Sports

The First Family of New Jersey Football

ORADELL, N.J. — Three plays into the season’s first scrimmage, Mike Campanile, the offensive coordinator for the freshman team at Bergen Catholic High School, was growing angry.

Then his starting wide receiver ran the wrong route.

“Get out!” Campanile said. “And stay out!”

Campanile, 76, knew his personnel. His grandson, Dominic, was the starting quarterback. Another grandson, Michael, was a slot receiver. Standing across the field was Campanile’s oldest son, Vito, the varsity head coach and Dominic’s father.

“If Dominic gets in the car and complains about how he is getting yelled at, I say, ‘Listen, I used to have to go home and live with grandpa,’” Vito, 46, said. “He’s not getting a whole lot of sympathy from me. I’ve watched this movie for a long time.”

For the Campaniles of New Jersey, football is the family business. Mike’s four sons — Vito, Nunzio, Anthony and Nicky — coach at three different levels of the sport. Vito, the oldest, is the head coach at Bergen Catholic, a national powerhouse. Nunzio oversees tight ends at Rutgers University. Anthony coaches the linebackers for the N.F.L.’s Miami Dolphins. Nicky is in his first year as head coach at DePaul Catholic High. They all hear from Mike, who attends at least two of his sons’ games each weekend and offers his thoughts on everything from play calling to roster makeup.

“By Sunday afternoon I’m ready to collapse,” he said.

His sons built their careers on their father’s principles of risk taking and relationship building. They have coached on each other’s staffs and against each other. In 17 of the last 20 years, at least one Campanile has coached in a New Jersey state championship game. This season, Bergen Catholic is 10-0, and DePaul is 8-2 while Rutgers (4-5) fights for bowl eligibility and the Dolphins (3-7) dig out of their early hole.

Mike Campanile attends at least two of his sons’ games each weekend and offers his thoughts on their play calling. “By Sunday afternoon I’m ready to collapse,” he said.Credit…Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

“This game has a way of humbling you,” said Anthony. “Who better to confide in than your brothers?”

Mike Campanile was born a righty in the Bronx, migrated west to Fair Lawn, N.J., when he was 11, and taught himself to throw lefty so that he could execute a play that required him to roll around the left end. He played tailback and linebacker in high school, didn’t finish college and played quarterback in a men’s tackle league. Gerard Jordan, a longshoreman and teammate in that league, recalled a hit that split open Mike’s forehead. Mike received stitches, hurried back from the hospital to throw two touchdowns and win by a point.

“Either there was something wrong with him or he just loved football,” Jordan said.

In his prime, 5-foot-7 Mike was a Joe Pesci doppelgänger, with a similar hairstyle and facial features, who named his cane corso Luca Brasi, after the enforcer from “The Godfather.” He shot pool and scribbled football plays on tavern napkins. When Vito was born in 1974, Mike and his wife, Maura, bought a bar and named it Vito’s Father’s Place.

Mike coached Vito as a freshman for one football season at Paterson Catholic and, in 1990, was hired as coach at Paramus Catholic. His quarterbacks always threw the ball even though most offenses of the era remained grounded.

Vito transferred to Paramus Catholic before sophomore year and by the time he was a senior, father and son led the Paladins, who had never won a state championship, to the 1992 title game.

That week, Mike told The Record his team would pummel “The University of Bergen Catholic” by 30 points. But Bergen Catholic won, 44-34, and Mike’s pregame boasts inspired a midfield fracas between coaching staffs afterward. He was fined $500 by the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association.

Vito finished with 6,702 yards and 55 touchdowns in his career — both state records then, and went on to be the first true freshman to start at quarterback for the University of Massachusetts.

Vito Campanile now coaches his quarterback son, Dominic, 15, at Bergen Catholic High School.Credit… Brian Fraser for The New York Times

Nunzio was next, the son who was so strait-laced that his brothers referred to him as Bob Dole, the U.S. senator from Kansas. During a scrimmage, Nunzio was hit as he readied to throw and was knocked out. He retreated to the sideline with tears in his eyes; the opponent scored on the next play. Nunzio re-entered the game after the ensuing kickoff, and has thought about the hit as he teaches safety in a violent game.

“It’s not like he didn’t love me,” Nunzio said. “Imagine that today? They’d murder my father.”

“As they should,” Maura said.

In 1997, the Paladins returned to the championship game. Mike Campanile called four onside kicks and the team recovered two of them to win, 30-28.

“A fan shouted, ‘what are you going to do next, onside punt?’” Vito said. “You could pay $200 for a Giants game and be frustrated or watch our circus for $3.”

