Dancin' Phil: Freestyle as Lifestyle
--Following A Near-Fatal Injury, Nets Fan Phil Tozzi Decided He Was Going Live Life Doing His Thing... Dancing.--
April 1, 2009
by Ben Couch - NJNETS.COM
East Rutherford, N.J. — When he broke onto the local sports scene six years ago, no one knew what to make of Phil Tozzi. A 50-something dance fiend with the boundless energy of a child, scoreboard operators knew only this: crowds loved him.
No name, no background, no nothing, save for a colorful shirt collection and a vast array of genre-defying freestyle movements. After appearing on the scoreboard at several New York Yankee games, the operators espied Tozzi at a bowling alley by the old Yankee Stadium.
“Holy cow – it’s ‘Disco Stu!’” they cried out, referencing the minor Simpsons character known for his love of public dancing. The nickname stuck, and Tozzi – known by that moniker or “Dancing Phil,” – became a go-to hypeman for the Yankee Stadium and IZOD Center crowds; the New Jersey lifer (Somerville via Plainfield) has been a Nets season-ticket holder since 1999.
“People always ask, ‘Where did you learn that move?’ and ask where I went to dance school,” Tozzi recounts. “I say, ‘I’m just making this stuff up!’ And people go, ‘Well, we have to go to dance school with you!’”
The 58-year-old health food broker (Philip F. Tozzi & Associates) claims to be enjoying himself “more than anyone (his) age has a right to.” And it’s because of a life-altering accident while playing baseball several years ago:
With a man on third, an opposing batter hit a shallow popup. As the second baseman ranged toward the rightfield foul line to make the catch, Tozzi readied himself for an underhand flip. But the runner broke for home plate, and the fielder fired a bullet down the line – directly into Tozzi’s head.
The force of the throw fractured Tozzi’s skull on the far side, from the inside-out. The near-fatal injury plagued him with dizziness for nearly three years. But after identifying the source of the post-injury trauma, a corrective procedure relieved his symptoms, and Tozzi entered 2003 with renewed vigor. He committed himself to dancing every day, even when he’s not 100 percent up for it.
“The local people will exhort me, and I’m professional enough that I can get up and do it on command,” Tozzi says. “But I always say to everybody that they want to see me when I just can’t help it. Anytime I’m in that frame of mind, like, ‘Sorry! Here I go!’ It might be in the supermarket; you might see a car door open on Route 78 and some shaking in the bushes somewhere. When I can’t help it, whenever and wherever that is, that’s when you want to see me.”
Wherever that might be, Tozzi’s likely hard to miss. He rotates through a 250-shirt collection of spectacularly vivid garments, like a shiny fan-favorite featuring blue flames on the back. He admits he’s a diva about his outerwear, selecting from a rack of options for each game and sometimes ducking into the arena corridors for a costume change at the half.
“They generally are colorful, unique and convey a sense of energy,” Tozzi explains. “Just something that’s celebratory, that I’ll know -- when I’m dancing -- will look groovy. If it’s a regular shirt, I don’t want it.”
After 20 years as a fan and 10 as a season-ticket holder, Tozzi has seen a lot of Nets basketball. He came late to basketball, becoming a Nets fan in 1989, when Bill Fitch’s squad finished 17-65. But he stayed on board through the leaner years, and when Jason Kidd twice led the team to the NBA Finals, Tozzi felt as if he were dreaming.
That’s a description you could apply to Tozzi’s entire second chance. Appreciating life in a way he could only come to after nearly losing it, Tozzi is out to enjoy every step, one dance move at a time.
“I never know when I’m on TV,” he says. “I just do my thing, and they show it when they want to show it.”