"I have a lot of great memories of this game," Mastorelli said with emotion in his voice. "I was born and raised across the street from the old Roosevelt Stadium. To me, that game meant everything. I got up early in the morning as a kid to make sure I was one of the first people there."
Long standing rivalry
Since 1919, the two Union City schools met in the traditional Turkey Day showdown for the local bragging rights. It was the fourth oldest public school rivalry in the state of New Jersey, trailing only Millville-Vineland, which has played every year on Thanksgiving since 1893 and East Orange-Barringer, which began in 1898 and Plainfield-Westfield, which began in 1900.
But now, since the two Union City schools will merge next year, the annual rivalry between Emerson and Union Hill has come to an end.
The final game in the series was played last Thursday, a game won by Union Hill, 20-8, to incredibly end the career series in a complete dead heat. Forty wins for Emerson, forty wins for Union Hill, nine ties.
"It's the end of an era," said Mastorelli, who is a former deputy mayor in Union City and a major player in the annual Emerson-Union Hill alumni dinner. "There is a sense of sadness. It's over."
There were others who felt the same way as Mastorelli, like another Union City native, Tom Troyer, who played in the Emerson-Union Hill game in 1950.
"This is terrible," Troyer said as he stood on the sidelines, donning his Emerson varsity football jacket he received in 1950. "It's a bitter pill to swallow. I have a lot of memories of this game. One of the young kids said that the game has a lot of neuralgia. Well, that may be so, but there is a lot of nostalgia as well."
Troyer said that he hadn't missed a Thanksgiving Day game since 1940.
"There were a lot of people crying at the last game at Roosevelt Stadium, but this is different, because it's the last game ever," Troyer said. "It's the end. Everyone is trying to say that it's a new beginning, but that's hard to handle."
The end of an era
Next year, the two schools will become the Union City High School Soaring Eagles. There will be no more Bulldogs and Hillers, no more orange and blue against the blue and white.
Emerson High School Principal and Assistant Superintendent of Schools Bob Fazio is a graduate of Emerson, but was a basketball star.
"There is something special about this game that you will never forget," Fazio said. "It's been a part of my life since I was a baby. It was always good to have a heated rivalry with the school nearby. Sure, we're all excited to start a new high school, but there is a sense of sadness that this was the last one."
Fazio said that he vividly recalled the last game at Roosevelt Stadium in 2004.
"I looked up at the final score and it was 21-0 in favor of Emerson," Fazio said. "And that was Peppy's (the legendary Pep Novotny's) number that was retired on the wall in Roosevelt Stadium. I had goose bumps thinking of that then and I have them now. That's what this game stood for, Pep Novotny. People like him, Tony Nocera, Dave Wilcomes, Vito D'Orio. Those are all icons and all part of the history of this game. They're the ones who made it happen."
Novotny was the Emerson football coach for more than 30 years, before he retired in the early 1980s. He died in 1998.
Holding the line
Current Emerson High School athletic director Len Introna played in the game, coached, and has been an athletic administrator for the last decade.
"I was lucky enough to play in the 50th game," Introna said. "It's really sad that it's over. I'm trying to hold it all back. So many faces, names, people over the years. The people I haven't seen in years. Everything keeps coming back."
Introna vividly remembered the 1968 game, when he was a sophomore.
"We made a big goal line stand and kept Union Hill out of the end zone," Introna said. "Because of that stand, we won the game. It was a big crowd, about 20,000 people. There were a lot of good memories. I can keep talking all day about all the memories. It's sort of unbelievable that it's over. People don't realize just how big this game was. If you won, you were able to hold your head high in town for a whole year. If you lost, you went home and the turkey tasted horrible."
Even dignitaries who didn't go to school in Union City were moved by the final game.
"When I was in high school, this was the game to follow," said Rep. Albio Sires, a West New York native and a graduate of Memorial High School. "I went to many of these games growing up. I guess all good things have to come to an end. I guess Union City has to build a new tradition."
