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Verona's Alex Rodriguez, who was outstanding defensive back and wide receiver for the Hillbillies, will play in the upcoming (Tuesday, June 13) Robeson East-West All-Star Classic at Belleville Municipal Stadium in a annual game that his Uncle Miguel Rodriguez played in representing the East Side Red Raiders back in 1995. Uncle and nephew look over some of the clippings from Miguel's days as scholastic star before then playing at William Paterson University. In bottom photo, Alex's dad & Miguel's cousin, veteran area softball coach Sergio Rodriguez (left) gets together with the two generations of Robeson all-stars in talented family as well as Miguel's son James. (SC photos & also courtesy of Rodriguez family)

Nephew In Robeson Classic
28 Years After Uncle Played

By Steve Tober

VERONA- Miguel Rodriguez takes great pride in his scholastic career at Newark East Side which might be nearly three decades ago now, but was one full of athletic achievement including capping his high school football days by playing in one of the earliest Paul Robeson East-West Robeson All-Star Classics.

The former football, ice hockey and baseball standout at East Side excelled at quarterback for coach Gary Westbury both with the Red Raiders and then for the East in the 1995 Robeson Classic.

Now, 28 years later, Uncle Miguel is looking forward to watching his nephew Alex Rodriguez perform in the defensive secondary for the East in the 29th Robeson Classic set for 7 p.m., Tuesday, June 13, at Belleville’s Municipal Stadium.

The game, which has been played in most years at Robeson Stadium in East Orange, has been moved to Doc Ellis Field in Belleville’s nicely-refurbished stadium due to the ‘re-turfing’ of the surface at Robeson which could take most of the summer and early fall to fully complete.

Miguel’s cousin is Sergio Rodriguez, Alex’s dad, who also excelled as a QB at East Side (Class of 1992) during his own scholastic playing days, and is more known these days as the head softball coach at Hanover Park High School and as president of the popular NJ Heist travel softball organization.

“I think I first heard about Alex playing in the Robeson Classic from Sergio, and I was thrilled to hear the news,” said Miguel, who now lives with his family in Nutley and works in website support for Princeton University. “Alex has always done what it takes to be a winner and I knew early on that he was someone who wanted to be in every play, and he has the right attitude with the way he carries himself on and off the field.

“It seems like just yesterday that I was a skinny sophomore that they convinced to play quarterback at East Side and now I’m seeing Sergio’s son getting ready to play in the same all-star game I was fortunate to play in almost three decades ago.

“I can’t wait to see him on the field against some other outstanding seniors having the opportunity to play one more high school football game before they head off to college.”

Alex, who excelled as a defensive back and wide receiver at Verona, in addition to stepping in for two starts at QB last fall when sophomore starter Connor Demasi was injured, will be headed to Wagner College in the fall where he was recruited as an ‘athlete’ and will begin his collegiate football career later this summer for the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS, formerly 1-AA) school in Staten Island, N.Y.     

“I was excited when I was accepted at Wagner, which is an outstanding academic school, and it’s great that the football coaches were interested in me as well because I definitely want the opportunity to play at as high a level as I can in college,” said Alex, a strong 5-foot-11, 160-pound safety and cornerback, who was also an outstanding starting point guard on Verona’s basketball team. “When I learned that I’d be playing in the Robeson Classic along with my Verona teammate Andrew Boyle (Sacred Heart bound lineman) I started to find out more about the game and was reminded by my dad that Uncle Miguel had also played in the same all-star game back in 1995.

“Our big family of many cousins, uncles and aunts simply love sports, and to be able to share thoughts on the game and hear memories of past Robeson Classics with Uncle Miguel has been a lot of fun and educational as well because I’ve learned even more about what a great athlete he was back in the day and how he used to play in the park with my father.”

Miguel was a young kid when he was first throwing the football around and playing baseball in the parks and on the streets Down Neck in the Ironbound section of Newark with his older cousin Sergio and many others in a place and time where many Dominican-American youngsters came up through the ranks while looking to match their talents against the older kids on the block.

“We grew up together and I went out there playing football and learning from the older guys,” said Miguel. “They treated me well for the most part and wanted to lift me up to show me stuff and I always made it a point to pay attention.

“Sergio was a coach to me and was really the first one to correct my mistakes, even before I heard plenty from my coaches at all levels.

