The Atlantic Coast Football League was established in 1994. But it didn’t start out as the ACFL and it certainly didn’t start out as the metro area’s largest flag and touch football association. Its beginnings were humble, but its goals were anything but.
Mark Pappas, a league founder, was playing on the Bergen County Camera softball team in the Old Tappan Softball League. The next year they lost their sponsor, were called the Youngbloods and sought out a sponsor for the following season.
They found one in Ottomanelli’s Café. Brothers Gary (cofounder), Joe and Danny joined the team as did cousins Scott and “Ando” Brackenbury. Along with the clan came the Ottomanelli’s name in sponsorship (and new uniforms, green…of course).
The Old Tappan Softball is a fun, morning league played in Old Tappan on Sundays. At the time Gary was the leftfielder for the team and Mark played centerfield. One morning, instead of warming up by throwing a softball in the outfield, Gary brought a football out to throw. A tradition was born in the Ottomanelli’s Café outfield. And the dream for the football league began.
Mark had played in what was jokingly known as the HPFL. It was just a group of guys getting together in Harrington Park at the kids school to play tackle. Every week a bunch of guys would show up and we’d literally just shoot it out a pick out sides. It was full tackle with no pads. People in the league at the time were Joe Saxton and Rick Keurcy (who were pretty much steady QBs), Joe Purtill, some guy Mel who was a sick lineman, and the late BJ Harrison played with us, and that was the introduction of Bobby Lodi as well. After not playing in the league for a few years, he was itching to play football again.
Gary had played in a Whitestone, Queens 2-Hand Touch Football League. Many of the rules in place today in the ACFL were actually derived from his experiences there. The first down at 50 yards, the field dimensions, no fumbles, etc. all came from that league. “Here we were, a bunch of Jersey guys, schlepping in every Sunday morning, the dead of winter, to get our butts kicked in by these established teams. We recruited my dad, Nick, and my Uncle Joe to be the coaches of Ottomanelli Brother’s Football Team. Again, my two brothers, Joe and Dan, and cousins Ando and Scott and cousins Chris and Joe Ottomanelli and Charlie Weinschreider formed the nucleus of the squad (who else but these crazy bloodlines would get all geared up, drive an hour in January and lose 50-0…and do it again the next week). By the way, all these teams played rugby-style; they would pitch the ball all over the place. That’s where I learned it!”
They asked the then-Commissioner of the Old Tappan Softball League, the late Steve Levitt (1942-2002), how difficult it would be to start a touch football league. He said it would be easy. That was the biggest lie he ever told! But he was eager to offer his support. He immediately linked us to the OT softball league so that the Borough of Old Tappan considered them both as one sports group, the OTSL/OTFL. We filed our paperwork together and we shared the field permit. He also allowed us to be considered one organization under the softball league’s insurance policy.
Steve Levitt also took it upon himself to hire referees. He first asked his sotfball umpires if there were any football refs among them. There was one. Bob Terranova of Tenafly, who came over to the OTFL and has remained with them ever since. Steve then expanded his search and ultimately used his OT home as the unofficial home office of the OTFL where he personally conducted phone interviews with potential officials. He also played (at 53, and he insisted on blocking for run plays — that was Steve). He entered his own team called the Old Tappan Rough Riders — which is still in existence today as the New Jersey Rough Riders — and he even officiated a game during the league’s brief return to Stone Point Park (thanks to Steve) a year later.
Gary and Mark credit Steve Levitt for getting them underway. He alerted them to what obstacles they would face, he got them out of the starting gate and most of all, gave them the confidence to go for it. “Sure you can do it. And I’ll help you if you need it. I say do it,” was all Gary and Mark needed to hear. Were it not for Steve Levitt, there would likely be no ACFL today. Steve Levitt passed away from a heart attack while playing cards with friends in Florida at age 60.
Conversely, Gary and Mark were also inspired by the words of another OT softball player. “That’ll never work,” said the player (we don’t want to say his name, but his initials are Greg Nalbandian).
