Louise Rittberg was asked how she would best remember her childhood sweetheart – “the football hero and the cheerleader,” is how she put it best – and husband for almost 50 years.
“I always said he was the most respected man in the community,” Louise Rittberg said of her husband, Ed, who passed away last Sunday at the age of 71. “No one called him Ed. Everyone called him Mr. Rittberg. That’s how much respect people had for him. He was a man of his word and he stuck by it. He was fair and consistent. He was the best listener and would always find a solution to a problem.”
Simply put, Ed Rittberg was the father of Secaucus athletics. A former standout football player, first at Emerson High School in his native Union City, then at Purdue University, Rittberg founded the school’s football team and booster club and was the school’s first athletic director back in 1975.
Rittberg first had success as a football coach at Lodi High School, winning a state championship there, before arriving in Secaucus, after his mentor and friend, Art Couch, the former superintendent of schools in Secaucus, brought Rittberg back to Hudson County. Couch and Rittberg had coached together at the now-defunct St. Joseph of the Palisades in West New York.
It was a daunting challenge to start a high school football program from the bottom up, but Rittberg, who stood 6-foot-4 and had an imposing stature, was able to do it.
It was even more of a challenge because Rittberg, suffering from blood clots in his leg, lost the leg during his first season as football coach.
“It was the first year of the high school,” said Louise Rittberg, who was the associate editor of the Secaucus Home News for 21 years. “He was just 33 years old. He was determined to be on the field coaching the kids after losing the leg. He just figured that if he put on the prosthesis and walked, he would be fine.”
Rittberg never let the fact that he lost a leg stop him from becoming a legendary figure in Secaucus.
“He was larger than life as a physical education teacher,” said Charlie Voorhees, the current Secaucus football coach and athletic director. “He had the respect of everyone. He was a very tough man, but a really respected man. Anyone who was ever a part of Secaucus athletics has to thank him for what he did.”
Any girls’ sports athletes have to be grateful to Rittberg, because he was the one who pushed to have girls’ sports at the school.
Voorhees, who had Rittberg as a teacher during his days in Lincoln School, adored Rittberg.
“He was someone who was very special in my life,” Voorhees said. “He’s the reason why I came back to Secaucus in 1995. He was the one who convinced others to hire me. He had everything to do with it.”
Rittberg went on to become a vice-principal and after his retirement in 1996, he became a member of the Secaucus Board of Education, eventually serving as the Board of Education president.
Voorhees said that Rittberg was one who cared for every single youngster.
“He didn’t miss a kid and knew every single kid,” Voorhees said. “It was amazing. He did a lot of things for people without anyone knowing.”
Louise Rittberg said her husband took special interest in the troubled kid.
“The tougher the kid, then that’s the one he would take under his wings,” Louise Rittberg said. “He gave them extra attention.”
“He had a way of getting the bad kid to listen to him,” said Secaucus Mayor Michael Gonnelli, who also was taught by Rittberg. “I don’t know how he did it, but he got those kids to listen to him. He always dealt with the toughest kids in school.”
Gonnelli called Rittberg “my mentor.”
“No matter what the issue was, I went right to him first,” Gonnelli said. “If things weren’t right, he would tell you. I always respected his decision no matter what.”
Gonnelli said that he went to visit Rittberg in the hospital just two days before he passed.
“We spent an hour and a half together and he was as sharp as a tack,” Gonnelli said. “I’m so, so happy that I got to go to see him before he passed away. He was an awesome man and it’s a tremendous loss to Secaucus.”
Voorhees looked at Rittberg like he was a father figure.
“Outside of my family, he was absolutely the biggest influence on me,” Voorhees said. “You’d see this gigantic man walking down the hallway and everyone stopped. You were in the cafeteria and he walked in, people stopped eating. That’s how much of a presence he was.
Added Voorhees, “Later in life, we had many conversations about football and about life. He was a truly special guy.”
Voorhees thought so much of Rittberg that in 2006, when Voorhees’ team won the BCSL National championship for the first time, Voorhees had his team sign a football and the current coach presented the signed ball to the old coach.
“The ball said, ‘To a great man,’ and it was signed by the entire team,” Louise Rittberg recalled. “It said, ‘Without you, we wouldn’t have this championship.’ It meant a lot to Ed.”
Incredibly, in 1987, Rittberg lost his other leg, yet one would never guess by watching Rittberg’s stature that he was a double amputee.
“He didn’t want sympathy,” Louise Rittberg said, stating that in recent months, her husband was also battling cancer and never told anyone.
“His body betrayed him,” Louise Rittberg said. “If he could have fought one more battle, but his body shut down and there were too many fronts to fight.”
Voorhees wonders what Rittberg’s legacy might have been like had he not lost his legs.
“Who’s to say that he wouldn’t have been another Vinnie Ascolese or Ed Stinson?” Voorhees said. “He might have been coaching at Secaucus for 30 years.”
Instead, Rittberg, a member of the Hudson County Sports Hall of Fame (1996), the Emerson High School Hall of Fame, and the Secaucus High School Hall of Fame, lives on in the memory of many.
“He always spoke the truth and he always cared,” Gonnelli said. “His presence commanded respect. He told you exactly how he felt and told you straight flat out if you were right or wrong. Chances are, he was right.”
Ed Rittberg leaves his wife, two daughters, Janice and Suzanne, and six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. More importantly, he leaves an entire town in mourning, because he was the pioneer of Secaucus athletics and he was a man who truly cared about the kids of Secaucus until his dying day last Sunday. – Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.