lot of what I achieved was luck, that I was able to meet the right people at the right time. People ask me if I would ever go back in time. I would be afraid to go back to when I was 16 or 17, because the chances are, I wouldn't be so lucky."
But Vega justly earned every honor and distinction he ever achieved, due to hard work and dedication. He also made up for his lack of size and strength with an unflappable work ethic.
"I worked hard in high school and college based on fear," Vega said. "I never took the time to appreciate that I was good. I was afraid I was going to lose it all one day. That's why I worked harder than anyone else. I couldn't just run. I had to know that no one was going to work harder."
Vega said that he was also fortunate to form long-standing relationships with people who have always remained friends - including some from the then dreaded rival, North Bergen.
"It's funny, but my homeroom teacher all four years of high school was Connie Muir [the wife of North Bergen coach and fellow hall of famer Tom Muir]," Vega said. "They were our biggest rival and we always wanted to beat North Bergen and every day, I had to be in the same classroom with the coach's wife. I used to tell her, 'They're not going to beat us,' and of course, she protected her husband."
Later on, Vega became friends with another North Bergen High product, namely Brian Guaschino, who earned induction into the Hall of Fame the same evening. Guaschino helped Vega get into the University of Tennessee and later became his collegiate roommate.
"To most of us, when we were in high school, Brian was a legend," Vega said. "He came home from Tennessee and wore those orange Tennessee sweats. I didn't get to know him well then, but when I decided to go there and they made us roommates, we formed a strong relationship."
After Vega graduated from Tennessee and began his road-racing career, he also formed a strong bond with another North Bergen hall of famer, namely Ira Wolfe, who was basically known for training weight throwers, like shot put and hammer throws.
"But Ira had gone into running road races and marathons on his own," Vega said. "He had strategy and knowledge about running those races. He had them fine tuned, so I thought he could help me. Ira then just got more and more involved with me."
Wolfe would help Vega while he trained to compete in marathons such as the famed New York and Boston courses. Vega would run the course, while Wolfe would ride his bike along side of him.
"He would ride the bike and I would run, so we could know every inch of the course," Vega said. "He helped me a lot."
In 1985, after almost reaching the pinnacle of his career, which would have been a spot on the United States Olympic team, Vega came down with asthma, which forced him to retire from running.
"I was 29 years old and I felt like I had reached the end of the rope with my career," Vega said. "I knew that I had to concentrate on other things. I had gone as far as I was going to take it.
Vega added, "Sometimes, I wonder, why God had taken away my ability to run. I think it was to tell me to go in another direction. I've been fortunate to do the things I love to do. I wanted to be a teacher and then I wanted to be the athletic director at Memorial. Politics just sort of happened. Now, I have a lot of things I care about."
Vega said that he was proud to be able to carry on in the rich athletic tradition that Memorial has enjoyed for ages.
"I'm honored to be a part of that great tradition at Memorial," Vega said. "There's a great legacy at Memorial."