By Dick Engelhardt
In 1958 Frank Bennett’s Cutters of Fair Lawn High were playing their final football season in the Northern Bergen Interscholastic League (NBIL) before moving up to the tough Northern New Jersey Interscholastic League (NNJIL) in 1959. Plagued by dissension they went 2-5-1 (286). But, oh, that “1.” On Thanksgiving Day at Ridgewood’s Veterans’ Field before 9,000 fans, the Maroons were favored by three touchdowns and wanted to send 14-year coach Frank Mozeleski off to a happy retirement. The Cutters moved deep into Ridgewood territory three times and, in the closing minutes, were stopped at the ½ yard line. Fair Lawn’s vaunted defense kept the Maroons at bay and our heroes sent the NBIL champs off with a scoreless tie. The team carried Bennett off the field on its shoulders.
Before the ’59 season, team co-captains Bob Wright and Fred Conte visited Bennett at the Radburn Pool where he worked summers and showed him a strict list of rules the team would follow. Astonished, Bennett told the boys they would be responsible for making sure those rules were followed. The team had a vision of duplicating Bennett’s first season in Fair Lawn when his 1945 Cutters, in their third season on the gridiron, won the then-Bergen-Passaic Interscholastic League (B-PIL) title in their first year in the league. Could history repeat itself with an NNJIL title in ‘59? It seemed so! They opened the season with a 12-7 upset over the Highwaymen of Teaneck, whom they had never beaten in four independent games, and then shocked the league favorite Comets of Hackensack 27-6. Then the Red Raiders of Cliffside Park fell 32-0. In independent action our heroes thrashed the Knights of Morris Hills 53-12. Back in NNJIL action Fair Lawn edged the Maroon Raiders of Englewood 13-12 earning our Cutters their first victory after four independent losses to Englewood. The Cutters were ranked #3 among all high schools in North and Central New Jersey. Then came the awful “hurricane” game. It was the only game played in North Jersey that day. The Tigers of Tenafly, a five-touchdown underdog, knew the conditions presented their only real chance to beat Fair Lawn and refused to call the game off. They took an early 6-0 lead and neither team could move the ball after that. The loss had Fair Lawn 4-1 (800) in the NNJIL and 5-1 (.833) overall. Our Cutters rebounded with a 28-0 shutout victory over the Bulldogs of Rutherford. Going into the Thanksgiving Day game against the Maroons of Ridgewood, a win or tie would give our Cutters the NNJIL crown in their maiden season. Alas, it was not to be as new coach Roger Sweeney’s Maroons, with Fair Lawn star Bob Wright injured early in the game, and before 12,000 fans at what is now Sasso Field, upset our Cutters 13-7. Hackensack, with the loss to Fair Lawn and a tie against Ridgewood, the other new team in the NNJIL, won the title by half a game over our Cutters who had 2 losses.
The 1959 Cutters team was not one of individual stars; although five of its members were selected "All-County" by The Record and a few selected "All-State." Rather, the team, led by its seniors, epitomized the concept of teamwork and "being the best you can be." It was a diverse, predominately "blue-collar" team, from varying ethnic backgrounds and included, at the time, the first and only African-American to don the Cutter uniform, Jim Waddy. The seniors of the 1959 Cutters made it happen against all odds and beyond anyone's expectations. In addition to Neil Cooper, Steve Crevani and Wright, who are in the Fair Lawn High School Athletic Hall Of Fame, there were first-Team All-County Tackle Don Glazer, second Team All-County Guard Vince Ficca, Backs Fred Conte, Stan Leida (suffered a season-ending injury in the Englewood game), Bob Roughgarden and Waddy, Ends Walt Pivinski and Ken Martell, Tackles Rich Tankel (deceased), Len Altamura and Harry Myers (suffered a season-ending injury in the Teaneck game), Guards Paul Abate and Doug Leidner, and Center Dave Kells. Junior Back Tom Bertero and Junior Guard Dave Tedesco (deceased) also played key roles in the team’s success.
The synergy between the spirit of the student body and the team's success on the playing field seemed almost magical. Lifted by the character of the Cutters team and the special relationship between the players and their beloved coach, the class of 1960 dedicated its yearbook to Frank Bennett. My twin brother, Bill, and I were “Water Boys” on his 1955 B-PIL championship team. The gym is now “The Frank Bennett Gymnasium” and Frank’s Hall of Fame Plaque and picture is on the wall outside it! What a pleasure it is for me to remember the legacy of those 1959 Cutters!