“In my junior year at East Side we had a 39-game winless streak which we snapped with a victory at Cranford, and then during my senior season we continued to improve in the always-tough Watchung Conference, and we almost beat Elizabeth which had Al Hawkins at quarterback and future NFL wide receiver Quinton Spotwood.

“Our East Side baseball team won the GNT (Greater Newark Tournament) title in 1992 under coach Jerry Battaglini (5-2 over Seton Hall Prep) before he left to coach at Columbia. Then, we won the GNT again in ’94 when we beat Glen Ridge (4-3) and their star pitcher Dave Kennedy.

“When it came close to the end of my senior year, I heard that I was invited to play quarterback in the Robeson Classic and it was great that Mr. Westbury, my high school coach, would also be the coach for our team in the game.

“He brought in most of our offense at East Side including the Power I with a lot of option. And, I remember the night of that game and when it started how instantly if could tell how much faster the game was with a lot of really good players together on the same field which gave it a kind of college feel to it all.

“The Robeson Classic, which was basically all Essex County players in the beginning, is now almost like a North Jersey all-star game with several different counties involved which will make Alex’s experience in this year’s game a great tune-up for what he’s likely to see more of, and then some, in college.”

The 2023 Robeson Classic, the 29th game in the event, which started in the mid-1990s and was not played for two years in 2020 and 2021 due to covid, now pits the East squad of Essex, Hudson and Union counties vs. the West which is comprised of Morris, Passaic and Sussex players.

“I always thought that Alex played bigger than his size and he definitely knows how to handle himself out on the field,” said Miguel, who frequently teamed up at East Side with his favorite wide receiver and cousin Juan Pacheco. “He has a calmness and awareness of what’s going on, and is usually one step ahead of most everybody else which is going to help him a lot as he makes the transition to the next level.

“What is great when it comes to the Robeson Classic is that most of the players are already set with where they’ll be next fall and this game is one last opportunity to play in a high school football game and perhaps face some players that you’ve either heard or read about, if not have already played against.”

For Alex, who has thoroughly enjoyed his four years as a Verona Hillbilly, the best is yet to come as he continues to grow as both a student and athlete.

“I plan on studying sports administration and minor in business finance,” said the standout senior DB. “Football is a sport that I’ve played since the third grade and is something I’d love to give my best shot at in college.

“Having the opportunity to join my Verona teammate Andrew and the other kids on the East team against some of the best players in North Jersey is going to be great competition, and also a chance to have fun playing my last high school game!”

NOTES- Miguel Rodriguez played his high school hockey for East Side at the old Ironbound Arena…Miguel’s older son Matthew, a senior at William Paterson, is a former baseball player at Nutley where younger son James is a budding player to watch in the town youth levels…Paramus Catholic head softball coach Jack Casimiro is another talented athlete among cousins of the Rodriguez family, having been a wide receiver for QB Sergio Rodriguez on the 1991 East Side team and then a standout baseball player at Providence College…Alex Rodriguez started at QB for Verona against Morris Catholic and Group 1 state champion Mountain Lakes this past fall season for a 3-8 Hillbillies squad which went through the rigors of a rebuilding campaign with a predominantly young squad under the guidance of veteran coach Kevin Batty…Another Rodriguez cousin is former Hudson Catholic athlete Alex Luna who is the soccer goalies coach at NJIT…A big boost for the extended Rodriguez family is the fact that one set of Sergio’s grandparents had 12 children....Rodriguez cousin Juan Pacheco went from strong sports career at East Side to star in baseball at Rutgers Newark and then be taken in the major league baseball first-year player's draft by the Baltimore Orioles. He reached the Double A level and had minor league teammates including future longtime MLB infielder Jerry Hariston. Pacheco's son, JC Pacheco, is currently a standout freshman shortstop at DePaul Catholic High School in Wayne...Sergio Rodriguez' son Sebastian is a sophomore basketball and baseball player at Verona and his nephew freshman Jayden Arias plays soccer and runs track at East Side. 

Follow Steve Tober on Twitter @Chattermeister  

Top New Jersey softball coach Sergio Rodriguez (Hanover Park and NJ Heist) is proud of his cousin Miguel Rodriguez who earned many awards as scholastic star at East Side and generated many newspaper clippings.

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