Coach Zisa's Tribute Page

  Coach Zisa's Tribute Page  


Inspiring a generation of young men, John Zisa’s improbable New Jersey high school coaching career spanned 26 years. He was an offensive and/or defensive line coach and strength and conditioning coordinator at Paterson Catholic, Paramus Catholic, Elmwood Park, and Rutherford.  Since 2008, Zisa had been a member of the Westwood Cardinals coaching staff, serving under Vito Campanile his former player and son of Mike Campanile, patriarch of one of New Jersey's most prolific coaching families, who gave John his first coaching position. Westwood's seemingly unstoppable defensive line was a key factor in the team's 2013 State Championship.

"His relentless attitude and constant enthusiasm to still coach and do what he loves is incredible." - Karl Seitz             Westwood '15
It’s hard to imagine the number of people John Zisa has inspired as a volunteer coach, friend and determined survivor.  But Zisa considers himself the lucky one, emphasizing he feels ‘blessed’ by the chance to give back.

"It would be an understatement to say that Coach Z got me where I am today. I had never played football before attending Rutherford HS and by senior year was captain and starting both ways. The lessons he taught me on and off the field were essential in getting me recruited to Worcester Polytechnic Institute. I’m still in touch with Coach Z. He’s so easy to talk to and always has great advice.  With all he’s dealt with, only someone as strong as Coach Z could come through a better man."

~~Stephen Kressaty,
       Rutherford HS '08

          "He is  unbelievable -- one of the toughest men and greatest football coaches I will ever know."

                                                                          ~~Nick Napoli  
                                                                           Westwood '14

Not Defined by Fate

In August 1980, just days before the start of his senior year in high school, 17 year old John Zisa of Fair Lawn, NJ, was having fun poolside with friends after a summer football workout. But upon diving into the cool water, John hit his head on the pool liner shattering his C4 and C5 vertebrae

In an instant, Zisa went from Division II football recruit to a young man facing life as a quadriplegic.

Although doctors warned John’s family that he would likely succumb to injury-related complications within just a few years, the former football standout transferred his will to win from the gridiron to the hospital room. Enduring countless tests, extensive surgery and endless rehab, John spent the next seven years developing breathing, vocal and muscular dexterity in his arms.

 "My mindset was 'I'm going to shake it off.'" – John Zisa, recalling the determination that got him through years of recovery.

John Zisa had defied doctors’ predictions and continues to do so 30+ years later.

"The accident doesn't define me; what I do and my accomplishments as a coach define me," Coach Zisa told MaxPreps, in a feature that can be read in its entirety by clicking this link

Strength from a family forged on and off the field

John always had a tight bond with family and friends. But this camaraderie took on even greater meaning after his accident. While John fought to recover the best he could, he knew he’d have to depend on others to help with even the smallest of daily tasks.
Until her death in December 2007, Zisa’s mother, Connie, took on the role of primary caregiver showing what friends describe as “ceaseless devotion” to her son. John’s football buddies have been front and center, as well, providing rides, bringing him meals and sharing a love of football. It was this connection that led to the next act in Zisa’s life.
In the summer of 1988, lifelong friend Richie Graff was an assistant to Head Coach Mike Campanile at Paterson Catholic High School. Campanile had coached Zisa and his friends when they played youth football in Fair Lawn and was happy to see John when he accompanied Graff one day to practice. Still a lover of all things football, John shared his observations about Campanile’s players. Knowing an opportunity when he saw it, Campanile not only embraced his former player’s ideas, but took it a step further by inviting Zisa to join his staff. With that, John Zisa took on his most treasured title – Coach.
"My brother, John, has touched more lives than he will ever know, on and off the football field. His endurance, patience, wisdom, and faith tell a mere story of the fine man he has become. It means so much when a person does something from their heart, wanting absolutely nothing in return. He's a living legend,  the wind beneath so many grateful people's wings." 
- Jo Ann Zisa
"He's been my coach, a trusted colleague, and a lifelong friend.  What John goes through physically, just to get to the practice field, makes what he does even more amazing."
- Vito Campanile
Former Head Coach, Westwood HS