The sports that shaped the lives of 3 Newark athletes

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on July 29, 2016

Rick Cerone, a former Major League Baseball catcher; Li’za Donnell Woodard, a former WNBA player for the Washington Mystics; and Larry Hazzard who is the commissioner for the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board. They participated in a forum at the Newark Public Library titled “Newark Lifetimes: Recollections and Reflections.”

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Rick Cerone. Larry Hazzard. Li'za Donnell Woodard.

The backdrop that binds lives of these three sports figures happens to be the same city in which they were raised.

Newark.

They spent an evening at the Newark Public Library on Wednesday and offered fascinating stories that allowed a peek at the experiences that fostered their sports success.

Please stand for Rick Cerone, a Major League Baseball catcher, who had 60 offers to play football in college, but none for the sport in which he made his career over 18 years.

Cerone was a football guy at Essex Catholic High School in Newark, but trained his sights on baseball (which he also played in high school) after a football recruiting trip to The Ohio State University changed his mind.

"I saw guys that were monsters,'' Cerone said.

Now, put your hands together for Larry Hazzard. Long before he became the commissioner of the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board, Hazzard was a three-time Golden Gloves champ and a top notch boxing referee, who broke into the professional ranks after a state boxing commissioner saw him officiate 22 amateur bouts in one night.

Like Cerone, Hazzard made a good choice.  Had he continued as a fighter, Hazzard would have faced rugged middleweight fighters such as Emile Griffith and Rubin "Hurricane" Carter.

"Being a reasonable thinking person, I felt like, let me take the other route and I can still stay close to the game.''

Keep the ovation coming, but let it flow for Li'za Donnell Woodard. She was a member of the 1982-1983 Malcolm X Shabazz High School girls' basketball team, which went undefeated that year and ended with a 30-0 record.

"We were not to be played with,'' Donnell Woodard said.

At 14, Donnell Woodard was dominant in summer basketball leagues, doing well against college-level players during games in New Jersey and New York. Some of the tournaments, however, were not sanctioned and, because of her age, Donnell said her participation could have cost her a college scholarship. To avoid detection, Donnell said she  played under an alias.

"To this day, day I promise you. If I'm over in New York, somebody is going to say, 'Jean Brown.' ''

Donnell went on to be a standout at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and later played for the Washington Mystics, of the WNBA.

All three are members of the Newark Athletic Hall of Fame, and during the 90-minute conversation, they were nostalgic and shared colorful anecdotes about how this city shaped them with values, hard work and discipline.

It all went down as part of a continuing series titled "Newark Life Times: Recollections & Reflections,''organized by former Star-Ledger reporter Guy Sterling.

Donnell Woodard, who grew up in the Central and South ward, said she started learning the game when she was  6, watching her uncles play basketball at the Morton Street School playground.

When a neighborhood boy asked her to play, "I started doing these moves that I saw my uncles do,'' she said.

She beat that boy and, as she got better, Donnell Woodard said she'd beat others, who eventually wanted her to be on their teams.

Hazzard, a Central High School graduate, got into boxing after neighborhood scraps and officially learned how to fight with The Dukers A.C., a boxing club that started in the basement of a Newark housing development.

He was good, but almost didn't get a chance to compete in a national Golden Glove championship in Chicago. His mother, who was not a boxing fan, told the coaches that he couldn't be there  because the tournament was on Sunday and he couldn't miss church.

"He (the coach) promised her,'' Hazzard said. " 'I'll make sure that he goes to the church.' "

Cerone, who grew up in the North Ward, got his athletic chops from playing football with the Newark Bears Pop Warner football team. He loved football, but nearly missed out on playing at Essex Catholic. He wanted to attend Newark's Barringer High School, so he intentionally tried to fail the admissions exam for the parochial school. That attempt came up short.

He played quarterback at Essex Catholic, and baseball, too. But when football didn't pan out after that recruiting visit, Cerone decided to play baseball at Seton Hall University, where he played in the college world series. He was so good, that in 1975, Cerone was selected in the first round of the MLB Draft and went on play for eight teams, including the New York Yankees. 

After he retired, Cerone came back to Newark and formed the Newark Bears in 1998. It was a labor of love, he says, that didn't work out. The minor league team folded in 2013 and its stadium was sold in March.

Newark, however, will always be home to these sports figures. They talk about the city as if they grew up in the same household. You could leave the front door open and the windows up. Parents looked after children in the neighborhood and scolded them, if necessary.

Downtown Newark was a treat, where everyone went to see the Thanksgiving Day parade or visit S. Klein and Bamberger's department stores. With $3.25, Donnell Woodard remembers how she  could catch two movies and have money left over to eat.

They were the "glory days" for Hazzard, "back in the day''for Donnell Woodard and a "great time" for Cerone to grow up in Newark.

For one night, it all came rushing back.

These athletes – who found success behind home plate, inside the ring and at the foul line – were most comfortable in the city they each had called home.

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