Legendary HOF coach Cacia dies at 81
Teams won four straight CAL Championships
HAMMONTON—Joseph Cacia, the legendary hall of fame Hammonton High School Blue Devils varsity football coach whose teams won four Cape Atlantic League Championships from 1968 to 1971, died November 9 at the age of 81.
Cacia, son of Nick and Rose Cacia, was born in Philadelphia on June 25, 1940. He grew up in Penns Grove and graduated from St. James High School in 1958. He graduated from West Chester University in 1962 and attained a master’s degree in guidance from Villanova University.
Cacia married Marie Priest in 1963. He worked as a teacher, head football coach and athletic director at Saint James High School.
“My dad was the head coach at St. James High School. They played St. Joe at the time, and Coach William T. Capella was in the stands. St. James beat St. Joe big. Hammonton had nine losing seasons at that time, and right after the game they asked him to leave his alma mater St. James and come to Hammonton,” J.R. Cacia said.
Cacia moved to Hammonton in 1968 and became the head coach of Hammonton High School. He was also the athletic director and guidance counselor. While in Hammonton, Cacia served several years as a town councilman.
Frank Fucetola, a star athlete under Cacia who went on to play Division I football and coach at Williamstown High School, remembered his former coach when contacted by The Gazette this week.
“The biggest impact he had was the work habit he brought to Hammonton. He instilled outworking your opponent and being mentally tough. We bought into that. We worked our tails off because we saw him and his coaching staff working their tails off. We made a lot of sacrifices to bring the program to the level it became. He really believed in outworking your opponent. He demanded a lot—no mistakes. We didn’t know how to win. He showed us how to win,” Fucetola said.
Fucetola recalled the swift changes Cacia made in the football program after he arrived at HHS.
“He turned around the entire program in one season. We didn’t know what to expect when he got here, we just knew he was a coach from St. James. When the practices started, his doubles were brutal. They were brutal … the thing that he brought to the table was developing mental toughness. I tried to instill that in my teams. You can’t measure that on a football field. He came to my games and watched 7,000 people in the stands. He told me, ‘Look what you’ve done with this program.’ I just tried to follow in his footsteps. I’m going to miss him. He did so much for me. He prepared me for the next level of football. The town’s going to miss him,” Fucetola said.
Greg Silvesti, former head coach of the Hammonton Hawks, recalled his days playing under Cacia.
“He was a tremendous man and great coach and went on to do well in business. Back then, the practices were tough, you were out there for three hours. The games were the easy part. Personally, I coached for 30 years, and he’s a big reason why. I learned how to watch film, scout teams and just outwork them in practice. We’re still running the same plays at the Hawks that he taught us years ago, and I always told Coach Cacia that. The plays that I ran all those years at the Hawks are the ones that he taught us. They stood the test of time. They won a lot of championships. He was the classic coach who turned you into men. That’s what he did, and he was a very caring coach, even with that tough demeanor,” Silvesti said.
Several of his former players attended his father’s funeral and recalled the coach’s impact on them, J.R. Cacia said.
“Anthony Motolese, his running back on his first team at Hammonton, was at the funeral and he told me that when my dad came to Hammonton, he was only 28 years old. At St. James he was only 23, coaching players a few years younger than him. He would get down in the dirt with them. He wouldn’t ask anyone on his teams to do something he wouldn’t do. I think that’s why he did so well in business as well,” J.R. Cacia said.
J.R. Cacia said his father’s sense of fairness came from his upbringing.
“My dad grew up in a very poor section of Penns Grove, where there were many Italians and Black people. My dad never saw color and it was a constant in his life. He didn’t care about color. He cared about whether or not you could score touchdowns. There was no ‘the world’s against you’ with my dad. He had to have that instilled in him by my grandmother and grandfather,” J.R. Cacia said.
Mayor Stephen DiDonato, who played football at Hammonton High School under Cacia as a freshman and a sophomore, recalled the coach in an interview with The Gazette.
“When I was a freshman and sophomore, I thought the sun rose and set on Joe Cacia. My sophomore year before a practice, it was raining. He told me: ‘DiDonato, it’s going to stop raining in seven minutes, get your gear on.’ Seven minutes later, it stopped raining. After that, we called him Joe God. I would have followed that man anywhere as a football coach. He was a tremendous leader and always looked out for his team … He knew how to pump you up. He knew how to make you dig deep and get the most out of individuals. He always said ‘There’s no ‘I’ in the word team.’ And I still use that saying to this day,” DiDonato said.
DiDonato said Cacia would be long remembered for his contributions to the town, particularly regarding football.
“His legacy would have been football. He came here when Hammonton didn’t win a whole lot. When you look back at some of the people still coaching Hawks to this day, these guys were Joe Cacia men and that’s where we learned the game. Greg Silvesti, Bobby Frederico, Frank Fucetola, Lee Chappine were all his players who went on to be coaches. His coaching tree is very vast,” DiDonato said.
Some of the coach’s players became like sons to him, J.R. Cacia recalled.
As a result of his extraordinary success as a coach, Cacia was inducted into the Hammonton High School Hall of Fame, the Salem County Athletic Hall of fame, and The South Jersey Coaches Hall of Fame.
Cacia left the educational arena in 1975 to enter the business world, where he became the CEO and part owner of Pat and Gordon Bus Company. He later moved on to become the acquisition manager of both Ryder and First Student bus companies.
“He had contracts in Camden. He didn’t see rich or poor or Black or white. He saw a contract and kids who had to go to school. He was fair,” J.R. Cacia said.
Later in life, Cacia continued to contribute to Hammonton by being actively involved in the town.
“He was involved in Hammonton First and served on the planning/zoning board. I was very proud to appoint him to that. The same way he coached football, he gave a hundred percent,” DiDonato said.
J.R. Cacia said his father had a tremendous passion for Hammonton.
“My dad loved Hammonton so much that he would even sacrifice a winning record if it meant making better men. And he did that in business and with us as a father. A lot of people said my dad was a great man, but I say he was a good man, because a good man is harder to find. If we had more good men and women, I think society as a whole would be better,” J.R. Cacia said.
Cacia is survived by his wife of 58 years, Marie Priest Cacia; his son Joseph Cacia and his wife Malea Cacia; his daughter, Beth Marie Cacia Eldridge and her husband Jason Eldridge; his grandchildren, Max Eldridge, Keira Eldridge, and Luca Cacia; his brother Frank Cacia and wife Dottie Cacia; his in-laws Helen Priest Gioia, Lou and Beverly Priest, Al and Diane Priest, Jim and Catherine Priest, and his many nieces and nephews.
The family would like to extend a sincere thank you to Joe’s long-term care provider, Cindy, as well as Lori, Melinda, Robin and Shirley.
Services were held at Ashcraft Funeral Home in Pennsville on November 13, followed by Mass at St. Gabriel The Archangel in Carney’s Point, N.J.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to The Alzheimer’s Association or St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital.