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Remembering a South Brunswick Icon

Laszlo Nyitrai, who founded the South Brunswick High School wrestling and soccer teams in the 1960's, died last week at the age of 82.

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."

Oscar Bailey July 13, 2012 at 03:23 PM
Great story guys. Both my older brother and I played soccer for " affectionately Lads" from 1965-1973 . Had him as a PE teacher and like many saw his work as a hall monitor. Like yourselves his influences reside in me til this . I graduated from a then. Trent State College as a you guessed it a PE teacher with a minor in biology. May God bless his family at this time,and may God bless his extended family as well. Gone but not forgotten
Oscar Bailey July 13, 2012 at 03:32 PM
Sorry about the type O, s no editing was allowed.
John Saccenti (Editor) July 13, 2012 at 03:50 PM
I never had him as a coach, but he was a legend at the school.
Jeff Powers July 13, 2012 at 08:31 PM
Although I only wrestled my Freshmen and Junior years and wrestled just 2 Varsity bouts, just being around Coach Nyitrai everyday was an experience that would last a lifetime...the inspiring intensity with which he taught gave you confidence that you could apply in any arena. Just ask any of his former students. All of them have a Nyitrai story and most could do a pretty fair imitation of some of his analogies. On any given Friday afternoon wrestling practices we were instructed to, "Take your Grandmother to the movies this weekend you silly monkeys!" Why is it that we remember our coach so vividly? Because we knew deep down he cared about us. Rest In Peace Coach...
Marlene Huschke July 13, 2012 at 09:02 PM
I taught with Laz for over 20 years. He was indeed a force to be reckoned with! His teams respected him and so did his students. As far as his fellow PE teachers, we all admired what he overcame to become the teacher, coach and person he was. I knew his wife Nancy and his children Amy and "little Laz" and I know how much he loved them and they him. I still think about him today and remember his many words of wisdom. Rest in Peace Laz and all my sincere condolences to Nancy and the "kids".
Dave Wiedis July 13, 2012 at 09:47 PM
He was a great teacher and great man. I had him for gym class most of my high school years and always admired him. You did not want him to get mad at you!!
Jerry Avins July 14, 2012 at 11:05 PM
His team loved him, and James Kimple, the School Superintendent during much of his tenure and who died a few days after Nyitrai, always spoke warmly about him. Both will be missed.
Ed Adamko July 15, 2012 at 03:56 AM
I played for coach Naz in 1977 when we won the Districts and again my Sr year 1978 and loved both years the Deciation he put in to help us be the best will always be remembered. Ed Adamko Class of 1978
Steve Hollander July 16, 2012 at 03:16 PM
It has been said that "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." I must have heard hundreds of Nyitrai imitations over the years, all of them from current and former students who both loved and respected him, including myself. He will be missed by many of us.
Eric Hood July 16, 2012 at 04:20 PM
He was a great teacher and man. May he rest in peace. In his native Hungarian; Nyugodjon békében.
Jim Bemiss July 20, 2012 at 03:30 AM
Mr. Nyitri will be remembered by all who ever crossed paths with him. His dedication and leadership were unquestionable as was his loyalty to the new country he called his home. We have lost two ikons this week-Lazlo Nyitri and Jim Kimple and the world is the worse off because of it.
Jim Zinsmeister July 20, 2012 at 07:34 PM
"Whatever you can do, or believe that you can, begin it. Boldness has power and genius and magic in it." -- Goethe. This quotation encapsulates as well as any both the philosophy and the life of one of South Brunswick High School's greatest educators. Mr. Nyitrai--"Coach"--will not soon be forgotten!
Jim Conover July 21, 2012 at 08:43 PM
Coach Nyitrai left me with this advice 40 years ago ( It is out there so go and get it!!) Advice I myself have given to my children several times. To say he was a inspiration is a understatement. He coached many of us on how to win and if we didn't he showed us how to learn from it.
Daniel Buckingham July 29, 2012 at 08:29 PM
Wow! Coach Nyitrai was a force and a class act! In the fall of 1974 the Varsity Soccer Team finally beat our rival Jamesburg for the first time, 3-2. We were so excited and nervous to consider tossing Nyitrai in the shower to celebrate, we thought he would tear us all apart...finally we said Let's do this for Coach! We all surrounded him, he resisted like a block of Granite, we kept up and finally got him off the ground, carried him in the shower room all showers blasting and baptized him in his deserved glory! We were all screaming Laszlo-Laszlo-Laszlo! All the other students and faculty were frozen with shock, never imagining they would see Nyitrai in a state of chaos. He finally smiled and you could see he was so happy for us and himself for finally breaking down Jamesburg. He taught us all life lessons, always put the cold war in personal perspective, he had a huge caring Soul! Big Love. Daniel Buckingham, SBHS Class of 1975.
Jim Zinsmeister July 29, 2012 at 10:44 PM
Dan, I'm sure you appreciate the inclusion of the photograph of the soccer team from your junior year. In it can be seen the nucleus of the excellent 1974 team you alluded to. Although S.B.H.S. has had a number of championship teams since 1974, no team, including the teams that won the C.J. Group IV Tournament and the Greater Middlesex Conference Tournament, achieved as high a ranking in N.J.S.I.A.A. / Star Ledger Final Poll as the 1974. Go Vikings!
Ken Pagach EHS Wrestling coach July 30, 2012 at 12:18 AM
The consummate, unflappable, and professional Gentleman Coach. Laszlo always presented an image of total respect for all coaches, wrestlers, and the sport itself. He was unique! A true Icon for Middlesex County Wrestling! Ken Pagach, Edison High School Wrestling Coach 1964-94
Jim Zinsmeister August 07, 2012 at 06:22 PM
I just wanted to let everyone know that the memorial service/life celebration event for Coach Nyitrai will be held @ South Brunswick High School @ Ridge Road and Stouts Lane on Saturday, September 8th @ 11 am. Rev. John Maltby will preside and a reception will follow in the Blue Cafeteria.
brian frank September 04, 2012 at 03:25 PM
i was always referred to as "crazy irrational wise guy who went ahh rah rah and sh-t on the gym floor" because i gained 20 lbs while trying to lose 5lbs to go down 1 weight class because jim dowgan whipped my butt at 135 lbs, and i loved the man. mr nyitrai was a lasting influence and a great human brian frank class of '76
Zoltan Bill Vitanyi September 05, 2012 at 03:22 PM
I knew Laszlo when he first came to the U.S. and did not speak one word of English. He worked for my dad in landscaping in North Jersey and ate at our house after work. We talked about Hungary, politics, 1956 and his dreams - to be a physical education teacher in America. He did not know how to get started or how to get his "foot in the door" of academia and these obstacles preoccupied him. He had a lot to learn, English, accreditation and how to behave in a free society. He was a great wrestler and I even refereed a bout at a Hungarian picnic in 1958. At that time I was a student at Ohio State University and played ice hockey and being a young sportman I was greatly impressed with Laszlo's knowledge and philosophy. Naturally there were days when homesickness and depression overcame him for friends and family were in Hungary and he was not yet working in his chosen profession. Years later Laszlo's mother, in Hungary, wrote my parents thanking us for our support during Laci's difficult early years adapting to a foreign environment. We had limited contact with Laszlo after we returned to Canada but he and Nancy, newly wed, did visit us once in Montreal and Laci updated us on his achievments. Communist Hungary's loss for this well schooled, hard working educator, was a tremendous victory for the U.S. and Laszlo most certainly deserved his great life in America. Nyugodjal bekeben. May you rest in peace. Zoltan Bill Vitanyi, Orleans, Ontario, Canada

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