Middletown coach Dick Kleva, who led unbeaten football, wrestling teams, has died

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Dick Kleva, who coached the 1969 Middletown High School football team that beat Toms River South in a battle of unbeatens still referred to at the Jersey Shore as “The Game,” died on March 30. He was 89.

Kleva, considered the “father of Middletown wrestling,” having founded the program at what is now Middletown North in 1963, coached unbeaten wrestling and football teams during the 1969-70 school year, before going on to coach and teach at Brookdale Community College when it opened in 1970.

There will be a visitation on Wednesday, April 5 at Evergreen Memorial Funeral Home in Middletown from 4-8 p.m.

A star athlete at Atlantic Highlands High School, which closed in 1962, replaced by Henry Hudson Regional, Kleva was a two-way standout in football, while helping the Atlantic Highlands basketball team reach a Shore Conference Tournament final as a senior in 1952.

Kleva remained close with many former players over the years, including Jim Guerrieri, who was a state runner-up in wrestling in 1968, before wrestling for Kleva at Brookdale.

“He ripped me off the back of a paver where I was raking asphalt and he said 'I’m starting a team at Brookdale and you’re the captain,' ” Guerrieri said. “He had me go to school at night, weekends. I was married and my wife was pregnant when I was at Brookdale. My son was born in 1974 when I graduated.

Former Middletown High School football and wrestling coach Dick Kleva (left) with Jim Guerrieri, who wrestled for him, in a 2018 photo.
Former Middletown High School football and wrestling coach Dick Kleva (left) with Jim Guerrieri, who wrestled for him, in a 2018 photo.

“He was like a second father to me. I went to Montclair State and became a wrestling coach and phys. ed teacher like him. And he had been a captain in the Marines, and I eventually enlisted and did 25 years active duty.”

A graduate of New York University, Kleva spent four seasons as an assistant football coach at Red Bank Catholic, and helped get the Caseys’ wrestling program started, before shifting to Middletown in 1963.

After going 2-6-2 in his first season on the football field, Kleva’s second team produced the Lions’ first unbeaten season since 1957, beating Freehold, 45-0, on Thanksgiving in front of 6,000 fans. In his seven seasons on the sideline, Middletown went 38-19-4.

Kleva’s enduring legacy on the field is as the leader of the unbeaten 1969 team, considered New Jersey’s best that season. On Nov. 15, 1969, the Lions traveled to face top-ranked Toms River, riding a 19-game winning streak after going unbeaten in 1968, and emerged with a 14-8 victory en route to an unbeaten season.

Former Middletown football and wrestling coach Dick Kleva at his 1991 induction into the Lion Hall of Fame.
Former Middletown football and wrestling coach Dick Kleva at his 1991 induction into the Lion Hall of Fame.

“He was an ex-Marine and his practices were strenuous, but he also found ways to make them fun,” said Ray Veth, the center on the 1969 team. “He was just a very good coach, who was always trying to take the next step with a team.”

His wrestling teams went unbeaten against Class A competition over his final five season. And after the unbeaten football season during the 1969-70 school year, his final wrestling team was 13-0 overall.

This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Middletown NJ coach, who led unbeaten football, wrestling teams, dies