As the hundreds of people filed into the Hi-Hat Restaurant in Bayonne last week for the 11th Annual Hudson County Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, you could almost smell the sense of nostalgia in the air.
People were stopping and greeting friends and colleagues whom they had not seen in ages. Stories recollected from the years gone by were rekindled. Glorious and proud moments, tucked deep away in the collective memory banks for decades, were dusted off and recaptured.
And the 18 featured honorees, with their family and friends close by, were getting one last chance to hear the cheers, absorb the applause and feel the pride that they all had when they were honoring their respective fields of play.
That's what the Hudson County Hall of Fame dinner is all about. It's a historic moment, a chance for everyone to remember, reflect and understand just how great of an athletic area Hudson County has been for ages and continues to be today. Eighteen more people received the golden eagle trophy last week, raising the total of inductees to 190 over the 11-year history of the dinner.
There are hundreds more who are worthy of the honor. It's always the source for debate among local sports enthusiasts. Whether this player is a Hall of Famer or that coach is a Hall of Famer. The debate goes on and on.
Which only goes to prove one thing. The athletic talent that has come out of Hudson County since the first pair of sneakers was laced in competition more than 100 years ago is downright astounding. As a member of the selection committee, I get to read the stories of these accomplishments. It really becomes a tough task to narrow an induction group down to a select few.
There are nearly 200 who have already received their honors. Countless more will receive theirs. And as each legend of the past strolls to the podium to collect a trophy that is simply a symbol of their great achievements, it gives every last recipient a chance to make time stand still.
They get a chance to turn back the clock, sometimes 60 or 70 years, and remember what it was like to make the winning jump shot, score the game-winning touchdown, hit the clutch home run, make the stop watch and the tape measure tilt with impressive numbers.
The trophy is a symbol. Their respective greatness is the legacy.
It's also a chance for some to come back to their roots, to a place that they may have left, relocated away from Hudson County because of work commitments or family commitments.
"It's nice to be home again," Union City native Bill Baird said, upon receiving his award. Baird was an All-State basketball player at Union Hill (1945-1949) and went on to become one of the best players to ever play at the University of Rhode Island. He has remained in Rhode Island as a coach and educator ever since.
"It's a fairly comfortable event for me, because Hudson County is where I'm from," Baird said. "When I reflect on all the outstanding basketball players who have come from Hudson County, it is amazing. It truly was and is the hotbed of basketball talent in New Jersey. And basketball gave me a career. All of the associates and friends I know in the world came from the game of basketball. I owe a lot to the game."
Dennis McGovern, who played for St. Michael's of Jersey City and then proceeded to break Baird's records at Rhode Island, also returned for his induction.
"I would hear applause when I came out to start a game, heard my hometown of Jersey City and always thought back to those days," McGovern said. "I was sure that God lived in Jersey City, right next to Audubon Park, where we always played."
Pete Berezney, who played football at Dickinson in the 1940s and later played on the Notre Dame team of 1943 that won the national championship, remembered his days growing up in Jersey City.
"We came from a time where nobody handed anything to us," said Berezney, whose older brother, Paul, was also inducted. "We worked for every damned thing we got and it made us proud to do so. It's really wonderful to be home again. I'm a Jersey City boy and always will be."
That's what it all boils down to. A sense of history, a sense of pride, in where you were from and what you accomplished. For the 18 people who received their honors last week, congratulations. For the others who feel they deserve the honors, give it time. It's for certain that the Hudson County Sports Hall of Fame will be honoring people for a long time.
Here's to those who received the honors, like Bill Baird, Dennis McGovern and the Berezney brothers:
Gordon Chiesa, the current assistant coach for the NBA's Utah Jazz
The late Phil "Muggsy" Miller, a basketball pioneer, and his son, famed referee and trainer Phil "Doc" Miller, Jr.
Bayonne's John "Bucky" Connelly, posthumously, for basketball; North Bergen's Brian Guaschino and West New York's Sal Vega for track and field; Jersey City's George Waddleton, Richie Long, Mandy Johnson and Cathy Meyers O'Callahan for basketball.
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.
Take a bow, one and all. You truly deserve your place in history.
To Rich Myrlak and Jane Green, kudos once again for organizing a special night. By now, it has to be considered a labor of love and it shows every year.