MAPLEWOOD/SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — When the Columbia High School football team played in the state playoffs for the first time ever, nobody gave them a chance.
The Cougars had struggled for many years, but here they were in the playoffs, against a Montclair High School team that was steeped in tradition and playoff success.
Though they lost by a narrow 7-3 decision in that semifinal contest, head coach Dan Brodhead and his Cougars made believers out of many people.
That was 40 years ago.
After junior Len Maiocco kicked a field goal around 25 yards to give Columbia a 3-0 lead in the first half, Montclair scored the lone touchdown of the game on a long pass play late in the second half to win it.
In a Oct. 19 phone interview with the News-Record, Brodhead reminisced about that game and his team.
“We were nobody,” recalled Brodhead, who is currently retired and living in North Carolina. ”Columbia had been down for so many years. Montclair obviously was a great program with a long history of success, coaches who have been there for a long time and really great athletes over the years. I don’t think a whole lot of people gave us much of a chance. We had some pretty tough guys. I would say we were stronger defensively. We were a little inconsistent on offense, and obviously that caught us in the Montclair game. We beat Morristown to get into the playoffs with 20 seconds to go in the game to win 11-10 the week before.”
The 1982 season was Brodhead’s second as the CHS head coach. Brodhead was only in his mid-twenties when he was named the CHS head coach.
The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association began the current playoff format in 1974. Eight years later, the Cougars managed to clinch a spot in the North Jersey, Section 2, Group 4 state playoffs. Back then, only four teams qualified for the sectional public playoffs. The state expanded the state playoffs from four to up to eight teams in 1998.
The 1982 CHS team finished with a 6-3-1 record, led by senior offensive guard/defensive tackle John Perna and senior quarterback Dave Sherwood. Perna, an all-state honoree, played at the University of Maryland on a football scholarship.
The one tie came against Methacton High School, located in the Philadelphia, Pa., metropolitan area. The game, held at Methacton, was actually a last-minute addition to the schedule, after one of Columbia’s scheduled opponents decided not to play Columbia. Thus, Columbia was scrambling to find an opponent, which they did in Methacton.
Against Morristown, Columbia rallied to win on Maiocco’s field goal with about 20 seconds left in the game, which was played on a Sunday at Underhill Field and attracted a huge crowd. The field goal, around 25 yards, was set up by a screen pass that went for 40 yards, said Brodhead. The 11-10 victory secured Columbia’s spot in the playoffs. The jubilant students and other fans stormed the field and tried to rip down the goal post.
In the other playoff semifinal game, Union won a close game against Belleville, 12-7. Union then went on to beat Montclair in a low-scoring affair, 14-7, in the championship game.
The Cougars’ schedule was daunting, as they played in the now-defunct Iron Hills Conference, which featured strong football programs.
“Every game was a brawl; every game was a battle,” Brodhead said. “We played Roxbury, Morris Knolls, Morristown, teams that had winning history. Every week was a battle against quality opponents, and we had been down for a long period of time.”
Brodhead arrived at Columbia after being the head coach at Garfield for a few years. He is believed to have been the youngest head coach in the state when he was at Garfield.
Brodhead remembered the CHS team in his first season in 1981, which he said might have been better than the 1982 squad.
“When I got the job, I had heard there were a group of kids coming up who were good, and, if you ask me, and this is no disrespect, the 1981 may have been better (than the 1982 team). We probably lost about 10 seniors off the ’81 team that went 5-3-1 that would have helped us the next year. But there was a two-year period where we had great kids.”
Brodhead noted that many of the players also played lacrosse. At that time, Columbia had a strong lacrosse program. That helped the football team, because the players understood what it took to win because of their lacrosse success.
Brodhead also praised his coaching staff. Many of his assistant coaches were around the same age as Brodhead, and they also later became head coaches at other schools.
“I have been around a lot of places, but they were the best staff I’ve ever been around,” Brodhead said. “We were all young. It was good times.”
One of those assistant coaches was John Porcelli, a 1970 CHS graduate who coached the linemen. Three years prior, Porcelli was the freshman team coach. That freshman team lost only one game, the season finale against Morristown. Porcelli then coached those same players when they were seniors in the 1982 season. Porcelli recalled that in the Montclair game, Columbia had a few chances to score a touchdown. On one possession, Porcelli said, they were driving deep into Montclair territory but turned the ball over on downs.
Jimmy Bradley was a senior two-way starter as flanker and defensive back. Bradley has fond memories of that season. He recalled the season opener against Seton Hall Prep in an Iron Hills Conference game. “They were a powerhouse school, to face them on opening day, and we pulled the upset,” said Bradley about SHP, in a phone interview on Monday, Nov. 14. “They were up 7-0, and we (then) scored. A good friend of mine, who passed away, Scott McCluskey, caught a bomb down the sideline to score, and then we went for the 2-point conversion and won it. That was one of the highlights to kick off the season. We already had the confidence. But to beat them, the confidence grew even more.”
Bradley also recalled the Morristown game. “The slogan for that game was, ‘If we win, we’re in.’ We played them at our place and won it on a last-second field goal.”
Bradley and the Cougars were elated. “That was just unbelievable. The dream came true, because that was our goal, to make the states. We always had a winning record as young kids. Our freshman team, we had one loss; our JV team was undefeated, and when we got the varsity team, coach Brodhead took over in our junior year and we had high expectations, especially after our junior year, a winning season. That really got us pumped up for our senior year.”
“We played Montclair (in the playoffs) in a tough battle, out there in Montclair. We lost to them with about a minute to go. We were leading the whole game. That was a heartbreaker, to end the season like that.”
Brodhead coached the Cougars in 1983. After that season, he became an assistant coach at Syracuse University for a few seasons, coaching the receivers and defensive backs. Porcelli succeeded Brodhead as the CHS head coach, coaching the Cougars for five seasons, from 1984 to 1988. In Porcelli’s final two seasons, the Cougars just missed qualifying for the playoffs.
Following Syracuse, Brodhead returned to New Jersey as a high school head coach. He was the head coach at Vernon, Bernards and Kinnelon, and served as an assistant coach at Morristown when Porcelli was the head coach. Brodhead later became an athletic director at Glen Rock and a guidance counselor at Oratory Prep in Summit. While he was at Oratory Prep, he was also an assistant coach at Glen Rock. He retired in June 2021 and moved to North Carolina.
But in his long coaching career, Brodhead will always cherish his time as the Columbia head coach.
“In all my 40 years of coaching football, the thing that separated that group from everybody else in my whole career is the closeness of the group,” he said. “To this day, about 20 of those guys talk to each other every day. It’s incredible.”
Porcelli, who is retired, also remains close with the players on the 1982 team.
“That was a special group,” said Porcelli. “I think that is the best group of football players that have come through Columbia since. We had a nice mix of kids. We had some good linemen, some good backs and receivers. It was a great year. That ’82 team was exceptional.”
That 1982 team will always have a special place in Bradley’s heart.
“I was very lucky to play with a great bunch of guys that formed a brotherhood through our youth programs and grew stronger as life went on,” he said. “We were multisport athletes. Football wasn’t our best sport, but we were athletes with the will to win for each other. We were and still are blood brothers. Roar, Cougars, roar!”
Notes: After the 1982 season, Columbia didn’t return to the state playoffs until 2009. Before that, the Cougars endured a 45-game losing streak that was snapped in the final game of the 2008 season when they defeated Dickinson, 48-0. At the time, the head coach of Columbia was Dave Curtin, who also was the CHS athletic director. Columbia lost to Westfield, 41-6, in the first round of the 2009 North 2, Group 4 playoffs to finish at 8-2. They had a better year in 2010, entering the playoffs with an undefeated mark, but lost to Bridgewater-Raritan, 27-7, at home at Underhill Field in the first round of the North 2, Group 4 playoffs. Columbia then beat Irvington, 27-21, at Underhill Field on Thanksgiving to finish 9-1.
Curtin’s final season was in 2013. He died in 2016 at the age of 58 after a courageous battle with cancer.
Columbia had three more playoff appearances and lost in the first round each time. In 2015, under head coach John Power, Columbia lost to Westfield in North 2, Group 5, to finish 5-5. In 2016, during current head coach Gary Mobley’s first season, Columbia made the North 2, Group 5 playoffs despite having just one win. They lost to Bridgewater-Raritan in the playoffs and finished 1-9. Last season, they fell at Ridgewood in the North 1, Group 5 playoffs to finish 5-5.
Columbia, which didn’t make the playoffs this season and finished with a 2-7 record, is 0-6 all-time in the playoffs.
Porcelli noted that, in his senior year, the 1969 Cougars had won three games, which was impressive considering that the program struggled for many years.
After his time as head coach at Columbia, Porcelli was the head football coach at Morristown for 16 years, winning four state sectional championships. He was also the athletic director at Morristown. Brodhead served as one of Porcelli’s assistant coaches in Porcelli’s final season at Morristown in 2004. In his final nine years, Porcelli was the athletic director at Montclair. Thus, Porcelli worked at Morristown and Montclair, the schools that were prominent opponents for Columbia in that 1982 season.
Photos Courtesy of Jimmy Bradley and Columbia yearbook