Thursday, August 21, 2014

A Night At Conte's

Zach DiGregorio is leaving for Penn today.

TigerBlog remembers when he went to college for the first time. As he moved his stuff into his dorm - Class of 1928 in the Quad - he heard FatherBlog utter the most sage words he's ever heard from the old man: "When you get hungry enough, you'll figure out where the dining hall is."

Zach is moving into Hill House, which is at 33rd and Walnut, as opposed to the Quad, which stretched about four blocks up Spruce Street, a few blocks up from Franklin Field and the hospital.

Zach is a Princeton High School grad who spent a PG year at the Hun School. Now he'll play sprint football at Penn, and he is listed as a QB/WR/DB on the roster. In reality, sprint football players can play anywhere, since they're all about the same size. It's the whole point of sprint football. Maybe Zach will end up on the offensive line.

He'll be back in Mercer County on Halloween night, when Penn plays at Princeton in the final game of the sprint football season. Princeton is in its first season with Sean Morey as its head coach, and TB can't wait to see if this might just be the year the Tigers get that elusive win.

As for Zach, he's TigerBlog's favorite kind of kid, or young adult, or adult, or whatever kids his age are.

He calls TB by his first name, but not in a disrespectful way. He fits in naturally in a group of people his age, but he can also fit in with the group of parents too, without coming across as a suck-up or phony.

He laughs at all the right times. He speaks enough to let you know he's comfortable making his point but not too much that he becomes a pompous know-it-all, like a lot late teenagers do. He has a strong handshake, and he looks adults right in the eyes.

And he's going to Penn, so you know he also has a brain in his head.

Last night was something of a going away part for him, at Conte's, on Witherspoon Street. TigerBlog usually likes thicker crust pizza, but Contes is a Princeton institution and a special place.

Conte's for years was TB's post-men's basketball game destination, largely because it was Pete Carril's and Bill Carmody's and Joe Scott's and John Thompson's and Howard Levy's and of course Marv Bressler's. The conversations there? They were classics, epics, ones where TB mostly listened and learned.

And so it was worth the 45-minute wait or however long it was last night before a table at Conte's was ready. Actually, it was two tables, of 11 each - one for the 11 adults and one of the 11 whatever-they-ares, who ranged in age from 14-19.

Howard Levy was there. He was in charge, actually. He and Digger, Steve DiGregorio that is, Zach's father. Digger is a former assistant football coach at Princeton, and he was something of the host, moving from group to group during the wait to sit and then between the tables to make sure everyone was having a good time or had enough pizza.

But Howard was in charge. He always seems to be in charge of whatever it is that is going on around him. It's an innate quality, TB supposes.

Maybe it's because he's nearly seven-feet tall. Maybe it's because he's a lawyer. Maybe it's just how he's wired.

Howard is a 1985 Princeton grad and the all-time leader in field goal percentage for the Tigers' men's basketball team. He was an assistant coach under Carmody, Thompson and Scott during their head coaching days here, and he's now the head coach at Mercer County Community College.

At Princeton, he played with and coached people who were destined for college regardless of whether or not they were good at basketball. They measured success by championships won, NCAA tournaments, that sort of thing. TB can still hear Carril's voice booming in the background, yelling at his team that "we're trying to win the title here fellas."

At MCCC, Howard is still trying to win. It's just that his voice was most proud when he talked about the guys - if you're a Carril disciple, you say "guys" instead of "players" or "young men" or whatever else anyone says - who have played for him and then gone on to graduate from a four-year school. His offer is a steak dinner to all those who do, and this summer he was on the hook for four such steaks.

Because he was in charge, Howard made sure the tables were split up properly. He ordered the pizzas while everyone was waiting. He surveyed what everyone wanted on their pizzas (TB's favorites there are either peppers and onions or mushrooms).

His son Lior was there. He'll be a sophomore at Franklin & Marshall, on the basketball team. He's a RA this year, and apparently is living in a dorm room that rivals a four-star hotel room.

There were 11 kids in all, including TigerBlog Jr. and Miss TigerBlog. TBJ was a ballboy with Zach and Lior for Princeton basketball a long, long time ago.

Zach's brother Derek, who just turned 17, was there. He was standing and walking, which was great to see, as he continues his fight against Ataxia Telangiectasia, a rare disease that has attacked his body - but not his spirit - since he was a baby. Nadia DiGregorio, their mother, said that Derek had read "Jane Eyre" and, when asked by the teacher to comment, said something along the lines of "she had a terrible life and I have a great one, so I can't relate to her."

Courage? He has a ton of it.

Someone brought a friend that TB had never before. He goes to Yale. TB shook his hands and said "at least it's better than Harvard," though he would have said the opposite if the kid had said he went to school in Cambridge.

Alex Deutsch was there - he is off to Middlebury to play baseball. He and his parents are Ted and Jess, both from the Class of 1991. That's the same class as Ford Family Director of Athletics Mollie Marcoux; Jess was struck by the fact that the AD is now her age, as opposed to 24 years older than she is, like the previous one.

Jess lettered in tennis as an undergrad. Ted played baseball here. He was wearing baseball pants and had to leave for a softball game, but he stayed past when the game started.

It was that kind of night. A fun, nice, relaxing night. A night where waiting 45 minutes for a table or being a little late for a softball game was just fine.

The kids at the next table?

It dawned on TigerBlog at some point that he'd seen most of them grow up literally from the day they were born. They went to nursery school together. They were ballboys in this buildling. They had spent summers together at Dillon camp. They saw each other at countless athletic events here.

They've grown up, that's for sure. None of them are little kids anymore. Of the 11, TB thinks five can drive now. They're not the little kids they used to be - and not just because Lior stands 6-7 or Zach is playing sprint football in college.

What dawned on TB ultimately was that it was, again, a reflection of what a special place Princeton University is. All of these people were brought together here, and all have been touched by this University, had it affect them directly, had it shape them in so many ways, had their children benefit from it.

That's what these 20-plus years have been about for TB.

Yes, as Coach Carril said so many times, "we're trying to win the title, fellas."

But nights like last night?

That's really been the ultimate goal.

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