Sen. Robert Menendez, a Union Hill graduate, was also on hand, as was Union City Mayor and state Senator-Elect Brian Stack, who graduated from Emerson in 1984.
"Even though I love Union City and love Union Hill, today I'm proud to say I'm an Emerson grad," Stack said, drawing roars from the nearly 7,000 people in attendance.
"It was very emotional to see the rivalry between the two schools coming to an end," Stack said. "I always took pride in being a Bulldog. Hearing all the great stories and seeing all the people, it was a tremendous feeling every year. It was very tough to see it end."
Popular MSG Network sports reporter/producer Anthony Fucilli was there covering the game, but he had a dual role, having played in the game himself for Emerson, graduating in 1983.
"I remember the 1982 game, my last one," Fucilli said. "I remember coming close to blocking a punt and the guy who went by me ended up going down the field and recovering a fumble that set up the winning touchdown. We lost by two points. I never forgot that play and that game."
Fucilli was a teammate of Frank Winters, who had a long career in the National Football League, earning a Super Bowl ring as the starting center with the Green Bay Packers in 1995.
"Even before I played in the game, I remember the names like Nisler and Rubbinaccio," Fucilli said. "I remember how big those players looked, like they were NFL players. It's a very emotional day. I think of how much that game meant to me in the 70s, the 80s, playing in the game. I can't believe that this is the last one."
Added Fucilli, "I know all good things have to come to an end, but it doesn't seem right. I mean, this was like Nebraska-Oklahoma or Florida-Florida State. This was the best rivalry in Hudson County. The sad thing is that we'll never see a Thanksgiving Day game again in Union City. It hurts the entire community, the fans, the cheerleaders. Everyone in Union City had a sense of pride on Thanksgiving. It was always a special day and the winner had the bragging rights. Losing this game makes people forget about tradition. A game like this made you never forget where you came from. You never forgot the past."
Carl Holbig spent 15 years of his life coaching football at Union Hill, 11 of which he was the head coach. Now retired as a Union City teacher, Holbig reflected on his experiences coaching in the game.
"It is a little bit sad that it's ending," Holbig said. "I have a lot of great memories of kids from both sides, coaches that I worked with and coached against. I have a picture at home from the first Emerson-Union Hill game I coached. My son [Carlton] was on the sidelines and he was a little guy. Now, he's a grown man, 27 years old. I just have so many great memories."
Charlie Brema ran Roosevelt Stadium for more than 30 years and for years worked in Union City's recreation department. A member of the Emerson Class of 1962, Brema said that he remembered his friends who are gone, like Novotny and DiOrio.
"That's what came to mind as I stood on the sidelines," Brema said. "It's very emotional. This game was a part of my whole life. You looked forward to this game all year."
Brema, who is retired and lives down the shore, said that he remembered one particular play in the 1960s, when Babe DeSantis caught a game-winning touchdown while lying flat on his back.
"He'll be happy I remembered that play," Brema said.
New team, new rivalry
While many were sad about the rivalry coming to a close, they all pointed to the future union.
"I look toward to the future and the great teams we'll have together," Stack said. "It's definitely going to be great. We just need to build a new rivalry."
"The future is now," Brema said. "You have to look at the bright side. Having one high school will be great. It's the end of one era and the start of new era. The underclassmen who played in this game will all be on the same team next year. In my personal opinion, I think it will all work out. I believe in the future. This is the thing to do."
"I'm excited about having one school," Holbig said. "I'm excited for the kids of the town, because this is something that should have happened a while back. I think of the years we came up a little short against [St. Peter's] Prep and North Bergen. Imagine if there was one school then? It's sad on one hand and exciting on the other."
Dave Wilcomes, who is currently the principal at Union Hill and once coached in the game, perhaps said it best.
"It's a time to celebrate Union City," Wilcomes said. "Let's hope there's a big crowd when Union City High School opens next season against Hunterdon Central on Sept. 12."
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at either OGSMAR@aol.com or email@example.com