100 Years of Tenafly Football: JC's salute

TENAFLY - As the temperature began to drop and the calendar moved from October to November thoughts of Veteran’s Day began to fill my mind, especially when I think about some of my fellow vets, who I served with in my 22-plus years in the Army National Guard. 

The Tenafly High School Tiger Varsity Football program was way ahead of me.   

When the Tenafly High School football team held its Centennial Celebration back on September 29 not only did the Tigers play their 77th game all time against Ridgefield Park, but they honored three alumni football players who made the ultimate sacrifice in the war in Vietnam.

Interestingly, none of these heroes lived in Tenafly.

William Sheldon Davis III, Tenafly class of 1954, lived in Demarest. In addition to playing football Davis starred in track and field and, as a result, is a member of the Tenafly Athletics Hall of Fame. He was a captain in the Air Force and was killed September 19, 1966 in a plane crash. Davis was inducted into the Tenafly High School Athletics Hall of Fame in 2005.

Davis was an outstanding quarter-miler, anchoring the Penn Relays team victory and turning in times of 51.8 and 49.1 in events, He captained the NNJIL title team, earned First Team All-County honors and was named the “Most Athletic” of his senior class.

Michael Wayne Berkery, class of ’62, lived in Alpine. He was a casualty in a gun battle on February 5, 1968, less than two months after his tour began. He was a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps.
John Michael Kapeluck, class of ’64, lived in Cresskill. He lost his life in a firefight on November 8, 1967, five months after his deployment.

“Tonight’s game is dedicated in their honor,” Sam Bruno, THS class of ’74, said as the ceremonies began. “They shall grow not old, as we that are left, grow old. Nor shall they be forgotten.”

Bruno also acknowledged Fred L. Crabbe III, THS class of ’59, who had recently passed away. He was a captain on the 1958 team, the last football team Tigers’ legend Eugene “Red” Littler coached. Crabbe’s younger brother Bill, THS class of ’68, was there to represent his brother and to take part in the ceremonial coin toss before the opening kickoff.

Valentina “Val” Berkery Arnold, sister-in-law to Berkery, and her son Michael Louis Berkery also participated in the coin toss and were there to represent the fallen corpsman. Arnold married Michael W. Berkery’s brother, Alan, two years after the elder Berkery was killed. Val and Alan named their son after him. Fred Robins, THS class of ’64, was there to represent his classmate, Kapeluck. Robins is a Vietnam veteran. 

The representatives of the fallen soldiers were joined by the current Tigers captains, Cole Mogensen, Jordan Twiss and Asher Zorn for the coin toss.

There were more than 40 former players and coaches in attendance. A lot of them had tales to tell.
Two members of the undefeated 1962 team, co-captain John Gibbons and Charlie Green had stories about head coach Boaz “Buzz” Firkser. Firkser coached the Tigers from 1961-1978, winning 9 league and 3 state championships, amassing a record of 115-42-7. He was inducted into the Tenafly Athletics Hall of Fame in 1989 and the fieldhouse is named for him.

Gibbons talked about a time when Firkser helped him through a hard time in his life with some tough talk. 

“In my junior year my Dad had died and I was screwing off,” Gibbons said. “Buzz and [coach] Bob Curtis met me in the weight room, cleared the weight room, gave me a light tuneup and said ‘get over it.’ I was captain the next year. Then we had that great year (1962). Boaz leveled things out [when he became head coach.] We had an incredible coaching staff - line coach Bob Curtis, Jim Hunt, who came over from Englewood and Bob Burke (end coach/head of scouting).”
Green talked about the time that his wife was in the stands at one of the reunion celebrations and Buzz was sitting near her.

“She told me that guy after guy came up to shake his hand and brought over their kids,” Green said. “She said it was so obvious that they loved him. That’s the memory that always sticks out to me.” 

Green added that the friendships developed among the teammates began long before that championship season.

“We had loads of fun - we grew up together,” he said. “We met in Little League or in junior high. We all kept together. It was so great to play with your buddies.”

John “Jack” Armstrong is another coach the two players remember. Armstrong was their coach during sophomore year.

“He could put some starch in your collar too,” Gibbons said, laughing. “He could get you to jump to the stars.”

“If you screwed up,” Green added with a smile, “Armstrong would grab you and he’d have his back to the crowd. He’d have a few words for you and mom and dad couldn’t see what he was saying. He was a great guy.” 

Ridgefield Park won the game that night to improve its head-to-head record against the Tigers to 46-27-4, but that didn’t matter. The important thing was that after 100 years the THS football program is still going strong.