This Is Rutherford
This is Ron Italiano
Updated: Apr 20, 2022
By Jennifer Ersalesi
For thirteen years, Ron Italiano has been coaching children with special needs. He coaches basketball and soccer for two different programs (Special Angels and Top Dawgs), flag football, baseball, ice hockey, and alpine skiing. His true dedication to both programs and the impact he has made on so many children’s lives, as well as their families, is truly remarkable. Annika Cioffi, the mother of one of Ron's athletes, told TIR, “All I know is, when there's a sports program geared to include special needs kids or teens - you want Ron involved - he has quietly helped out all over the Rutherford area and by quiet I mean, he doesn't ask for credit, at all. I think it's time he got some!”
TIR: Through which programs do you coach all of these different sports?
Ron Italiano: There are two fantastic programs in our area. There is the Rutherford-based Top Dawgs. Patricia Boylan runs Top Dawgs and she is absolutely fantastic. There is also the Lyndhurst based Special Angels. Deborah Wertalik runs Special Angels and has a heart of gold. I am usually the main coach for most of the programs.
This is Rutherford learned more about Special Angels. It is a program based out of Lyndhurst which started as an autism support group. They have been the frontrunners in special needs sports and activities and have many sports programs, including special needs cheerleading (SPARKS), a dance company that goes to Disney and performs on stage and in parades, as well as a number of different other sports activities. Special Angels was founded by Debbie Wertalik and her daughter, Tara Banuls. Along with a number of volunteers, Debbie and her daughter make sure that all special needs children have the chance to participate in their diversified programs. Special Angels has won a number of awards, such as the Jefferson award which is given for volunteerism, the Ramapo Berry award, and the Bergen County Champions award.
Debbie Wertalik spoke about her program Special Angels and how she met Ron, “Rutherford modeled its special needs sports programs after Special Angels, which has been around for eighteen years. Ron came to me about thirteen years ago and volunteered to help out and coach. Through our Special Angels program, Ron met people from Rutherford and assisted with their programs.”
Patricia Boylan told TIR more about Ron and his work with the Top Dawgs program in Rutherford, “Ron is an extremely valuable coach in our Top Dawgs program. He willingly takes on any task and works well with all of the players. Ron is always upbeat and encourages everyone involved in the program - players, coaches, and buddies.”
TIR: How did you become involved in these programs?
RI: Before my son, Aaron was diagnosed with Autism I signed him up for “typical” soccer. That wasn’t working out so well. Then Aaron was diagnosed with Autism and I heard of a Special Needs sports program called Special Angels out of Lyndhurst and signed him up. He really enjoyed it but I am not the type of person who sits on the sidelines so I got involved with coaching. Also I felt I could bring more to the program because of my experience with my boys. Plus I felt I could get more out of the kids, which I think and hope I do. At least all the parents tell me so. Never tell me my kids or athletes have limitations. They just might do things differently or at a different pace or different process.
“Ron usually coaches the teenagers. He does football, basketball, and soccer. He is a huge help in the fact that he knows what it is like to have a special needs kid, because he has two. It is important to have a coach with children with special needs because they understand the needs of the parents too and they have the background knowledge of special needs students. Coaches need the support from one another,” explained Debbie Wertalik, co-founder and Director of the Special Angels program in Lyndhurst.
TIR: What has been the most rewarding part about coaching the various sports?
RI: Just watching the progress my athletes make session after session, week after week and year after year. When a parent comes up to me and says I would have never thought my son or daughter could do that, it is the most rewarding because I know I am making a difference.
Patricia Boylan told TIR, ”Ron has an excellent rapport with our Top Dawg players. He has developed drills and games that engage the players and also help develop their social skills as well as their physical fitness.”
Photos of the Top Dawg program (below):
TIR: How long have you coached with the Top Dawgs program in Rutherford?
RI: About six years now.
TIR: What do you enjoy most about working with the Top Dawgs program?
