In Highland Park, Joe Policastro connects the young, the old and everyone in between

Highland Park legend Joe Policastro smiles as he leafs through decades of stats in the Owls’ archives. Policastro was an all-state quarterback for Highland Park in the late ’50s and later became the program’s head coach. He remains as an assistant. (Photo: Mike Pavlichko)

It feels like 100 degrees or more out in the sun, but it’s not much better inside the equipment room at Highland Park High School, just off the gym, with one more day to go before 34 Owls – the best number combined JV and varsity number this program has seen in recent memory – will take the field for their first football practice of the 2022 season, one in which they hope to break the longest active losing streak in the state, now at 33 games.

One man has seen it all – the success, great wins, championships, and even the disappointments: Joe Policastro.

Before we talk, he pulls out stats, notes, box scores and game programs from throughout the ages. He hands me the 1989 Highland Park Football Players and Coaches reunion program, with team photos going back to 1937. And a 2003 game program, which – among other things – has a page with headshots of all the assistant coaches, including the man who is the current coach, Shawn Harrison, ’90.

He tells me to take them home. He has more.

Highland Park photos and memorabilia sit on a shelf in the coaches’ room. (Photo: Mike Pavlichko)

Not that he needs any of this to jog his memory, which is, in fact, sharper than a tack. He knows all the names, even those before his time, like Ickey Klaus, who kicked a field goal with 16 seconds left to beat Metuchen in legendary coach Bus Lepine’s first season as head coach in 1943, to stun the Bulldogs, 3-0.

He remembers his playing days well, capped in 1959 with a season that, at the time, stood as the best passing year in school history, throwing for 1,171 yards, a record that would stand for another dozen years.

A stat sheet – which Policastro says was likely typed out by Jay Dakelman when he was the coach in the 1970s, shows Highland Park single season passing records, including Policastro’s 1958 and 1959 seasons – though there appears to be at least one typo: two entries for Policastro are labeled 1959. (Photo: Mike Pavlichko)

It’s been a long and winding road for Highland Park football, where Policastro’s protege Harrison is working hard to boost the football program, running flag football league’s in lieu of a feeder program that hasn’t existed in town for more than a decade.

But Policastro has no desire to step aside. The coaches love him. The players love him. He turned 80 this week. He still loves the game, and it loves him.

Click below to hear Mike Pavlichko talk with Highland Park legend, Joe Policastro:

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