Joe Cocozzo and his wife Amanda run a successful physical therapy business, recently moving it from Mechanicville to Malta, a town with visions of commercial explosion.
No matter what, the Cocozzo family should prosper, since their business has a built-in customer base — Joe.
The trophy case outside the Mechanicville High School gym has plenty of evidence that a rich football tradition exists here, but not really any to show that Cocozzo was one of the biggest parts of it.
That’s what happens when you play on the offensive line, but his contribution finally was enshrined on Friday night, when the school unveiled his framed No. 77 jersey to be displayed permanently in the lobby.
Beaming, Cocozzo briefly thanked a packed gymnasium, there for another edition of the ferocious Mechanicville-Stillwater rivalry. What they couldn’t see under his baggy black sweater and jeans was evidence of the pounding from five NFL seasons as what his former line coach, George DeLeone, admiringly called “a cement mixer.”
The 6-foot-4 Cocozzo’s utilitarian style wasn’t pretty, but he parlayed it into an All-America career at Michigan and through five seasons with the San Diego Chargers, going to the Super Bowl in 1995 in Miami, only to lose to the 49ers, 49-26.
As rich as the rewards have been, they came with a price. He’s had a partial shoulder replacement, which will eventually need to be totally replaced, as well as both hips and an elbow. But Cocozzo said he wouldn’t trade his football experience, tracing all the way back to a Section II Super Bowl win when he was a freshman at Mechanicville, for anything.
“My joints . . . I’m doing alright now, but down the road, I’m going to need them switched out for better parts,” he said with a laugh before the ceremony.
“If you play long enough, you’re going to have those aches and pains and the wear and tear on your body. But I don’t know any of my friends or anyone who would turn around and give it up.”
Standing in the lobby while the Mechanicville and Stillwater JV basketball teams played, Cocozzo occasionally signed autographs for some kids “for the first time in about a decade,” he said.
Even his jersey number history speaks to the anonymity of an offensive lineman.
He never got a chance to keep 77 at Michigan because a player a year ahead of him already had it, “so that was it,” he said.
“They said, Well, you’re going to be a guard, you get 68.’ There was no choice, there was no, ‘You’re pretty good, you can pick . . . ’ No. It was ‘This is your number. Good luck.’ ”
Cocozzo started 32 games and played in four Rose Bowls and one Gator Bowl for the Wolverines.
The Chargers drafted him in the third round, and although Cocozzo was never known for his fancy footwork, he was resourceful enough to carve out a 77-game NFL career that included 48 starts.
“Unfortunately, I wasn’t a better athlete where I could step around and do all the great stuff,” he said. “I just had to tough it out, and that’s usually what costs your joints the most. The best athletes last the longest because they don’t get in bad positions and then have to win.”
Cocozzo tried to hang around the best he could, but the pounding eventually caught up with him.
He was cut by the Redskins in training camp in 1998 and also tried to latch on with the Saints in 1999 after a year of rehab, but he broke his ribs on the first day of training camp when a running back ran into him.
Still, he had the Super Bowl appearance, although, as he did in high school, he perhaps didn’t appreciate it for what it was until later.
“I thought, ‘This was how you were supposed to play and what you were supposed to do every year,’ ” he said of his freshman season at Mechanicville.
“I thought we’d be going back and getting another chance to win. Most people find out that chance doesn’t come again. About two years after that, you realize that the chances are slim that that’s going to come around again.”
Joe and Amanda Cocozzo have two boys, Anthony, 7, and James, 4.
He said they’ll let them play whichever sports they want to play, but he’d love for them to play football once they get to the high school level.
That could get tricky, since the Cocozzos have moved to Stillwater, “which is a little awkward,” Joe said. “This is the last game I want to go to, where Mechanicville’s playing Stillwater. That was the team we didn’t like very much.”
Enjoying the warm embrace of his hometown, where he’s still “just Joe from Mechanicville” and not some flashy former star constantly reliving past glories, Cocozzo said, “Well, hopefully it’ll be quick and painless” as he turned to walk toward the gym doors.
He let everyone do most of the talking, while he smiled with his hands in his pockets and waited for his turn.
For once, it was quick and painless.