Any good teacher strives to leave a lasting influence on their students before they leave the classroom.
For legendary South Brunswick High School teacher and coach Laszlo Nyitrai, who died of cancer on July 6 at the age of 82, the lessons he taught his former students continue to have a profound influence on their lives many years after they saw him last.
"It's really hard to summarize what an extraordinary person he was. Laszlo was a multi-faceted person, intellectually brilliant, very creative and he projected intensity, integrity and so many other values you associate with an iconic leader," said James Zinsmeister, a former soccer player and wrestler for Nyitrai, who is also the school's sports historian and a co-founder of the SBHS Sports Hall of Fame. "There are literally hundreds of people of a certain age who consider Laszlo to be one of their greatest influences. We're talking about 35 years or so with hundreds of boys who would say Mr. Nyitrai. It's extraordinary to have so many people focus on one individual as their primary influence, and that says it all."
Before he left his mark in South Brunswick, Nyitrai's life was nothing short of extraordinary.
In the early 1950's, Nyitrai captained the soccer team at the University of Budapest in his native Hungary. He would go on to wrestle for Hungary in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland. Following the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, Nyitrai fled to the United States to escape the Iron Curtain of communism.
"One of the reasons he had so much credibility with us was the difficult life he led," Zinsmeister said. "He fought in the Hungarian uprising, which had such an impact on us as teens to hear someone fought in a revolution, even though we had a vague understanding of communism and its threat to the world. He came here this heavily accented person who rigorously rejected communism, who put his own life in jeopardy to fight it and lost members of his family to it. He fled to the U.S. speaking very little English and he remade himself."
In 1956, Nyitrai started his career as a physical education teacher in Trenton before moving to the district he would call home for the next three decades.
Nyitrai began working as a physical education teacher at South Brunswick High School in 1962. He founded the SBHS wrestling team in 1963 and the soccer team in 1965. He was also a member of the inaugural class of the SBHS Sports Hall of Fame (1999) and is a member of N.J.S.I.A.A. Coaches' Hall of Fame.
In soccer, Nyitrai would amass a career record of 200-104-27, winning Division Championships in 1977, 1979, 1980, 1982, and 1983. In wrestling, he had a career record of 153-53-3, with Delaware Valley League Championships in 1974 and 1975 and Bicentennial Athletic Conference Division Championships in 1980 and 1981.
“Mr. Nyitrai was my wrestling coach for four years at SBHS (1975-79)," said former student Dana M. Breen, who currently works as a Training Specialist, Instructor and Curriculum Developer for the Federal Air Marshal Service. "I was all of about 70 lbs. back in '75 when I had several opportunities to wrestle with the varsity team at the 101 lbs. level. I earned a varsity letter that year. Much of that accomplishment was due to the mentorship and example of Mr. Nyitrai. I remained on that varsity team until I graduated, in many ways because of the excellence of Mr. Nyitrai."
Breen said he still relies on some of Nyitrai's quotes to teach students today. Breen listed some of his favorite (heavily accented) Nyitrai quotes as:
- "All you need is a piece of cheese...the size of your fist...sit in your stomach like brick," (In reference to how to eat to make weight during wrestling season).
- "You don't need all those crazy machines...all you need do is two sets, 30 chin-ups...you be strong as an ox," (On how to become and stay physically strong).
- "This is what you have to do...you practice, you shoot that takedown so many times until when your mother comes to wake you up in the morning, then you shoot that crazy takedown before you wake up," (How to be successful at anything - keep doing it and keep trying).
"As a U.S. Army Officer I have spent many years, in several positions, training some of America's finest in my career as a Blackhawk pilot to currently working in Information Operations," Breen said. "There is one man whose quotes I still use to this day over 30 years later, because his message was always very simple, very clear, very accurate and very, very effective. To this very day, I still do pull-ups to his standard because I was convinced he knew what he was talking about and I still see the positive results of all of his wisdom and philosophy today, as I hope to for the future."
Up to his retirement from SBHS in the early 1990's, Zinsmeister said Nyitrai's coaching style served to empower his players and pushed them to take responsibility for their own lives. Nyitrai would push his players to take ownership of their team, going so far as to let his soccer captains choose who played and to justify to their coach what formation they would use and why they thought it would be successful.
"He said this is your team, take ownership of it," Zinsmeister said. "He told us you will make decisions and you will live by them. You will have fun and you will always know this is your team."
Zinsmeister said that lesson stayed with him long after leaving SBHS.
"I've been in some leadership positions and I've always tried to enfranchise people," he said. "Laszlo was a perfectionist. There was some trickle down to his students. He projected authority while giving us a sense of how to lead."
In addition to his devotion to his wife Nancy and their children, Zinsmeister said Nyitrai also had a passion for painting. Nyitrai's artwork of wrestlers is still used on the District 20 wrestling tournament weight class chart to this day.
"He was somebody who lived very modestly and drove to school every morning in a Volkswagen Beetle, when we would've thought he traveled in a tank," Zinsmeister said. "He would always try to put things in the broader context for us, like reading the Wall Street Journal and talking about stocks, dollars and cents, and how it had real significance in the political world. He talked to us in lofty terms of geopolitical happenings and consequences. Even though we were young men, he talked to us as though we were grown men."
Zinsmeister said a large memorial service for family and former students of Nyitrai is tentatively planned for Sept 8. But for those who were inspired under Nyitrai's leadership and tutelage, his memory continues to live in them during the course of their daily lives.
"I bet every young man who played for Laszlo would have dozens of stories about him," Zinsmeister said. "He was an iconic leader and he put some serious demands on us that we tried hard to live up to. He was a father figure to us and like good sons we tried to exceed all of his expectations."