The tent came down two years later. With daughter, Gina, having won Gatorade Player of the Year honors for volleyball, Anthony readying for his senior season and Nicky, the only son to play tailback, rushing up the ranks as a junior at the school, Paramus Catholic did not renew Mike’s contract.

He was 45-41-1 there, but left the team after the school declined to renew his contract. He said Paramus Catholic accused him of wrongly prompting players to take cortisone shots, and of steering them toward a chiropractor outside of the school’s health guidelines. He denied the allegations and promised to fight them but eventually moved on. Through a lawyer, the Archdiocese of Newark declined at the time to provide details of the situation, saying only that the decision not to retain Campanile wasn’t personal.

“I’m not the easiest person to get along with,” Mike said.

The Campanile sons still pursued coaching themselves. Vito served as a graduate assistant to offensive coordinator Chip Kelly at the University of New Hampshire. At Don Bosco Prep, Nunzio, who had considered law school, joined the staff of coach Greg Toal, one of the few area coaches Mike got along with. Nunzio coordinated the offense for teams that reached nine state championships from 2000 to 2009, winning six, while producing N.F.L. players like tailback Ryan Grant.

Football’s popularity exploded in Bergen County, and the brothers were omnipresent. In the 2008 season, Anthony joined Nunzio at Don Bosco, coaching the linebackers. Arguments brought back memories of old Christmas bowls in the family’s backyard when Vito and Anthony ran midline option plays against Nunzio and Nicky.

One day in training camp, Anthony wanted to start hitting earlier than in the previous season. When Nunzio said no, Anthony stormed off, drove to the family home, called Nunzio at the school and said he wanted to fight.

Nunzio Campanile was elevated to interim head coach at Rutgers in 2019 after losing to a Michigan team for which his brother, Anthony, was an assistant.Credit…Adam Hunger/Associated Press

“You know exactly where I am,” Nunzio said. “I’ll be here.”

Maura called to ask Nunzio what he had done to upset Anthony.

“The same thing I’ve done since he was 5,” said Nunzio, who is six years older. “I know how to get him started.”

Their climb up the coaching ranks has opened jobs that could only be filled by another Campanile. In 2010, Nunzio left Don Bosco to be head coach at Bergen Catholic, only he lost to his former team and rival in the next two championships, prompting Nunzio to bring in Mike to coach his freshmen.

Two months after winning a state title with Bergen Catholic in 2017, Nunzio left to become an assistant at Rutgers and Vito replaced him at the high school.

Anthony had jumped to Rutgers as an assistant back in 2012, then Boston College, and then Michigan. Facing Nunzio in 2019, Anthony’s Michigan team (he was linebackers coach at the time) mauled Rutgers, 52-0. Rutgers fired coach Chris Ash the next day and named Nunzio the interim coach.

Anthony left for the Dolphins that off-season. During the transition, Anthony and his wife, Tracey, whose third child was only a few months old, did not see his brothers for more than a year because of the pandemic. Even when the Dolphins played the Jets in New Jersey during Thanksgiving week last year, he and his parents could not meet due to Covid protocols.

Anthony grew emotional recalling how Mike implored them to be “irrational competitors and compassionate people.” When Anthony wrestled in junior high, his father chided him for a lack of effort in a loss. Mike took Anthony’s headgear, nailed it to the wall at home and told Anthony to look at it every day. Anthony dominated the same opponent in a rematch; Mike nailed his medal to the wall.

Anthony Campanile conducting drills as the linebackers coach during training camp with the Miami Dolphins last year.Credit…Mark Brown/Getty Images

“If you went hard and lost, he was good,” Anthony said. “He wanted you wrestling with every particle of your soul until the ref raised someone’s hand.”

Around 9 a.m. on a Saturday in October, several Campaniles were on the field at Bergen Catholic before the freshmen played. When an assistant coach asked for volunteers to hold the chains, Nunzio, who was on a bye, made his way onto the sideline. His wife, Heather, stood with his mother, who watched Mike talking with the referees in what was supposed to be his final year of coaching.

“None of them can believe he’s still here,” Maura said.

A week earlier, Mike’s team lost for the first time in three years. He bounced back, calling a few of his greatest hits, including a reverse screen, to lead 36-0 before halftime. Lately, Mike has softened on whether he’ll retire, saying only that he is year-to-year.

Maura noted that they had recently been at a bar watching a game on TV and he broke out a pen to write down a play that caught his eye. She lamented the number of napkins that accrue around the house each fall.

“Can’t throw any away,” she said. “Might be the critical play of the week.”

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