SPRINGFIELD TOWNSHIP, N.J. — At some point before Rutgers and Howard play Saturday at High Point Solutions Stadium, there will be a moment of remembrance for the thousands of people who died in the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
Anthony Cioffi, a four-year starter in the Rutgers defensive backfield, will be minutes away from taking the field for his final home opener. He said he will take a moment to reflect on his journey to this point, and the indispensable role his family has played.
Several members of his family will be in the stands, including one who has a personal connection to the tragedy in New York City. It will be 15 years on Sunday since the day Joey Cioffi, Anthony’s uncle, was expected at one of the World Trade Center towers for a job interview.
“I had an interview, but the job was pretty much in hand,” Joey said. “They just wanted me to meet a few people and sign a few papers. They asked if I wanted to come in at 8:30 or so, or wait until the traffic died down at like 11. I was more of a night owl, especially when I was 23, 24 years old.
“I said I’d rather come in at 11, using the traffic as an excuse. I was like, man, I’m going to have to wake up at like 5 in the morning to be there (at 8:30). I was getting ready, I’ll never forget it, it was a blue tie. I was putting on my suit and this blue tie and my brother called me up. He said, ‘Joey, I don’t think you can go to New York.’ He said, ‘Somebody crashed. There was a bad accident. They crashed into one of the towers.’ ”
Joey thought it was a small aircraft, and his mind drifted to when golfer Payne Stewart’s plane had crashed in 1999. When he turned on the television, he learned it was much worse.
The Cioffis are a football family. Jerry, Anthony’s father, played football at nearby Kean University after the patriarch of the Cioffi clan, Antonio, decided Piscataway was too far from Springfield for his son to go to college, even though the Rutgers track coach wanted to meet the kid who set a local high school record in the 100-meter dash.
Joey, who is 14 years younger than Jerry, was a tight end at Monmouth. After that, he worked on Wall Street for Merrill Lynch. Antonio was a first-generation Italian immigrant who opened a restaurant shortly after arriving in New Jersey. Jerry started in the family business after a short stay at Kean, and has been at Cioffi’s Deli and Pizza in Springfield for nearly 36 years.
Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Joey decided to join the family business as well.
“It was almost like a door closed on both ends,” Joey said of the company he was supposed to interview with. “They had bigger problems. I had a moment where I said, ‘I’m not going to do this anymore. This is not for me.’ My heart wasn’t in it. I was chasing it for the wrong reasons. I was doing it for the money.
“There was a guy I worked with at Merrill Lynch. Every day I’d come in and he’d say, ‘Cioffi, what are you still doing here? Go help run your family business. Be your own boss. You guys have a great product. Expand the business.’ ”
That’s what he did. The Cioffis now have four restaurants. Cioffi’s Boardwalk in Union, N.J., has tastes of the Jersey Shore. There are two locations for The Salad House, in Millburn and Morristown, and there could be more in the future.
He’s also had an integral role in helping Anthony reach this point. Anthony has played in 36 games for Rutgers. He led the team in interceptions last season with four. He tied for the team lead with two in 2014. He picked off Washington quarterback Jake Browning in the season opener this past Saturday, and just missed a second.
One of the life lessons Joey imparted on his nephew was the importance of not wasting any time during his college experience. He told him repeatedly that he could open 100 restaurants, make millions of dollars, buy three private jets, whatever he wanted … but he could never go back and play college football again. He said he wasted his first two years at Monmouth, spending too much time partying and not enough time focusing on football.
Anthony listened. He played in 12 games as a freshman for Rutgers, starting five.
“Anthony and I have a very special bond,” Joey said. “I joke with people that I’m not really a traditional uncle. My brother and I are so far apart in age that (Anthony) is more like a little brother than a nephew. I’m like the cool, younger dad, or more like a best friend. There’s a whole gamut of relationships that we have. I’m also his biggest booster, especially on Facebook. He’s my buddy.
“There was always something very special about him, even when he was 6 years old. It wasn’t just his speed, but he was very fast. His ability to be around to the ball. I nicknamed him the Italian Ballhawk, because he’s always around the ball. At this stage, you can’t say it’s luck anymore.”
The Cioffis are a textbook example of the traditional Italian family. Anthony’s father, uncle and grandfather have spent years as restaurant owners. When he takes teammates home to Springfield, they go to his grandparents’ house for his grandmother’s chicken cutlet and mini-meatballs.
When Anthony spoke about 9/11, he had the details of the story mixed up. He thought his father, Jerry, had told Joey to skip the interview because they needed him at the deli. Jerry said it was Antonio, who was pushing for Joey to give up working in the city.
“I actually told him to go. And I told him, ‘Make sure you get there early. I don’t want you to be late,’ ” Jerry said. “We are not late. If it’s at 9, you should show up at 7:30. That’s how Anthony was brought up as well. That’s how we were brought up. Joey is not an early person, so he was like, ‘All right, all right.’ ”
Anthony had another memory of the day as well. One of his friends, Chaz Bohannon, was born on Sept. 11.
“It was his birthday so we were all happy, but then when we found out what had happened it kind of dimmed it all down,” Anthony said. “It was very weird, because everyone was walking around in the hallways and going crazy. The teachers especially, because they really knew what was going on, but as a kid I had no idea what was going on until I got home.”
Joey said he hasn’t visited the memorial or the rebuilt area around where the World Trade Center towers once stood.
“I look at all of these things that have happened since that date, and it makes me sad because I know how many people perished and how many didn’t get to enjoy these amazing things that I have,” he said.
He has three children. Two daughters, Addison and Kendall, and a son named Stone Anthony Cioffi. Stone and Anthony are very close.
While Joey said Stone’s future might be on a basketball court, he is in his first year playing flag football. It’s possible that Anthony will play professionally, but this could also be his last year. The Cioffi family business, the one that involves a football, is in good hands with Stone and his dad, who is an assistant coach.
“My brother played at Kean. I played at Monmouth. Anthony is at Rutgers,” Joey said. “Maybe my son will play at Princeton. That’d be good. It means he’ll be really smart.”