How Sellitto Field Got Its Name

By on October 11, 2016

Tom Sellitto, second from right, on the sidelines of his favorite sport.

Tom Sellitto, second from right, on the sidelines of his favorite sport.

This Friday, October 14, Verona High School will re-dedicate Thomas J. Sellitto Field. Sellitto’s name once resonated loudly in Verona athletics and academics, but he is not as well known to the new generation of Veronans. So take a minute to read why there could be no more fitting a tribute on a Verona school facility.

Sellitto was not a Verona native, though he came to be one for more than five decades. He had grown up blue collar in East Orange and used football as his ticket out. He earned top county and state honors for his high school play, and headed to Montclair State to play more ball. But just one year in, Sellitto’s football career hopes were dashed by injury. He channeled his energy into coaching, graduated and started at Newark’s Westside High School.

“He always wanted to be a coach,” says daughter Mary Sellitto-Curcio. “He wanted to be that mentor for kids coming up, to be their helping hand.”

In 1956, Sellitto came to VHS as a business teacher and assistant football coach. He was soon promoted to head coach (while also coaching track), and began to put Verona on the scoreboard in a big way. The VHS football team won the Suburban Conference championship in 1960 as well as the state Group II Section II championship and was named the top Group II team in the entire state. Verona dominated the gridiron again in 1961 and 1962.

The next year, the Verona Board of Education approached Sellitto about becoming deputy superintendent of schools. It was a flattering offer, but it came with one major catch: Sellitto would have to give up his football duties. He did, and the next few years were difficult ones for his beloved team. The Hillbillies went from state champs to 32 consecutive losses by the end of the 1967 season, the most ever by a New Jersey high school football team.

Sellitto at the dedication of the upper field in 1994.

Sellitto at the dedication of the upper field in 1994.

Though Sellitto had no official role in the football program, he was frequently on the sidelines during that awful period, trying to coax a win out of the embattled players. “He brought in a new offense, a very complicated double wing, and his ability to teach it to us and get us to the point where we could execute it was truly amazing,” recalled 1966 player Jay Curtis in a note to Sellitto-Curcio after the release of his documentary 75-0, which tells the story of Verona’s worst-ever football loss. “Losing by twenty or thirty points, we thought we would be yelled at and screamed at, but he found the good thing, the first three first downs in a row, and he used that to inspire us. When we played Millburn senior year, we came very close to winning and that was because of the way he taught us.”

Sellitto, who passed away in 2012 after a long battle with ALS, taught in other ways too. As an administrator for three decades in Verona, he created a distributive education program at VHS, as well as a vocational education track specifically for handicapped students. “He had a soft spot in his heart for the kids who weren’t the shiny penny,” says Sellitto-Curcio. He also supervised several school construction initiatives, like the fifth- and sixth-grade wing at H.B. Whitehorne and the original upper field at VHS. “It doesn’t make sense that we have land here but all the activities are on the lower field,” his daughter recalls him saying. The BOE named the field after Sellitto in 1994.

In 2004, Sellitto was named to the Verona High School Hall of Fame by the VHS Alumni Association. His acceptance speech from that dinner is as much a guideline for students today as it was then. “My advice to young people is to surround yourself with people you admire,” he told the assembled guests. “Learn from them. Stay determined and work hard. And remember, when challenges arise–and they will–you must keep moving forward. Take the high road, rise above things. Know that you are strong enough to do that, capable enough to meet every challenge life throws your way. And once you have lived enough to know that what I am telling you is the truth, take what you have learned and pass it on.”

The re-dedication ceremony will take place at 6:25 p.m. on Friday evening, before Verona takes on North Warren Regional High School.

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