Brian Meeney, who led the St. Thomas Aquinas High School football team to an undefeated regular season in 2021, has died, the school announced on social media.
The Thursday afternoon Tweet from the St. Thomas Aquinas High School account read, “We are saddened to share that head football coach Brian Meeney has passed away. At this difficult time, please keep the Meeney family and the STA family in your prayers. Counselors and Campus Ministry will be available to assist any student in need during this difficult time.”
Meeney, a veteran football coach who spent the last three seasons as the head coach at the Edison school, attended J.F. Kennedy High School in Iselin for three years and transferred to Perth Amboy Tech for his senior year in 1992-93.
St. Thomas Aquinas athletic director Jerry Smith said that he got a phone call around 11:30 a.m. Thursday from assistant coach Chris Young that Meeney had died of an apparent heart attack earlier that morning.
He broke the news to the players at 1 p.m. and a priest followed with comforting words. Smith said Meeney was 46 and that he has two young daughters. Meeney taught physical education in the Bergen County Technical Schools system.
Smith was more than just a boss – he coached Meeney as an assistant football coach at J.F. Kennedy in the early 1990s and the two had a father and son-like relationship.
Soon, Meeney developed into a mentor himself and a successful coach, connecting with his players whether they attended an urban, suburban or parochial school. Meeney deftly applied that right touch at the right time from dropping a gentle comment to demanding the best. It is football, after all.
“He knew there was a time and place for everything,” Smith said. “There was a time to put that smile on. To hug people and there was a time to be tough. He knew that fine line between each and that was what separated him.”
He also knew football was more than just the wins.
“With Brian, the 9-1 (2021 season) was something he was always striving for, but his biggest high was what he could do for the kids that graduated to get them to the next level,” Smith said, “and he worked his rear end off to bring in college coaches to get kids scholarships. So that’s what I appreciate the most about him.”
Jon Simoneau, the Bernards High School football coach, grew up with Meeney in Iselin. He compared Meeney to a famed character in the movie “The Sandlot” – Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez, a cool and kind leader among a group of kids in the neighborhood who love baseball. He was the best athlete and went on to play in the Major Leagues.
“He was our neighborhood’s Benny the Jet,” Simoneau said. “Whatever he did, he put his heart into it and it came out well. I miss my friend already. … He was that guy, man. Everybody had that guy in the neighborhood and I was lucky to be friends with him his whole way. I still don’t believe it. He was the big guy in town.”
Simoneau, who was a few years younger, said that Meeney always helped out others no matter their age. Years later, the two played in an adult basketball league together and their high school teams would annually scrimmage one another.
“As much as all of us Simoneaus and Iselin kids miss him, his wife Randi, his brother Keith and his daughters are going to miss him more,” he said. ‘My thoughts are with the entire team full of young men down at St. Thomas Aquinas. They were building something special down there. They need to keep it going to honor him.”
Indeed, Meeney helped turnaround the Trojans’ fortunes. He inherited a 4-6 team that finished the 2018 season with 28 players.
“Nothing is going to be easy,” Meeney said shortly after being hired in March 2019, “but we are going to hit the ground running and get to work (next week).”
He was excited to return to Middlesex County after stops in other parts of the state.
“St. Thomas Aquinas is a place I really always wanted to be,” Meeney said at the time. “When I first started my coaching career, I made a list of high schools I would aspire to be a head coach and St. Thomas Aquinas was the top place. It’s a place, without a doubt, that has more upside by far than any place I’ve ever been.”
By the time practice started in August, the team had over 40 players and a buzz. The team oozed with young talent, including five freshmen starters and a freshman at quarterback.
With Meeney developing that talent, the Trojans steadily improved with a 4-6 record in 2019 to 4-3 in the shortened 2020 season to last season’s amazing 9-1 record, in which the team didn’t allow a point until the ninth game.
In all, St. Thomas Aquinas outscored opponents 317-9 until an opening-round playoff loss to state power St. Joseph-Hammonton.
Smith called Meeney a “football junkie. I mean, he played basketball, but really football’s his first love.”
“He has all the ingredients you need as a coach,” Smith said. “He’s prepared. He has a passion for what he does. He’s a disciplinarian and it’s about earning the kids respect. It’s a simple formula. There’s a secret formula that we also use, Brian and I, treat everyone as if it’s your own son. You could be tough. You could be strong. You could yell at them, scream at them, but we also praise them at the same time and he had the correct formula. He was very organized and knew what to do.
“His assistant coaches he brought in were all on the same page as Brian. When they watched film, he treated the kids to sandwiches and stuff. It was a nice fraternity of players and coaches. It was something you hope when you hire someone you get this and you don’t get this all the time. I was lucky enough to get this because of Brian Meeney.”
He went from pickup games as a kid in Iselin to an accomplished high school and college career.
As a senior, he helped lead Perth Amboy Tech to a state Group I hoops title and a prestigious Tournament of Champions berth.
After spending a year as a postgrad at Blair Academy, Meeney earned a basketball scholarship to Long Island University-Brooklyn, from which he transferred to Rowan University. Meeney played basketball for three years at Rowan University and captained its football team as a senior.
Before accepting the St. Thomas Aquinas job, Meeney spent 14 seasons as the head football coach at four high schools in North Jersey and two years as the head football coach at McCorriston High School in Mercer County.
He had a knack for turning around struggling programs.
After inheriting an 0-10 team at Bergen Tech, Meeney produced a 23-27 record over the next five years including back-to-back seven-win campaigns in his final two seasons and a playoff appearance.
As a rookie head coach, Meeney inherited a winless McCorriston team and turned them into a .500 squad. Later, Meeney took a 1-9 Memorial team and guided them to a .500 record three years later.
In 2017, he led Newark East Side to a win which snapped the program’s 55-game losing streak.
Smith is sure that fighting spirit will carry on for years to come.
“I told the kids today, even though I was in tears and broken-hearted, I said to them, honor his memory,” Smith said. “How do you honor his memory? Do the right things in school. Get to class on time. Don’t misbehave. Go to the weight room and do an extra set. Do one extra sprint. Whatever it takes in his memory.
“So let’s always have Brian in mind. He is still with us, it’s just that he’s playing on another field, and that’s the field that god needs him for right now. So I need each of you to be strong. … Everything we do from this day forward is going to be in honor of Brian’s name.”
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