Son of Fallen PAPD Officer John Mark Cortazzo Wins Award

Darren Cooper The Record

His football coach calls him “Lazarus.”

Anthony Cortazzo’s heart once stopped beating during track practice. He had no pulse. He already had lost his father, a 9/11 first responder, before he reached high school.

His story may not be biblical, but those close to Cortazzo, such as coach Brooks Alexander, know the Pascack Hills two-way lineman and track and field athlete is special. And they know the depths from which he has risen. At first glance, Cortazzo, 18, does not stick out in a crowd. But there’s something that separates him from the pack among North Jersey athletes.

His heart.

That heart stopped beating one cold fateful day in March 2014, and had to be shocked back into rhythm.

That heart has endured the loss of his dad, John Mark Cortazzo.

That heart told him his place was back on the football field with his friends, even if it was just for one play.

That heart is telling him now that great things await him as he moves forward in life.

“I want to enjoy my life as much as possible,” Cortazzo said last week. “I’ve seen a lot of stuff these first 18 years. Stuff that I won’t say you shouldn’t have to deal with, but stuff that has been tough to deal with.”

Cortazzo is the male recipient of The Record Charlie McGill Scholarship, and he was honored Monday night at the annual Athlete of the Week dinner. It’s just the latest award to come his way since his high school playing days ended.

At the Pascack Hills football banquet, Cortazzo received the Golden Spur award that goes to the player who dedicated himself to the football program for four years. Although he’s kind of sheepish to explain, it’s clear the award goes to a player who went above and beyond what is considered normal.

“After my junior year, I would say I was in the top two or three players who might get it,” Cortazzo said. “Then after everything happened to me and I wasn’t sure I was going to play, I kind of thought I lost it.”

Although Cortazzo’s story has been told, it bears repeating.

He was working out with the Cowboys track team, running some laps, when, in his words, “Everything went black.” He collapsed in front of his frightened teammates and coaches. Pascack Hills athletic trainer Steven Papa revived Cortazzo with an automated external defibrillator.

Doctors eventually discovered the valves in his heart weren’t connected properly and performed open-heart surgery to correct the issue.

He needed four months to recover and still feels he’s not as quick or as strong as he was in the past.

Once he was cleared to return — Cortazzo hasn’t seen his heart doctor since August — he started practicing lightly with the football team. He made his return in October against Ridgefield Park, playing just a handful of snaps in the Cowboys’ dramatic overtime win, then a little more against Dumont and even more against Mahwah.

The Cowboys made the playoffs for the first time since 2011, losing to eventual sectional champ Westwood in the first round.

After the game, Cortazzo walked off the field satisfied. He had done what he set out to do.

“I had focused my entire junior year on my senior year of football,” he said.

“I trained hard for it. I watched a bunch of film. I was training [to play] Westwood in Week 1, so I watched our [regular season] Westwood game over and over again. I really wanted to beat them, so it’s kind of fitting that they were my last game.”

Cortazzo likes to play the who-beat-whom game, and he thinks the Cowboys could have been champs, too. Pascack Hills beat Ridgefield Park, which beat River Dell, which beat Ramapo, which beat Pascack Valley. The Indians were North 1, Group 4 champs.

“People think I’m crazy when I say that,” Cortazzo said with a smile.

He’s a solid student, heading to Rowan and thinking maybe, just maybe, he’ll try out for the Profs football team.

Cortazzo is only 5 feet 10 and 180 pounds. He’s quick, but not an All-County-caliber sprinter.

He has a highlight film posted online, mostly of him making some tackles or a pancake block. It has more than 650 views.

He threw the shot put over 39 feet, just missing 40 feet, which still bothers him.

At first, Cortazzo comes across a little shy, but you get to know him and you find he’s witty, sweet and smart.

He already has wisps of gray hair, and it’s not from the heart episode. It started when his father passed away.

“Most people in my family go bald,” Cortazzo said. “I’m going gray.”

Cortazzo was only 4 on 9/11, but he has memories of that day.

When he thinks about how his dad, a Port Authority police officer, ran toward the buildings and not away, he can’t help but be humbled.

“I think anybody who went down there was definitely brave and was a hero,” Cortazzo said.

“Anyone who could walk into two buildings that were over a thousand feet tall and were on fire … to save lives … brave people.”

John Mark would suffer from respiratory problems related to the disaster and died in 2009.

“I remember every year, the day before school started, my dad would take my sister and I to do some sort of activity,” Cortazzo said.

“Whether hiking or just going bowling, he would always do something fun with us.”

Cortazzo is now packing up and preparing for the next chapter of his life.

It won’t be easy, but he’s eager to explore the world and find out if he has what it takes for college and beyond.

His heart is leading the way.

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