Minutes before the opening tip to the 2011 All-Groups holiday basketball tournament finals, Cresskill High School (NJ) power forward Rich Van Cleft, III sat in front of his locker, listening to Eminem’s “Lose Yourself”. He nodded his head to the beat.
A three-year contributor on the varsity team, Van Cleft, 17, had his pregame ritual perfected. “Stretch, listen to some music, lace up, and then get ready for layup lines,” says the soft-spoken 6-foot-3 senior leader of the Cougars basketball and football teams.
Rich’s little brother, Christian, 15, had a similar pregame routine, though not quite as fine-tuned. As the starting point guard of the Cresskill junior varsity squad, Christian suited up for varsity games, but rarely saw much action.
With the Demarest High School gymnasium packed with three sets of bleachers full of Cressklill residents, Christian sat a few lockers away from Rich in the locker room, continuously glancing at his older brother with a watchful eye. Though they’d been playing together on Bergen County’s basketball courts, football fields, and baseball diamonds their entire lives, there was no precedent for their Dec. 29 game versus rival Pascack Hills.
Less than 24 hours earlier, the Van Cleft brothers came home from basketball practice to learn that their father, Rich, Jr., had suffered an aneurysm in his brain while working on a construction job at a nearby synagogue.
He died suddenly at the age of 46.
“I got a call from one of the boys’ fathers at around 4:30 on Wednesday afternoon,” says Mike Doto, Cresskill High School’s 38-year-old boys basketball coach. “He said, ‘Are you sitting down?’ And I was thinking, ‘Oh, man. One of the kids must have sprained an ankle horsing around after practice.’ Then, he told me Rich Van Cleft died. I couldn’t believe it. Everyone knew Rich Van Cleft. Everyone loved Rich Van Cleft.”
In suburban New Jersey towns like Cresskill, there’s always one father that everybody knows. He coaches two Little League teams in the same season. He picks the kids up from the mall on Friday nights and gets them home safely. He checks the conditions of the local football field hours before kickoff to ensure it’s ready for action.
Or, in the case of Rich Van Cleft, Jr., he actually builds the football field hours before kickoff.
“Whenever it rained, our Pop Warner football field used to get slammed. It would go underwater,” says John Coffey, a Cresskill resident. “We were supposed to play Tenafly (N.J.) at our field on a Saturday night, but we had to cancel the game because of weather. The kids were just devastated.
“So, Rich, whose son Johnny plays on the team, suggested we just use the high school field and play the game on Sunday, instead. We got in touch with the high school coach and he said, ‘You can’t use the main field, but if you can get the practice field in order, it’s all yours.’”
Coffey smiles, “Now, you’ve got to realize—this was going to take lot of work and a lot of manpower. We woke up that Sunday and realized we had to get things up from behind the high school on 3rd Street and take all the equipment about a mile on the road, and pretty much build an entirely new football field from scratch in a matter of a few hours.”
As some of the other fathers looked at each other with uncertainty and puzzlement, Van Cleft assessed the situation and took charge. “He shows up with this giant Cushman golf cart, loads a Port-a-John on to the back of it, gets all the equipment from the field on to it, and then rides this thing right through the middle of town,” recalls Coffey, laughing at the memory of a portable toilet rumbling through Cresskill’s main intersection.
“A bunch of the fathers and coaches were there to help out, and Rich was leading everyone like a general. In a few hours, we built this thing. The high school coach couldn’t believe it. We basically transformed one field that was completely under water and built a better one a mile away. The kids played their game that afternoon. None of that happens without Rich being Rich.”
The stories go on.
“Recently, the town gave us some land and a bit of money to build a new field house. Rich took over from there,” says David Maltby, another father in town. “He walked into William Scottsman, the trailer company, and said ‘Give me the two worst trailers you’ve got.’ With those two trailers and a small budget, he built a snack bar, an equipment room, an office, and a meeting room. Other guys around town helped, sure, but it was all under the direction of Rich.”
Rich Van Cleft was the guy who’d be driving home, see a house flooding, knock on the front door, and see if the family inside needed a hand. He was the one who’d take an entire middle school basketball team to a summer league game an hour away. He’d go camping with his three sons in Lake George, NY, and invite all 15 of their friends to come along.
“My son Sean lost his first two wrestling matches this year,” Coffey says. “When he finally won his first match, Rich read about it in the newspaper and shot Sean a text message: ‘Congratulations on your first victory.’ Rich died a few days after that. That text message is still up on my son’s Facebook page today. He was such a figure in so many of these kids’ lives.”
Hours after learning of Van Cleft’s passing, coach Mike Doto was at wits ends with himself. “I am the kids’ coach, the guy who’s supposed to have all the answers, and I didn’t know what to do,” says the former Cresskill High School point guard. “I’d never dealt with a tragedy like this in my own life, and here I have two great young kids—two of my players—faced with the unthinkable. As a coach, what do you say? What do you do? Do you cancel the game? Do you tell the other team you’re not going to play? Basketball was the last thing on my mind that night, and yet, we had the tournament finals in about 12 hours.”
As it turns out, there was nothing to say or do.
Doto, who’d known Rich Van Cleft, Jr. for many years, came to the Van Cleft house, paid his respects, and hugged his senior power forward in silence.
“We just kind of embraced. We didn’t really talk at all.”
When Doto arrived at the Cresskill High School gymnasium early the next morning, his team’s leader was there in sweats, listening to his iPod. “You dressing tonight, big man?” Doto asked.
