BRICK – My, oh, my. How small the world is despite its vast size.
Pete Panuska and Tom Farrell can vouch for that.
Now the Superintendent of Schools of the Brick Township School District, Farrell was a youngster when he watched Panuska star in football for Brick Township High School.
“I was growing up in Howell as an eighth-grader, watching Pete play,” Farrell said. “Pete was so good and so fast. I saw him play in the Sun Bowl (in which Panuska returned a kickoff for a touchdown for the University of Tennessee). Pete was an idol to me. He was featured in the front sections of the papers. He was bigger than life.”
Many years later, the two men became close. Panuska became the Green Dragons’ Athletics Director and Supervisor of Physical Education and Health and Co-Curricular Activities in February of 2017. And Farrell is now superintendent.
“The first thing Tom said to me when he was hired at Brick was, ‘I was glad to see you play,’ ” said Panuska, who retired March 31. “Back in the day, Brick Township was at the top of its game. Speed got me to college. Tom and I had some good talks about those days.”
Panuska, who also starred in track and field, concluded his 28-year, nine-month career in education at the age of 58.
“It was time for me to retire,” he said. “The job was taking a lot out of me. It brought stress. I will miss the people and my secretary (Margaret Reddan). I thought about finishing the spring season, but I wanted to do something different (Panuska works in the grounds department at the Bay Head Yacht Club). It’s all good. No regrets. No gripes. I loved every minute I worked in Brick. It was just time for me to go. It’s time to start another chapter in my life.”
Panuska said dealing with COVID-19 was a large part of his job.
“A lot of work dealt with it,” he said. “It wasn’t bad during the pre-COVID days. During COVID, we had to screen all of the kids. When things don’t go the way I want, it brings stress on me. The Man Upstairs told me, ‘Let’s move on.’ ”
Panuska’s final day of work was emotional. There was a ceremonial final walk through the halls of his beloved school. And there was a retirement dinner attended by nearly 100 well-wishers at the Tre Pizza Pasta Beer Garden in Brick.
“At the end of the school day, Dr. Kasyan (school principal David) announced over the public address system that it was my last day of work,” Panuska said. “He called me into his office. I turned the corner and there were students and staff applauding me for retiring. It was awesome, very special. It took my heart.”
Dr. Farrell said Panuska enjoyed working with students.
“He communicated with the kids, giving them a voice,” Dr. Farrell said. “He met with them in groups with Ed Sarluca (Brick Memorial’s athletics director). Pete and Ed played large roles in the formation of the Brick United ice hockey team, which now plays its home games at the Ocean Ice Palace (in Brick after a lengthy absence from the facility). Pete genuinely cared about what kids thought.”
“Dr. Farrell is a wonderful person who fits very well in our district,” Panuska said. “He’s a fun person to be around. He loves his sports.”
Panuska often dealt with budget issues.
“Funding is difficult in public schools,” he said. “Little by little, we did our best. We upgraded our weight lifting room. We hung banners in our east gymnasium to recognize our past championship teams. I was a hands-on a.d. I Iiked setting up things and helping our buildings and grounds and custodial staffs. ”
The Green Dragons field 28 sports. The action resulted in never an idle moment for Panuska and Reddan.
“She was actually the athletics director,” Panuska said with a laugh. “She did more work than any secretary I know. She kept the office running and things flowing. We had a great professional relationship. She’s an outgoing woman who works hard and will do anything for anyone. We had a good time. We always talked about athletics and our families. Memories of her will always stay with me.”
Panuska also taught special education at the Veterans Memorial Middle School. He served as an assistant principal at Brick Memorial High School and at Brick Township High School. He ran the Behavioral House Program at Brick Memorial. He also coached Brick in cross country and track and field.
“Brick Memorial’s teachers were incredible,” Panuska said. “We taught the children how to take care of money, how to write a check. We made sure they were ready for the real world after they graduated. The children had special needs. To be successful with them, you have to make them feel good about themselves.”
Panuska said he has seen a major change in high school sports.
“The numbers of children who are playing are declining,” he said. “It’s the way life is going. There are Esports. Kids in the past did not have as much to do. There are concussions and parents are scared. Kids are bigger, stronger and faster. It’s not just Brick. It’s everywhere. A lot of schools take their kids as freshmen and put them on junior varsity teams. Our goal always was to get the kids to play and enjoy the programs. If they enjoy a program, they will come back.
“Playing a sport develops character. You learn to work with each other. You see how people react in good and bad situations. Playing sports made me more humble and very respectful of my teachers. I respect everyone I deal with and I try to teach respect to others.”
