October 20, 2021

Espousing Values of Kindness, Always Doing Your Best, Beloved Coach DiGregorio Touched Countless Lives

DIGGING IN: Members of the DiGregorio family, from left, Aaron, Nadia, Derek, Steve, and Zack, share a laugh with legendary coaches, from left, John Thompson III, Jason Garrett, and Pete Carril at a 2015 event at Conte’s Pizza to raise money to fight ataxia-telangiectasia, known as A-T. Beloved football coach Steve DiGregorio, known as “Digger” to his players and many friends, passed away last week at age 60 after a valiant battle with cancer, sparking sadness and fond memories from the countless people he touched on and off the gridiron. (Photo by John Dowers)

By Bill Alden

Be kind. Fight for justice, especially for those who can’t fight for themselves. Whatever you are doing, do it to the best of your ability. Do the right thing every day.

Those were the core principles that guided Steve DiGregorio and are just some of his qualities that family and friends are reflecting on in the wake of DiGregorio’s death on October 12 at age 60 after a valiant fight against cancer.

DiGregorio, known to all as “Digger,” was a big-hearted, good-natured, and tough-minded football coach whose influence was felt by a number of programs.

He served 13 years as an assistant coach for the Princeton University football team, several years as an assistant at Princeton High, and was a star player and later award-winning head coach for his alma mater, Nutley High.

DiGregorio also had coaching stints at Hobart College, Allegheny College, and Paramus Catholic. Before starting his coaching career, DiGregorio starred for Muhlenberg College and has been inducted into the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame.

His influence extended far beyond the gridiron as he helped create the “Derek’s Dreams” charity after his middle son, Derek, was diagnosed with a rare neuro-muscular disease, ataxia-telangiectasia, or A-T. The cause of fighting for a cure to that disease hit at the heart of his existence as it involved his beloved family, wife Nadia, and their sons, Zack, 26, Derek, 24, and Aaron, 22.

PHS football head coach Charlie Gallagher, who had DiGregorio on his staff as an assistant from 2014-16, saw the beloved coach’s death as leaving a big void.

“It is a huge loss, he was a great family guy,” said Gallagher of DiGregorio, whose life was celebrated at a moving funeral mass held  Monday at the Saint Paul Parish in Princeton.

“He was a man’s man, he really was. He always treated us with great respect. We had fun on the sidelines. We had a great 2014 season and it was awesome to have him be part of that. He was definitely a big part of it and we haven’t been to the playoffs since. He definitely did a great job, it is very sad.”

DiGregorio had a great influence on Gallagher’s professional development.

“He was a damn good coach,” said Gallagher, noting that DiGregorio was commuting to PHS practices from Nutley High where he was teaching AP government courses.

“He was serious but you know what I loved about him, I love that he let me spread my wings a little. I have seen some older coaches, they want to come in and bam, bam, do it my way. He said Charlie give me the defense and I am going to work this and offensively I am going to give you feedback and tips. He never said you really got to do it this way or it is not going to work. He never put ultimatums out or anything like that.”

Princeton University football head coach Bob Surace had a deep connection with DiGregorio, having played for him at Princeton in the late 1980s, turning to him for advice over the years as he went up the coaching ladder, and then hiring him this  past summer to serve as a consultant for the Tigers.

“The thing about Steve was that he was the perfect coach, he was tough on you but he cared,” said Surace.

“He always believed in his players. He would always push you, no matter what. As I got to be a good player, he pushed me to be even better. I respected that. He is the one in my ear, you are a great player, you can make this block. He was such a stickler for details but then the second I graduated, he became a mentor. He knew I wanted to go into coaching and he was a trusted advisor in terms of what my next step was going to be.”

It was a no-brainer for Surace to bring in DiGregorio as a consultant this summer.

“The three, four months that we were side by side were some of the best times I have ever spent from a learning perspective,” said Surace, noting that DiGregorio was named New Jersey Coach of the Year in 2020 after guiding Nutley to a 6-0 record in his final campaign at the helm of the program.

“It is like having my dad there, a longtime coach in my ear who isn’t afraid to tell me the truth. I have always leaned on him. When he retired from high school, I was going to lean on him even more and I did up until when his cancer came back  and he had to go to the hospital.”

Not being physically able to be on the field didn’t stop DiGregorio from contributing to the Tiger program.

“Even when he was in the hospital, he was watching film and sending me notes,” said Surace. “He was a close friend.”

As his Princeton squad prepared to play Brown last Saturday, Surace took time out to discuss DiGregorio’s core values of kindness, fighting for justice, and doing the right thing with his players as an inspiration for dealing with the challenges ahead this fall and those down the road.

“We talked a lot about what he meant and the messages he would send me,” said Surace.

“I have a bunch of 18-22-year-olds who are going to go on and be very successful, but you are not really successful if you are not doing those three things. It doesn’t matter how much money you make or what you do. His leadership was always there, even in that moment he is teaching and he is leading. There are 130 football players who heard that message and maybe it impacts one of them. All it has to do is impact one to make a difference, that is how he led his life.”

And there can be no question that DiGregorio made a difference in countless lives, on and off the football field.