Clifton Hoping to Make History

By Tom Szieber
Posted:  Thursday, September 13, 2018   5:45 pm

In Clifton, history means a lot.
Even through the program’s mostly disastrous period from the late 1980s to early 2000s, the Mustang faithful often held on to the days when their team was a powerhouse as source of pride -- and a reason for hope that better days were ahead.
Thanks to a mid-2000s rebuild that was started by current Passaic Valley head coach Chet Parlavecchio and finished by current Ramapo athletic director Ron Anello -- of which the apex was a North I, Group IV title under the latter in 2006 -- Clifton did indeed pull itself back to respectability. The program may not be a juggernaut, but it is certainly viable and competitive.
Today, the Mustangs are led by Ralph Cinque, a star running back in the early 1990s who would probably have even greater legend had the talent around him been anywhere near the level of his own. He is also a part of both Parlavecchio’s and Anello’s coaching trees, and views the ghosts of Clifton’s past as assets and tools for extracting perspective from his current team.
He’s cognizant of how knowledge of history can strengthen program enthusiasm, which is why this past Friday was such a special day for Cinque and crew. The Mustangs not only kicked off their season with a 28-14 victory over Northern Highlands, but both soaked up and created some history out in America’s heartland -- more specifically at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
It was the Mustangs’ first-ever victory outside of New Jersey in their first out-of-state tilt since 1946. It was also their fourth-straight opening day victory, a win they wanted as they look to earn a fourth-straight playoff appearance for the first time ever.
And they did it in the shadow of the epicenter of the nation’s football lore. The day before, the Mustangs toured the Hall, openly in awe of the busts of the sport’s most decorated figures. The grandeur and the stories of the game’s greatest heroes clearly moved them and most certainly inspired them. The win was the icing on the cake.
“Getting to witness and share the history of professional football was almost as good as the win,” Cinque said. “It is one thing to be an athlete or a football player, but to be able to call yourself a ‘student of the game’ and know the stories of guys like Red Grange or Larry Csonka or Franco Harris means that you have a high football I.Q. That is important to me as a coach.”
The game was the Mustangs’ first meeting with Northern Highlands in their 97-year existence, and Clifton was led by a dominant rushing effort spearheaded by senior running back David Martinez (141 rush yards, 1 TD) -- who may well etch his own name in the program’s record books by year’s end.
In 2018, his 1,434 yards on the ground were just 112 fewer than the Mustangs’ best mark -- the 1,546 achieved by Paul Fego in 1975. Clifton’s career rushing milestone isn’t clear, but no back in recent memory has put together consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.
Martinez no doubt has the ability to be mentioned with Clifton’s all-time greatest at his position, but his greater priority is to lead his team to another milestone -- its first playoff victory since that 2006 sectional title triumph. Since that time, the Mustangs have been one-and-done in 2008, 2015, 2016 and 2017.
“It would mean a lot [to get over the hump],” Martinez said. “[In 2015], it was a year after a 1-9 season. Then the next year we felt like we should have gone farther, but didn’t. And the third time we were still sort of a young team. But there is no excuse this year.“
While Martinez, Cinque and the rest of the Mustangs are very open about the fact that they won’t be content with simply winning a playoff game, there is no denying it would be a sign that Cinque-era Clifton has turned a major corner.
Deep down, they know that, too. They, of course, are confident enough that they harbor dreams of claiming a twelfth state sectional title (second of the playoff era). But they’re rational enough to know that the first postseason win in 12 years would be significant—even if it is not their ultimate goal.
And being from a place that may have a greater appreciation of history than most, how could they not?
“The players and I definitely understand it,” Cinque said. “I always think of when Steve Young took over for Joe Montana in San Francisco and they won Super Bowl XXIX. You see him imitating pulling a monkey off his back. The is the monkey on our backs, and this year we are intent on getting rid of it.”

Tom Szieber can be reached by emailing