By Patrick Lanni | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
Despite one of his worst seasons in terms of wins and losses, Hackensack’s Benjie Wimberly was chosen by the New York Giants as the 2020 recipient of the Lou Rettino High School Coach of the Year award.
Hackensack finished 1-5, but Wimberly’s leadership and community service during an unprecedented season made him an easy choice, the Giants organization said during a virtual announcement ceremony last week.
On top of his role as Hackensack’s football coach, Wimberly serves as a state assemblyman for N.J.’s 35th district and as Paterson’s Director of Recreation. Wimberly also helped launch the New Jersey Minority Coaches Association earlier this year.
“The Giants wanted to use this year’s honor to acknowledge a coach that has done tremendous work in impacting the community, rather than one that has solely found success on the football field,” the announcement said. “As someone who simultaneously balances three big roles, there is no coach more deserving of the Coach of the Year award than Wimberly.”
In August, Wimberly joined Gov. Phil Murphy during a coronavirus briefing to show support for high school sports. During the announcement, Wimberly, Murphy and state Sen. Paul Sarlo backed the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association’s plan to let student-athletes resume outdoor fall sports during the pandemic, even if their school districts were conducting classes virtually.
When the season got rolling in October, Hackensack faced its share of adversity. Like many teams across the state, Hackensack was forced to reschedule games and ultimately had its Thanksgiving game against rival Teaneck canceled.
“I’ve been in challenging coaching situation before but nothing like this,” Wimberly said Tuesday. “From the COVID-19 pandemic to the racial unrest from George Floyd to losing loved ones, it was a mental and emotional challenge like no other year before. Then you had to add on all of the other things like working in small groups, not being able to use the locker room or watch film together. It was a major challenge. A major challenge like no other.”
Wimberly started 2020, his 26th season, ranked 16th amongst active head coaches in New Jersey with a 170-65 career record. Before taking over at Hackensack in 2012, Wimberly led Paterson Catholic to seven state championships in 15 years. His Paterson Catholic tenure also included a remarkable 11-year stretch in which his teams went a combined 102-14.
Former Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz played at Paterson Catholic during that stretch and was apart of the virtual announcement last week. Earlier in the week, Wimberly was at lunch for his birthday when Cruz and the Giants organization surprised him with the award in-person.
Wimberly said he was adamant about not going out for his birthday during the pandemic, but his wife convinced him.
“It was a total surprise,” Wimberly said.
The Lou Rettino High School Football Coach of the Year Award is part of the Giants’ continuing effort to support local youth football programs. The Giants named the award in memory of former Union High School coach, Lou Rettino, for his fine commitment to the game of football, his community and the betterment of his athletes’ lives.
Cruz acknowledged the Giants supported Wimberly’s community initiatives as well as his role as a mentor for his student-athletes, Wimberly said.
“Victor knows me and the work I do outside of football,” Wimberly said. “When I found out (I won the award), I was caught off guard. When he explained it to me that it’s not about wins and losses, I felt better about it. He said ‘we, as part of the Giants organization, appreciated the work you’re doing in the community as far as food insecurity, social injustice issues and more or less mentoring young folks through a very difficult time with the virus.’”
“I’ve won a bunch of games, won championships, gone undefeated and never got this award before, but here I am at 1-5, but getting it for those reasons made it so much more gratifying to be honest with you,” Wimberly said.
In recognition of Wimberly’s selection, The Giants Foundation and Gatorade donated $4,000 to Hackensack’s football program.
The selection also prompted a tweet from Murphy on Monday night.