In 1976 I met Bernie Tiger in freshman drafting class at Madison, NJ High School. He didn’t play football that year, his family was in too much turmoil — a sign of things to come. But as a sophomore, either a guidance counselor or his mother suggested he join the team. He’d never played or had much exposure to the sport, but he made it through the season. Our friendship, most importantly, endured.
Bernie Tiger had a tough life even before he moved. Bernie’s dad, a rugged Morristown cop, was diagnosed with colon cancer but he refused treatment, thinking medicine was for “sissies”. He fought the pain with grit, but the illness created financial hardship for the family.
Bernie, shuttled amongst relatives, found little time for sports or fun. He worked. He was fifteen when his dad died.
His mom remarried and moved the family to Pennsylvania where his stepfather and Bernie immediately butted heads.
Eventually, Bernie was banished. At seventeen, he was homeless. For three horrible nights he slept in the snow, seeking work during the day. He lived at a Salvation Army for six months.
But Bernie bounced back. He got a job. He played bass in a band. He earned his GED. He protected himself. He saw others succeed and thought he could too. He tested himself. His success validated those suspicions.
He met his wife. He got a better job. They had a son and committed to raising him better.
A Chance Reunion
Unbeknownst to me, Bernie relocated to the Massachusetts town right next to mine. We saw each other in a Blockbuster Video store. We were the two tallest people in the room. We stared. I nodded, and thought: “this guy looks like Bernie Tiger”, but I couldn’t believe it.
After Blockbuster, I returned home and found an email from Bernie. He wrote that he saw me at Blockbuster, then did a web search to confirm. Our kids were in the same class. He reintroduced himself and asked if I remembered him from Madison, NJ.
I remembered, of course. As sophomores, we were members of our 1977 State Championship Football Team. We were the biggest guys on the field, and stood next to each other in the team photo. Bernie let me wear his helmet after mine cracked against Summit. His was the only one big enough.
(Photo: Matt, center top, and Bernie, to the right – #77 and 79)
Our moms were Madison natives. We each experienced a terminally ill parent (his dad, my mom). Each of those died of cancer when we were teenagers and our surviving parent remarried within the year, causing common transition challenges.
Bernie did not graduate with our Madison High class. We never knew what happened to him. The championship season gloss faded fast with his new trials.
In January, via Facebook, I reconnected with Mark Monica, youngest son of my legendary high school coach, Ted Monica. As quarterback, he guided us to our third consecutive, undefeated, NJ State Championship title, and Top NJ Ranking, during our 1979 senior year. We even attended kindergarten together.
As seniors, we were football co-captains. He was one of the guys who stuck by me when my mom succumbed in her eight year battle with melanoma a few days before our state championship playoff game.
Return of the Ring
I mentioned a lunch plan with Bernie Tiger to Mark and he wrote back immediately, with a startling piece of information.
He was helping his dad organize his football belongings a few months earlier. He came across a lone wrapped ring box with “Tiger”, #79, on the sleeve under the wrapping. He remembered Bernie as a good guy, but like myself, never knew what happened to him. (Photo, top: Bernie Tiger’s ring, engraved with name and jersey number, 79)
I wrote Mark that it’d be great to surprise Bernie. “Can you imagine giving this thing to him 32 years later? Call me at the office tomorrow.”
Mark followed this up with: “Ring went out today via FedEx Next Day Air. You should have it tomorrow morning by 10:30AM. Good luck!”
On January 29, 2009, I surprised Bernie Tiger with his 1977 High School Football State Championship Ring, at a restaurant ironically named, “How on Earth” in Mattapoisett, MA, more than 31 years later, and four states away from the original green turf with cheering crowds where it all transpired.
It fit. I claim that Bernie almost passed out — or at least got teary. (Bernie refutes this.)