The Good Old Days in Darien / Ed Chrostowski
Football fever holds area fans spellbound
Published 1:04 pm, Thursday, October 7, 2010
Let there be no doubt: Football was king in lower Fairfield County during the 1950s and its reign was supreme from the time of its coronation in the dog days of summer until the chill of winter-time post-mortems.
Royalty was everywhere, enthroned on high school and college gridirons and in the big stadiums were the professional brand was just beginning to catch on and cheering hordes came unfailingly to pay homage.
There was good reason. Darien High School was having a great run of success under legendary coach Johnny Maher, riding roughshod over arch-rival New Canaan annually, the New York Giants had become an adopted "home team" and even Pop Warner football for little kids was coming into its own.
The Blue Wave went undefeated in 1958, a banner year for sports in Darien. During that same year, the town's Little League team won the regional pennant to qualify for the World Series in Williamsport, Pa., and the high school basketball team, with Maher filling in for one season as interim coach, won its only state championship. And it was one of Maher's football stars, Bobby Saverine, who clinched the title in a one-point story-book finish as Yale's Payne-Whitney gym, sinking two foul shots as the final seconds ticked off the clock.
Another pigskin memory from the decade provided more excitement after, rather than during, the game. Having run out of county opponents, Maher booked a game with Harrison, N.Y., and the Blue Wave won handily.
After the game, fans mingled on the field in back of the high school (now the Town Hall on Renshaw Road) and one of the Harrison players called a Darien lineman a name that made an uncouth reference to the local kid's maternal lineage. So the insulted mother slapped his face. Then the riot began. It was kind of a baseball fight with no injuries or arrests, but lots of shoving, mostly by fans. Ed Wadhams, who was a special cop on duty at that game, recalled a couple of years ago that he and a couple of the Harrison fans later became long-standing friends.
It was the era in which the New York Giants won several Eastern Conference championships in the National Football League. That streak included what has been called the greatest football game ever played. With the legendary Johnny Unitas at quarterback, the Baltimore Colts squeezed out an overtime victory before what was then a record NFL crowd.
But the Colts beating the Giants for the title was not the most significant thing about the game. It was one of the earliest games on network television and the excitement it created is still credited with popularizing pro football, raising it from $15,000 a year players and 20,000 attendance to the colossus it is now. And it happened in 1958, the same year in which Darien was basking in its own sports glories.
It wasn't just the Giants' success on the field that led Darien fans to take a proprietary interest in the team. Preseason training was at Fairfield University and home games were at conveniently accessible Yankee Stadium. The Yale Bowl in New Haven was home turf for the Giants during one season when the Stadium was getting a face-lift.
Possibly influenced by their Hall of Fame end, Andy Robustelli of Stamford, several of the Giants took up residence during the season and often longer. It became routine to see Dick Modzelewski, Jim Katcavage, Joe Walton, Dick Lynch and some of the other players regularly at Phil Baker's pizza place in Norwalk or at the Piedmont Club in Noroton Heights.
Nor was it uncommon to see Giants stars discussing the finer points of the game at the Piedmont Club with the likes of "Hap" Holahan, Darien High's baseball coach, Lenny Frate, an assistant principal at a Stamford middle school, and Bill Richards, a Darien cop, who worked as game officials in area schoolboy football games. Joining them frequently was Jack Lockery, an assistant coach at Stamford High, and some of Piedmont's resident experts like Ben Bruno and Hotch Tuccinardi.
So, the Giants were Darien's team. Selectman Harry Cooke had a season box and each Sunday took three guests along for the game. Tailgating had not yet come into the full spread it enjoys now and Cooke would host a pre-game lunch at the Concourse Plaza Hotel, a short walk from Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. And Sunday morning trains from Darien were always full of Bronx-bound fans with Willard Delavan, local dentist, showing up first to get the best seat.
Games drew up to 60,000 regularly, but to boost attendance the NFL imposed a television blackout within a 50-mile radius. But interest was intense and area fans found a way to see the games. On a Sunday morning, it was not unusual to see men on the roofs of their houses swinging their TV antennas around toward Hartford to pick up a signal from there. There was a lot of "snow" on those small black and white screens, but, hey, you got to see (barely) the game.
Motels in the Milford area recognized an entrepreneurial opportunity. The TV signal from Yankee Stadium was picked up clearly at that distance and area fans would drive there and rent rooms for the day. To enhance the atmosphere, some motels served tailgate-style buffets lunches and a couple of them even hired marching bands to perform in the parking lots during the half-time break.
Recent comments in this space about Johnny Maher have stirred the memories of more of his former players.
An e-mail from Art Lupinacci recalls an "outstanding coach" and says "those of us who had the opportunity to play for him were truly fortunate and will never forget the influence he had on our lives."
Peter Firla, whose dad, Bill, was active in local Democratic politics back in the day, writes that "playing for Coach Maher was an unforgettable learning experiences for anyone privileged to do so."
After that, there's little one can add to make the case for football's sovereignty in Darien during the 1950s.
Ed Chrostowski was editor of the Darien Review during the '50s. He can be reached at email@example.com.