The oldest Van Cleft brother, 17 years old and now the man of his house, gave his coach a nod.
“’Dad would have wanted us to play.’ That’s all they said,” explains Melissa Van Cleft, the widow of Rich Van Cleft, Jr., and the mother of the three Van Cleft boys. “I said, ‘If it’s too hard, you don’t have to.’ My oldest son Richard, he was just so focused and so ready to play. I haven’t seen any real emotion from any of them yet, and they say with boys, that takes a bit of time. But, Richard and Christian, that morning, they both said, ‘Dad would have wanted us to play.’ I wasn’t going to argue.”
Melissa Van Cleft attended the game, but stood in the very back of the gymnasium, watching from afar.
Cresskill, a Group IV school, was considered underdogs against the larger Group III Pascack Hills squad. But this game’s outcome was never in doubt.
Rich Van Cleft, III came out and played the best game of his high school basketball career. His stat line—16 points, 14 rebounds, six blocks—didn’t tell the entire story.
“It wasn’t just Rich who played well,” says Hector Olmo, a Cresskill police officer and town councilman. “All the kids elevated their play that night. My son came off the bench and played the best game of his life. Tim Fuelner’s son Ryan played incredibly well. There was no way those kids were losing that game.”
Late in the fourth quarter, Melissa Van Cleft left the crowded gym and headed for her car in the Demarest High School parking lot. “On my way out, I heard an eruption coming from inside the building. Coach Doto took Richard out of the game, and put Christian in.”
“It was a moment that I’ll never forget,” says Olmo. “The entire gym—fans of both teams—stood and cheered. There wasn’t a dry eye in the building.”
Cresskill High School beat their rivals 57-46 and won the All-Groups holiday basketball tournament. Rich Van Cleft, III, less than 24 hours after finding out that his father had passed away, led the team in most statistical categories, and his little brother Christian logged the most playing time of his nascent varsity career.
With most of the town of Cresskill, NJ, — basketball fans and non-basketball fans alike — in attendance and showing their support, Rich Van Cleft, Jr.’s two sons showed incredible strength.
“Everyone in that gym will remember that night. It was straight out of a movie. I still get chills just talking about it,” says Coffey.
Two days after the game, though, the harsh realities of life began to set in for the Van Cleft family.
Because of a heart defect that he’d had since birth, Rich Van Cleft, Jr. never could afford a life insurance policy that’d cover him. Melissa, the mother of three teenage sons, is a part-time teacher’s aid at the local public school. There’s a mortgage to pay. There are three kids to put through college. There’s a half-finished kitchen that Rich, Jr. was in the middle of building.
One of the negatives to living in a small town is that people talk.
One of the positives to living in a small town is that people talk.
And without much hesitation, once word of the family’s current situation spread, the town of Cresskill rallied around a cause.
“Rich Van Cleft would do anything for anyone,” says Doto. “Even if you were a total stranger, he’d lend you a hand if you looked like you were in need.”
“It’s amazing. People are coming out of the woodwork to see what they can do and how they can help,” adds Maltby.
In a matter of days, a Rich Van Cleft Memorial Fund was created. Olmo, the president of his police officer union, had lawyers and accountants he knew he could call upon. He got the fund up and running in a matter of days.
“I had to go get Rich’s truck at his office shortly after he passed,” says Coffey. “When we got there, all of the subcontractors that he had worked with were there waiting for me. They knew Melissa’s dream kitchen was being worked on because Rich was always talking about it. They came to me and said, ‘We want to finish the kitchen. We’ll do whatever we need on our own time for free. It’s the least we can do.’”
The town is hosting a beefsteak dinner for $25 a head next month. There will be door prizes, a deejay, and they’re raffling off sports memorabilia. “No Jets stuff, though. We actually want to make money,” laughs Coffey.
Space Odyssey, a local teen hangout with laser tag and bowling, is donating a night for free. The kids in town are selling tickets for $20, with all proceeds go to the Rich Van Cleft Memorial Fund. “The woman who owns Space Odyssey has a son who used to play basketball with the oldest son, Richard. When she heard what happened, she offered it up, right away,” says Olmo.
At the St. Therese recreational youth basketball games, they’re selling T-shirts that say “We practice for us. We play for Mr. Van Cleft.” There are rubber bracelets, too. Proceeds of all sales will be put towards the fund.
“The town’s really coming together,” says Coach Doto. “It’s an amazing thing to watch unfold.”
Rich Van Cleft, III was an All-County football player in the fall. Built like an ox, he could play defensive end or tight end at the next level. Doto and Cressklill High School’s longtime football coach Bob Valli plan on going above and beyond to ensure he receives a scholarship to play collegiate athletics. “Division I-A, maybe Division I. We’ll do our best,” says Doto. “Some school’s going to be incredibly lucky to have that kid on its campus.”
“I’m touched by everyone’s generosity and kindness,” says Melissa Van Cleft, just weeks after her husband’s passing. “Strangers who I’d never met before have come up to me and tell me how much Rich meant to them. They tell me how much he impacted their lives. It’s all so incredibly moving.”
As a family in a small suburban New Jersey town grieves, a community unites and rallies around them.
Rich Van Cleft, Jr. would have been proud of this team.
To aid The Rich Van Cleft Memorial Fund, please send donations to:
P.O. Box 595
Tenafly, NJ 07670
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