By Anthony Bosco
St. Francis Prep varsity football coach Vince O’Connor has been patrolling the sidelines for the Terriers for the last half century, long enough to see his share of top-flight players come through his program.
But this Sunday will mark a first for the coach, who will get to see two of his former players participate in the Super Bowl XXXVIII, when the Carolina Panthers take on the favored New England Patriots.
One of those former players, Dan Henning, hasn’t suited up for a game in quite some time. Henning is the offensive coordinator for the Panthers, who are making their first trip to the Super Bowl in franchise history.
A one-time three-sport star at St. Francis Prep when the school was in Brooklyn, Henning was an all-city football player for O’Connor in the late 1950s before moving on to William and Mary College.
Henning was a star quarterback in college, where he ranked 14th in the nation in passing yardage during his senior season in 1963. His success on the collegiate level, however, did not translate into success on the professional level. After attending training camp with the San Diego Chargers in 1964, Henning went on to play in the Continental Football League for two years before signing with the Chargers in 1966.
After training camp in San Diego before the start of the 1967 season Henning finished his playing career with Norfolk in the CFL.
While his playing career never amounted to much, Henning more than made up for it in the coaching ranks. Henning had worked as a head coach, offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach and wide receivers coach since breaking into the NFL as entering the league with the Houston Oilers in 1972.
He has worked with some of the best coaches in the history of the game, including Don Shula, Joe Gibbs and Bill Parcells, as well as helping to mold top-flight quarterbacks Joe Theismann, Don Strock, Doug Williams and Vinny Testeverde.
He was an assistant under Gibbs when the Washington Redskins won Super Bowl crowns XVII and XXII.
Henning later worked as quarterbacks coach with the New York Jets, overseeing the resurgence of Testeverde in 1998, when the quarterback out of Elmont set a club record with 29 touchdowns on his way to the Pro Bowl and helping guide the Jets to the AFC Championship game.
Henning is not the only St. Francis Prep alum to win a Super Bowl. Preceding him is, of course, the legendary coach for which the Super Bowl trophy is named, another Vince, Vince Lombardi, who coached the Green Bay Packers to victory in the very first battle between the NFL and AFL champs.
The last former Terrier player to be a part of a Super Bowl winner was former Los Angeles Raiders nose tackle Bill Pickel, who as a rookie out of Rutgers, helped Al Davis’ team to a win over the Washington Redskins in 1983.
Marco Battaglia, a Howard Beach native, is the first former Prep standout since to be back in the Super Bowl, though his role in the game is expected to be minor.
A former second-round pick by the Cincinnati Bengals in the 1996 draft out of Rutgers, Battaglia never crossed over into NFL stardom like tight ends Jeromy Shockey or Tony Gonzalez despite finishing his collegiate career as the Scarlet Knights’ all-time leader in receptions (171) and second with receiving yards (2,221) and touchdowns (16).
Instead Battaglia developed into a big, bruising pass blocker who had the added bonus of being a solid special teams contributor. The Bengals’ special teams captain from 1998 through 2000, Battaglia once played 88 consecutive games from 1996 through 2001 for the Bengals but never caught more than 14 passes in a single season.
His career numbers are not too impressive, with 71 receptions for 660 yards and two touchdowns. His career-best game came against Chicago in 2001, catching four balls for 57 yards. But one year after he started 10 games for the Bengals, he was placed on the Reserve/Non Football Injury list in November 2001 after undergoing an appendectomy. He was waived less than a month later and claimed off waivers by the Redskins, with whom hespent the remainder of the season.
Last season he spent time with eventual Super Bowl champs Tampa Bay, playing in two games and inactive for a third before being released. He later signed with Pittsburgh, with whom he played in his first postseason game, a win over Cleveland.
Battaglia was with the Miami Dolphins in training camp this season and was the final player cut. He signed with Carolina as a free agent on Dec. 2 to provide depth at tight end after a season-ending injury to Mike Seidman.
In addition to his football career, Battaglia is also close friends with radio host Howard Stern, who frequently talks about his buddy during football season.
So if you are looking for a team to cheer for this Sunday and call Queens home, here are at least two reasons to root for the Carolina Panthers. And don’t be surprised if Battaglia manages to get a pass or two thrown his way with his fellow former Terrier calling the plays.
Reach Sports Editor Anthony Bosco by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 130.