RI: Like all the programs I am in, working with the kids. But for Rutherford Top Dawgs in particular, it’s the people that run the program. They are absolutely the most fantastic, kind, and caring people. From Patricia Boylan who is the main organizer, to PJ Tully who is the main coach and the youth volunteers from the high schools and middle schools are amazing. It is a real sense of community and it gives me hope for a future, when I am not around anymore, that there will be more understanding and acceptance of the special needs community.
PJ Tully also spoke fondly of Ron, “Ron's main focus is the players, and ensuring they have the most positive experience possible. Ron was founder of a special needs basketball program in Lyndhurst, and his insight and suggestions from that experience has made Top Dawgs a better program. Also, he is probably in the best shape of all the coaches, so we let him do most of the running during the soccer drills (laughs)."
TIR: What do you enjoy most about working with the Special Angels?
RI: With Special Angels it is the bond and relationship I have with all the kids. I have been doing it for thirteen years now so I have seen many of these kids grow up. Just last week one of my athletes was moving to North Carolina. When his mom told me we were both crying. Realizing how far he has come and the reality that I might never see him again hit me pretty hard.
“Ron is an inspiration on so many levels. His priority is his family, but he generously donates his time and talents to many others in the community. His commitment, compassion, enthusiasm, and energy are second to none and - last but not least - he is a very good drummer!” PJ Tully told TIR.
TIR: Out of all the sports you coach, is there one you really love the most?
RI: Soccer is great because the concept is very easy. Kick, pass, shoot. Basketball and flag football are fun because there are a lot of different skills involved where you can really challenge the kids. But I have to say Winter Alpine skiing is my favorite. I coach my two boys through the Special Olympics. For me, it’s just something about having my boys out on the mountain with me skiing. When we are skiing, all labels, diagnosis, and limitations are gone. There is just a freedom about it. And my older son is getting better than me.
Debbie Wertalik told TIR, “I think Ron really enjoys coaching football, Lyndhurst High School players assist, and at the end, we have a Superbowl where our kids play against the coaches. He also excels in basketball and at the end the teams play against the Lyndhurst Police Department. Those programs make the kids feel important and powerful. People like Ron are so important because they are the ones out there working with the kids and they are able to help the parents feel confident that their kids are safe and happy. Parents get to be parents and sit by and feel that feeling of normalcy while they watch their kids. We are lucky to have such loyal coaches. Ron is very involved and has two sons that are out there with him. He’s a take-charge guy who does whatever it takes to lead the kids to victory.”
TIR: Why are these types of programs, like Special Angels and Top Dawgs, so important?
RI: Get the kids out of the house, exercise, socialization and the list goes on and on. When you have a child with Special Needs sometimes they don’t say mom / dad I want to try this or I like that. You have to read their cues and their reactions. So what works for me...try everything. Sometimes it will work, sometimes it won’t. See what makes them smile. See where their passion is. When I was a kid I tried everything. From baseball to football to surfing to racing BMX bikes to skiing. I just feel a lot of special needs kids don’t have a voice so these types of programs help them find it.
“Ron’s positive outlook and dedication to his boys is truly an inspiration. They are his number one priority and he ensures that they are involved and engaged. Having his boys fully participate in so many different sports and activities, he helps others see the abilities of children who are differently-abled. He is such a great role model not only for me but for all the families in our program,” explained Patricia Boylan.
TIR: Which sport(s) are you coaching during the Spring?
RI: Special Angels basketball, Special Angels soccer, Top Dawgs soccer, and Montclair Monarchs Ice Hockey.
“Ron has a great rapport with everyone in the Top Dawgs program, and especially the players. He has a strong sense of each of the player's abilities and makes sure that the practices are tailored to those skills,” explained PJ Tully.
TIR: Why would you encourage others to get involved in these sports programs?
RI: The best thing you can do in life is make a meaningful, positive impact on someone. That is why you should get involved. But just a warning, you will be the one most impacted.
The best thing you can do in life is make a meaningful, positive impact on someone. That is why you should get involved. But just a warning, you will be the one most impacted.