It's almost unfathomable that West New York was once the proud home for football legends like Coach Joe Coviello and memorable players like Gene Mancino and Ed Lombardi, known also as "Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside." West New York was also the first stomping grounds for Warren Wolf, who later went on to Brick Township High School and became the all-time leader in New Jersey high school football coaching victories.
All of those aforementioned people are members of the Hudson County Sports Hall of Fame.
Back in the '40s and '50s, the entire state of New Jersey bowed to Memorial High School and the town of West New York during football season. It was the epicenter of the New Jersey gridiron.
But over the years, the interest for football in West New York has waned. So has the product. Memorial High School has become a mere shell of what it once was.
But if the town continues to host events like the one it held last week, then perhaps football will gain popularity in West New York once again. It always helps when former National Football League greats are the ones promoting the sport of football in the form of a youth football clinic.
More than 150 youngsters were treated to a week-long free clinic and camp, coordinated by former San Francisco 49er and Cleveland Brown fullback Johnny Davis, who wore his Super Bowl ring every day to the amazement of the youngsters. Davis was on the 49ers in 1981 when they defeated the Cincinnati Bengals to win the Super Bowl.
The camp was dubbed the "A+ For Kids Celebrity Football Camp," and allowed the youngsters to receive football fundamentals, proper calisthenics and exercise as well as academic skills and life lessons.
The program, based out of Edgewater for the last three years, moved to West New York this year to the town's new FieldTurf athletic facility.
West New York Mayor Silverio "Sal" Vega said that he found out about Davis' camp through Housing Authority Director Robert DiVincent.
"Bob said that the camp had been held in Edgewater, so I said, 'Why not bring it to West New York, so we can expose more of our kids to football?'" Vega said. "I think everyone knows the situation with football in West New York. We want to make a statement that football is important here and it's growing year to year. More and more kids are not trying football. One of the reasons I wanted to have this camp here was to give our kids a chance to learn about football."
Davis was like a little kid out there dealing with the youngsters.
"This is great," said Davis, a native of Alabama who played college football at the University of Alabama. "I never had a chance to go to a camp like this when I was a kid. Most of these kids can't afford to go to a regular camp, so we provide this to use football to teach the kids life skills. I played for a lot of great coaches in my day, from Bear Bryant to John McKay to Bill Walsh to Marty Schottenheimer. I learned a lot of life lessons from those great men. Kids today need to know about discipline, teamwork, life. We have to give these kids an opportunity to create their own paths. They come together and learn to work with each other.
Added Davis, "We plant the seeds. They are seeds to grow and give them wings to soar."
Some of the other former NFL greats that participated in the camp included former Giants Odessa Turner, Brian Kelley, and Curtis McGriff, and former Jet Bruce Harper.
Turner, who still resides in Teaneck and whose son, Oderrick, is a player at the University of Pittsburgh (and served as a counselor at the camp), knows that most of the kids don't remember him as a high-flying acrobatic pass catcher for the Giants in the 1980s.
"When I was playing, these kids weren't even born, but that suits me fine," Turner said. "You just do what you can to put the kids on the right path. This is really a blessing for the kids. I like to interact with the kids and I always want to be a part of something like this. Seeing these kids learn so much is what makes me keep coming back."
Davis had a lot of fun teaching the kids.
"In my mind, it makes me feel young," Davis said. "Once you get over 40, you want to find things to make you feel young [Davis is now 52]. It's great to see the glow in the kids' eyes, that someone is giving them a chance to learn about football. We're giving them another choice to do something positive."
Memorial High School head coach Brian Meeney was able to attend the camp and watch some of his players serve as counselors as well.
"Anything that brings football to the community is a bonus to our program," Meeney said. "The door to football opens up to other youngsters. Mayor Vega realizes that it's important to get the little ones involved at a young age. This was an outlet for others to get involved in the sport. It's absolutely a big step that will help down the road. For me, it was great, because I remember them as players. But exposing our youngsters to football is the biggest thing. That's the most important thing. Hopefully, it will bring others to football in the future."
Vega was pleased to be able to host the camp in West New York.
"I never got a chance to rub elbows with players like this when I was a kid," Vega said. "It's a chance of a lifetime for our youngsters."