A veteran track and field referee and a former Jersey Shore BlueClaws security specialist, Panuska said he has no plans to be a stranger at Brick athletics events.
“I will be around,” he said. “I am still a Brick Township High School guy. No doubt.”
The 1982 graduate turned Keller Memorial Field at the Warren H. Wolf Athletics Complex (named for the legendary coach who retired as the state’s career wins leader in high school football) into a greyhound track in 1981 when the Green Dragons were 11-0 and won the Shore Conference Class A South and NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV titles. The Green Dragons were ranked the top team in the state from start to finish by The Star-Ledger.
Panuska, who starred at running back, also played defensive back and handled the kickoff, punting, extra points and field goal duties. His retired No. 21 jersey is displayed in the Green Dragons’ awards case. He’s a member of the Brick High School Wall of Fame and the Jersey Shore Sports Hall of Fame.
“Coach Wolf had an influence on everyone he met,” said Panuska, who coached the defensive backs under Wolf. “We all respected him as he was everything to Brick. To play for him was special. He was an awesome motivator. He had an awesome set of assistant coaches.”
Panuska’s 4.5 speed in the 40-yard dash earned him the nickname Pete the Jet, the Golden Flash and the Golden Bullet. As a junior, Panuska blazed to Shore Conference championships in the 100 and 200-meter dashes during the spring track and field season. There also was a second-place finish in the long jump during the spring of his junior year.
Panuska flashed his speed for Tennessee, jetting 100 yards with a kickoff return for a touchdown in the Sun Bowl in 1984 in a loss to the University of Maryland. It was just the second 100-yard kickoff return in school history. There have been six 100-yard kickoff returns in school history, which all share the Volunteers’ record.
“It was a deep kick in the middle of the field and my teammates set up a nice wall,” said Panuska, whose team won the Sugar Bowl during his junior season and was ranked fourth in the nation by the Associated Press. “It was a return left and I was not touched until the very end of the run when someone kicked my feet. A Mack truck could have run through that lane. I took advantage of my speed. It was a straight out 100-yard run with a little turn. Everyone held their block.”
Panuska, who competed in five bowl games and was redshirted during his freshman season, earned a degree in hotel and restaurant management and worked at a Hyatt Regency in Tennessee. Seeking to make a positive difference in the lives of children, Panuska received a special education teacher certification from Georgian Court College (now Georgian Court University) and a masters degree in administration and supervision from New Jersey City University.
“Pete’s strengths are his candor and work ethic,” Dr. Farrell said. “He was always here and always working. He is missed so much. He’s the face of the Brick school system and not just old Brick (Brick Township High School). He’s such a humble guy, very quiet, unassuming and hard working. He represents so many positive things about the Brick Township School District.”
Panuska’s mom, Nancy, enrolled him in soccer when he was a small child. He played on a traveling team that journeyed to Long Island, N.Y., North Carolina and Canada. He also played in the Brick Township chapter of the Jersey Shore Pop Warner Football League.
“I had to make a difficult decision between playing soccer and football,” he said. “I liked the physicality of football. I played soccer with some great guys who played for Brick Township and Brick Memorial.”
Panuska opted to leave soccer and focus on football as a freshman.
“I am humble,” Panuska said. “In one word, I can say I am humble. I do all that I do at 110 percent. I had some stressful days, but I never had bad days except for when my parents (Nancy and Ed Jr.) died. I was never cocky and I never will be. People thought of me as a great athlete. It’s heartwarming to see that maybe I did make a difference.
“My careers in athletics and education were gratifying and successful. I am proud of them. I have no gripes about any of it. I am blessed for what God gave me ever since I was born. I have been blessed. Mom named me for St. Peter.”
Panuska and his wife, Lori, are the parents of two children, Toms River High School North and the University of Delaware graduate, Kylee, 22, who works at the Garden State Veterinary Hospital, and Ryan, a Brick Township High School senior who competed in football and now plays golf for the Green Dragons.
Dr. Farrell said former Toms River Regional School District athlete, teacher, coach, athletics administrator and Shore Conference president Joe Arminio has taken over as Panuska’s “substitute” replacement.
“We want to have a new administrator installed by July 1,” Dr. Farrell said. “We are in the interview process right now. We prefer to hire someone who is familiar with Brick’s tradition and its number of sports. This is a Group IV high school. When you post a position for a job like this, you like to hire someone who has experience. This is a great job. People will love it because of Brick’s pride and tradition. I’ve got to believe we have a plethora of great candidates.”