Gary and Mark started by placing press releases in the local newspapers. Mark actually worked for the Community Life Newspaper at the time so getting press for the OTFL (and OTSL) was never a problem. They also printed up flyers and placed them all over the place. Closter, Harrington Park, Old Tappan, all of Northern and Pacack Valley. Thousands of flyers. Twelve teams answered the call the first year. Only one called in from the flyer. The Gray Gorillas of Montvale. Everyone else found out from the newspaper. All that driving and printing and asking to be posted in shops and they only received one response. “We only needed to go to that one place,” noted Mark.
Gary and Mark wanted to be on the same team. But when word got out to their friends they each had too many people that wanted to be on their teams, so it wasn’t in the cards…at first.
The first team entered into the league was Mark’s team the Pascack Pioneers. As the first team in a league in its first year, Pioneers seemed an appropriate fit. The next was Gary’s team. Gary, a major Jets and Tulane University fan (no, he didn’t go there but after a couple of Mardi Gras trips to New Orleans Gary realized that he SHOULD have attended Tulane), named his team the Old Tappan Green Wave. Next was Steve Levitt’s Old Tappan Rough Riders. In all they had 12 teams enter in the first year, more than the established Old Tappan Softball League. Playing on the very same fields, they named the league the Old Tappan Football League (OTFL).
They managed to secure The Rec Field at Stone Point Park in Old Tappan as the main field. They had it all planned out. They divided the field into three football fields, and would have two games played per field, so six games played in all. Simple.
December 11th, 1994 was the inaugural opening day. However, Mark was away: he was on assignment as editor of a local travel magazine. Footnote: going away was his first mistake: Gary took one look out the window Sunday morning, saw the bad weather and figured that it looked like football weather, turned to his brothers and said, “Let’s play some football!”
Everything was in place. Gary and Ando painted the fields on Saturday night. The Mayor of Old Tappan, Ed Gallagher, came down and took a picture cutting the ribbon with signs and with Gary shaking his hand…but it had rained the night before, and after the Mayor left it rained some more…hard. And that field was notorious for having poor drainage. Suffice to say that there are still cleats buried underground from the deep footprints. The field was trashed. In three places. The scene around 1 p.m., when the last game had ended, was surreal. Keep in mind there were two games played in each spot. It looked like Woodstock; there were clothes strewn about the field and mud everywhere. People just took off their clothes and left them at the field.
The next day the Mayor rescinded the league’s permit. And closed down the field to EVERYONE, even to the public. You had to have a badge to get on that field. It froze that way, with huge divots. The town said it was unsafe for anyone to walk on. The players figured, hey it’s a field. You play on fields, right? Mark ran the press release – and the picture of the Mayor cutting the ribbon – in Community Life Newspaper anyway. It ran the next week! Here he closed the field down and ran them out of town on the one hand, and he was cutting the ribbon welcoming them into town two weeks later!!
But meanwhile Mark was crushed. The league was over before it started. They no longer had a field. The Old Tappan Football League wasn’t allowed back in Old Tappan! Mark was figuring out ways to give everyone their money back. “I figured we’d owe money because of the refs getting paid in week one…” he said.
Then Gary called on Tuesday.
“I got three fields!” he said. “Two in Northvale, and one in Closter!” And the North Jersey Football League was born.
They certainly learned their lesson on field use. The league has since made allowances for rain outs and other weather issues. But even thereafter they faced lot of headaches. Getting refs, getting insurance, keeping fields, getting out schedules, communicating weekly (pre-Internet), finding cones. (We would like to take this opportunity to thank all the kind towns in the Northern and Pascack Valley area for their generous donations of traffic cones…whether they know it or not.)
Joe Ottomanelli devised a field-measuring system with ropes and stakes. Every Sunday morning Joe would meet Gary and Mark at the fields and measure them and set them up and THEN go play. Sunday afternoons, Gary would recruit anyone available to go around and pick up the cones. Jeanette Brackenbury, also Gary’s cousin, was appointed the league’s accountant. She would travel around to the fields and pay the referees every Sunday. Thanks Jeanette!
But the league survived the first year. It expanded by five teams the next season. That second season was very significant because of the teams that joined.
