What does an 8 year old boy do when he is fascinated by the movie “Trapeze” that starred Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, he becomes a state champion gymnast! That is exactly what happened to John Cerf and why he began his path to becoming one of the most accomplished gymnasts of his day and eventually a member of a national champion college team. John tells the story of how after watching the movie “Trapeze “he immediately went out on his front lawn and taught himself a front flip. John willingly tells of his early childhood days, running with a group of boys whom he describes as mostly “ending up in jail” after which, he moved to Ridgewood with his Dad at age 12.
Not knowing if his son was going to get back on track or not, their worries were curtailed when John met Ridgewood Hall of Fame Gymnastics Coach Tony Napier. John recalls seeing Tony doing a handstand on top of some playground equipment, was impressed by him, and recognized him when he showed up to run an after school gymnastics program at Ben Franklin Jr. High School.
Along with Coach Napier, John was influenced by his neighbor and son. The father was Dominic Nizza and his son, John, was very interested in gymnastics, especially the Pommel Horse.
They had made a make shift horse from cinder blocks covered with plywood and carpet using old gas pipe fittings for the handles. Dominic would dump grass clipping around the bottom to use as a mat.
There weren’t too many gymnastics facilities at the time, but John Nizza made a pair of rings to hang from a tree in his back yard and a former Springfield College Gymnast gave the boys a 1932 pommel horse that John said would “tear his hands apart like a cheese grater!” Later the boys would sneak into a gymnastics school to practice on Sundays and also received coaching from RHS graduates Don Bauer and John Thorton at the Ridgewood YMCA. The Pierce family and Randy Pendergast (now owner of Paragon Gymnastics School) are also given credit by John for contributing to his gymnastic development.
Tony Napier was hired to be the coach of the newly formed gymnastics team at Ridgewood High School and practice on the make shift equipment, as well as after school programs, must have moved John to develop a degree of capability. In 1972, Coach Napier invited John to join the Ridgewood High School Boys gymnastics team as he was entering the ninth grade.
This was a golden age for high school gymnastics in New Jersey. RHS supported two full teams for the boys and the girls, both coached by Tony Napier and both formidable powerhouses in the sport on a state level.
In 1974 John Cerf was the state champion on the Pommel Horse and was named The Record’s Athlete for the Week for that accomplishment. In 1973 and again in 1974, John was the All Around Boys Gymnastics Champion in Bergen County.
In 1974 John took a third in the All Around at the New Jersey State Gymnastics Championships and led his team to the Bergen County Championship.
Although competing with an injured knee for most of his senior season, John put on a great performance at the New Jersey State Championships at Trenton State that November taking a second in the state All Around competition, missing a first by a slim 1.05 points.
Unfortunately just two years after John completed his great run as a gymnastics athlete at RHS, the program was dropped and shortly after, the sport was dropped by the state of New Jersey (NJSIAA) as a sport recognized for state championship recognition for boys. Today the girls gymnastics program still exists at RHS, but only a handful of schools continue to support the sport at the interscholastic level.
John went on to Springfield College and competed on the gymnastics team his freshman year and was a member of the 1977 Division II National Championship team at Springfield specializing on the pommel horse. Unfortunately an injury knocked John out of his sophomore season at Springfield and at the end of that year he decided to take a break from the rigors of college life to become a New Jersey State Trooper!
John decided to move on from the world of law enforcement and returned to school at the New York Chiropractic College 1982 through 1985, becoming a Doctor of Chiropractic Medicine. In 1999 Dr. Cerf completed his Bachelors of Science degree from Regents College in the SUNY system located in Albany, New York.
Today John practices chiropractic medicine in Jersey City and also works as a consultant and lecturer for the insurance industry.
He also coaches gymnastics at various schools and was able to coach his three children in the sport. His son was a state champion and made it all the way to level ten, before retiring because of his size. Today he is attending college on a baseball scholarship. One of his daughters coached college gymnastics.
With an incredible story of perseverance and determination, Dr.John Cerf sets an example of self determination through hard work in and out of the athletic arena. We are proud to welcome him to join his RHS coach Tony Napier, as a member of the Ridgewood High School Athletic Hall of Fame.