Extra Points: Local legends remember ACJFL
ATLANTIC CITY – Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman played in the Atlantic County Junior Football League nearly 40 years ago.
His memories from those days as a two-way lineman for the Ventnor Pirates are every bit as vivid as those he’s picked up while coaching in the NFL.
“We won the championship when I was in eighth grade in 1985,” Roman, 49, said. “We started off 1-2 and wound up making the playoffs, but had to play on the road. We went to Atlantic City and beat the Dolphins, then went to Buena and held them 10 times inside the 5-yard line to win the game. Then we went to EHT (Egg Harbor Township) and won the championship.
“In 2013, when I was with San Francisco (as offensive coordinator), we started off 1-2 and made the playoffs. We had to go to Green Bay in the first round and we beat the Packers (23-20). We went to Charlotte the next week and beat Carolina (23-10), but we lost at Seattle (23-17) in the NFC Championship game. We just couldn’t quite pull it off the way we did in 1985.”
Similar tales were being told throughout Bally’s Atlantic City’s Event Center last Friday night. Roman was among hundreds of former players, coaches and executives who gathered for a 65th Reunion of the ACJFL entitled, “One League, One Night.”
The league was formed in 1957 with the Absecon Blue Devils, Brigantine Rams, Linwood Panthers, Northfield Cardinals, Pleasantville Mighty Mites, Pleasantville Tornadoes and Ventnor Pirates serving as the charter franchises.
The late Bob Lacovara, who coached the Mighty Mites and later the Panthers, helped create the league with Don Hudson, Howard Savell and Lou Wagenheim. Bob was the ACJFL’s first president. Bob and his late wife, Ruth, also came up with the name for the season-ending All-Star game.
“They were sitting around the table and breakfast one day trying to come up with a name,” son Tom Lacovara said at Bally’s. “And mom said, ‘How about the Sand Bowl?'”
The group at Bally’s included approximately 20 former ACJFL players who reached the NFL as players, coaches and/or executives.
The first to do so was Wayne Colman, who was among the Ventnor Pirates’ first players. The 75-year-old went on to play linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles and New Orleans Saints. Son Doug Colman, who played for the New York Giants, Tennessee Titans and Cleveland Browns, also began his football career with the Pirates.
Other NFL alumni who started their careers in the ACJFL include Indianapolis Colts safety Cory Bird (Mays Landing Lakers), New York Jets linebacker Greg Buttle (Margate Colts); and Cleveland Browns running backs William Green (Brigantine Rams) and Dino Hall (Pleasantville Tornadoes).
Former Jets general manager and current Carolina Panthers consultant Terry Bradway got his first taste of football with the Venice Park Black Knights in the mid-1960s. He went on to play for Holy Spirit High School and the College of New Jersey (then Trenton State) before joining the USFL’s Philadelphia Stars as a personnel executive in 1983.
“Baseball was always my favorite sport growing up,” Bradway said. “But once I started playing football, I developed a passion for the game.”
Countless others who first put on a pair of shoulder pads in the ACJFL enjoyed college football careers, including Linwood Panthers running back Bob Coffey (Clemson), Atlantic City Dolphins running back Brian Little (Delaware), and Linwood Panthers brothers Fred and Jim Dalzell (Princeton and Yale).
Little starred for the Dolphins in the mid-1980’s. His 66-yard touchdown run in the 1984 championship game against the Egg Harbor Township Orioles is part of a video that’s shown on the ACJFL’s 65th Celebration web site. The Orioles were led by the late Al Mallen, who threw two touchdown passes in that game. Little, Mallen and Roman were later teammates at Holy Spirit High School.’
“It was a great experience,” said Dr. Fred Dalzell, an orthopedic surgeon who joined Chairman Joe Calvi, Jr. and others on the event committee. “But what I remember more than anything was the comaraderie. It was a fantastic time.”
Same here. Their stories took me back to the late 1960s and early 70s, when the West Cape May Rockets competed in the Cape May County Pop Warner League. Practices and home games were held next to the elementary school on Lafayette Street, where kids like myself, the late Kelly Freeman, Bug Matthews, Stevie Hicks, Eddie Hoffman and Henry Wise learned how to block and tackle from coaches like Mr. Riddle and Mr. Wise.
That was also where I watched some student-athletes from Shelton College play this strange game called soccer.
Like me, some of the ACJFL alumni are grandfathers now. Hips and knees that carried them into the end zone as 13-year-olds have been replaced. Hair that was tucked into helmets is gray or gone.
None of that mattered at the celebration. They posed for pictures with keynote speaker Ron Jaworski, and smiled and hugged while recalling plays, games and seasons from a special time in their lives.
For one league, and one night, they were young again.