That HPFL actually evolved years later. It became a pretty official deal, with four teams. No refs, it was touch and they measured yardage with sticks and ropes along the sidelines. But with no refs there were too many fights and the league folded. The four teams merged to form two that quickly became two of the more powerful and balanced teams in the league, the Harrington Park Panthers who became the Bergenfield Bomb Squad and the Harrington Park Browns who became the North Jersey Invaders.
The second year was also significant because the championship game was held at Giants Stadium. The year was 1995 and the NJFL was one of the first leagues to hold a championship game at an NFL stadium! The league has held championships, all-star games and tournaments in Giants Stadium and West Point. And with teams and fields in New York and some players even driving over from Pennsylvania, the NJFL decided that the league could no longer be called the North Jersey Football League. Thus, by year three, the Atlantic Coast Football League was born. And soon after the league entered the cyber world with it’s first web presence.
Year three saw an additional five teams join, bringing the total to 22. The following four years the ACFL witnessed an explosion from 22 to 26 to 36 to 43 to 54 teams. “There was one thing in particular that made me realize we were getting big,” noted Mark. “A team from Old Bridge (NJ) entered the league. The coach asked me for directions to his field for their first game. I asked him how he gets to Route 4 from where he is. He asked me, ‘Where’s Route 4?’ That’s when I knew,” said Mark.
In year three the Dumont Brewers, an offshoot of the Bergenfield Bandits, joined the league. Coach Ken Sobek a very reliable coach, was instrumental in securing fields. Ken managed to introduce four new fields into the league in his hometown. Mark and Gary took him up on his offer to help in any way, and since then his involvement has led to the participation of many Dumont players and teams. In fact, to this day, Dumont produces the top number of ACFL players of any borough and Ken is the League Coordinator and his teammate, Tom Hyland, is the League’s Field Marshall.
And now, after Gary’s original team, the Old Tappan Green Wave, won the Championship in Year 5, the team split up and rode off into the sunset (actually nearly all players are still in the league). Gary’s new team is the first team ever in the league, the Pascack Pioneers, allowing Mark and Gary to join forces yet again. “And hopefully gang up on Ken!” one of them is alleged to have added.
In the 2000-2001 Two-Hand Touch Winter season there were 52 teams and in the A League and B League. In 2001-2002, there are 50 teams in the Bergen/Passaic/Hudson Division with several more teams anticipated for the new Rockland and Westchester Divisions. Gary reflected on the success of the winter league. “The league obviously filled a void,” said Gary. “There has been no outdoor winter sports in the area other than maybe duck hunting. A lot of local weekend warriors look forward to the opportunity to get outside once a week to get some exercise. Apparently quite a lot.”
But the excitement of the winter football league only left a lot of people wanting more come spring. Gary, Mark and Ken entered a flag league in Rockland County a long with several of their winter teams. The teams performed well, in fact Gary, Mark and Ken’s team, the Gamblers, went undefeated and won the B League Championship in their first year. They enjoyed the new challenge of flag football, but the league did have its faults.
It wasn’t long before Gary and Mark took a step that changed the league forever. They began a spring flag league in the Spring of 2000. With 10 teams in their first flag season, it was considered a major success. This was followed by the 16 teams that entered the Fall 2000 season, and by the 20 that entered in the Spring 2001 season and the 26 that entered the Fall 2001 season. Much like the 2-Hand Touch Winter League, the flag leagues grow with each passing year. Yet another success for the league and its players. And, growing even further, the league added the first ever Fall 2-Hand Touch season in 2001 with 12 teams entering in the first season. Now, the league operates year round.
What’s next on the agenda for the ACFL? The league officials have a few surprises planned to coincide with the 2002 Spring Flag season but won’t comment further than that. For now, they are concentrating all their efforts on making sure the current season is as fun and fulfilling as possible. This has been the best formula for the growth of the league.
“We basically started this league just so that Mark and I could play football,” said Gary. “So we made a league we’d have fun in. We’re just glad so many other people are enjoying doing the same thing. And we hope the league remains fun for many years to come.”