He was “a gridiron icon,” a master tactician, a “transcendent talent.” And, in perhaps the biggest compliment of all, the kind of leader you’d want to coach your own kids.
Ramapo High School head football coach Drew Gibbs left an indelible mark in the lives of everyone he touched.
That was clear as memorials poured in for Gibbs on Tuesday, hours after the shocking news that the 59-year-old had died during emergency heart surgery following a collapse on the field.
At a Rutgers University briefing, Gov. Phil Murphy remembered Gibbs as “a giant of a coach and a giant of a man.” Rutgers football Coach Greg Schiano, a Ramapo grad, eulogized “a champion who helped countless young men reach their full potential in life.”
An online petition, meanwhile, garnered thousands of signatures in support of renaming the school’s athletic fields in honor of the coach who had led Ramapo football for 20 years.
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“If my kids couldn’t have played for me, I would have liked them to play for Drew Gibbs,” former Wayne Hills High School coach Chris Olsen said from North Carolina on Tuesday. “He always did the right thing by the kids. We had battle after battle after battle, win some, lose some. He made us a better program.”
Gibbs was a pillar of the North Jersey football community with a reputation and resume that were hard to match. He led the Green Raiders to seven sectional titles and sent hundreds of players on to play college football. More than a few reached the NFL, including star wide receiver Chris Hogan and special teams ace Blake Costanzo.
According to multiple sources, Gibbs collapsed at practice Monday evening as his 10-1 team was preparing for the North Jersey Game of the Year: the North 1, Group 4 final against Northern Highlands.
Just one week after joining the district, newly-installed Ramapo Indian Hills Superintendent Rui Dionisio announced the death to students and parents in an email Tuesday morning.
“It is with deep sadness that I share with you the loss of Drew Gibbs, Ramapo High School Teacher and Head Football Coach, who passed away this morning due to complications from an emergency medical procedure,” Dionisio wrote. “Coach Gibbs was a respected and beloved faculty member and a pillar in our community who commanded respect from everyone. He was a fierce competitor and a polite, kind gentleman who was always a class act.”
Dioniso advised parents to help their children deal with the loss “by listening carefully, not over-reacting, accepting his or her feelings, and answering questions honestly according to your beliefs.”
Parents were also informed of resources available to their children, including district counselors and the Rutgers University Traumatic Loss Coalition for Youth website: ubhc.rutgers.edu/education/trauma-loss-coalition/overview.
The status of the Green Raiders’ playoff game, scheduled for Friday night, was in limbo as of Tuesday evening.
State Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly posted a remembrance on his Facebook page about meeting Gibbs 32 years ago when the latter was an assistant coach at Ridgewood and Wimberly held the same job at Eastside High School in Paterson.
“He was always a class act,” Wimberly wrote. “His impact on New Jersey football is immeasurable.”
Gibbs was a Midland Park graduate who worked as an assistant coach at Kean and Montclair State universities in the 1980s. He joined Coach Chuck Johnson’s staff in Ridgewood in 1990 and also coached wrestling at Ridgewood.
“He was truly a transcendent talent,” said New Jersey Football Coaches Association Commissioner John Jacob. “His entire coaching career was an observable, living lesson for all of us to learn from.”
Gibbs “was willing to help any coach at any moment because that’s who he was. He was a coach’s coach… a player’s coach.”
Praise came from former classmates, athletes, colleagues and opponents.
Michael O’Hagan posted on his Facebook page that he had been friends with Gibbs “for over 30 years” and had played against him in high school.
O’Hagan “watched him win two of his seven state titles with my nephews Patrick and Joseph.”
“As great of a coach as he was he was a better man,” O’Hagan wrote. “A role model for all and someone that can’t be replaced.”
Gibbs “was a true gridiron icon in New Jersey, and it’s probably impossible to overestimate his positive influence as a teacher, leader, and mentor,” said the Super Football Conference administration in a statement.
Damian Ross posted on Facebook about his “unique opportunity to be coached by Drew and to coach with Drew.”
“I’ve known him since I was 16,” the Ridgewood High School graduate wrote. “Drew is one of the few people who have the big three – knowledge, compassion and moral compass – if you or your child played for him, you know exactly what I’m talking about.”
Muhlenberg Football tweeted: “We never went to Ramapo Football to look for football players. We went there looking for men of high character. Every year we knew where to find them. They were developed by a man with the highest of character. The Muhlenberg Football program was better because of Coach Gibbs.”
On the Ramapo Indian Hills Alumni Parent Group Facebook page, Cathleen Cahn linked to a petition on change.org started by the Class of 2021 football team that proposed naming the football field in Gibbs’ honor.
“Coach made an impact on so many lives on and off the field, whether it be in school with his co-workers or on the field with his players, coach always strived to make a change for the better,” the petition reads. “With this said, the 2021 Ramapo Football Team proposes we change the name of Ramapo High Schools athletic field to Drew Gibbs Memorial field in his honor.”
The petition had almost 4,000 signatures by 6 p.m. Tuesday, closing in on a goal of 5,000.
Staff writers Greg Tartaglia, Greg Mattura, Nick Gantaifis and Sean Farrell contributed to this article.
Marsha Stoltz is a local reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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