Once upon a time, Norwich Free Academy would rent the Boy Scout camp in Preston about this time of year. It was back in the 1930s and early 1940s when I was a young boy and would spend much of my summer vacation in Preston.
There was a man named Tom McDonough, who was director of New York City’s parks. Tom married my grandmother’s sister, Catherine, bought a piece of property high on a hill in Preston, and built a little retirement cabin. We used to refer to it as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
He was a very engaging man, and he lived less than a mile from Camp Quinebaug — the Boy Scout camp. The camp had tents and lean-tos, a dining hall, a wonderful pond and areas to play volleyball, baseball, and, of course, there were hiking trails. But the last two weeks of August, NFA’s football team took over the camp.
The football players, for two weeks, would train with Coach Jimmy Williams, who was a legend at NFA in my day, equal in respect to Knute Rockne at Notre Dame. There were others; Howie Dickenman, Arnold Redgrave, Lou Diamond and Bill Darrow, who worked with the team. John Thomas took over after Jimmy Williams. Later, there was Andy Popinchalk and much later, Larry Bouley.
The camp was at the bottom of a very steep hill. At the top of the hill were two dairy farms — one owned by the Butlers, the other owned by the Barneses. I don’t remember who owned the big field NFA used to practice on, but the players had to run up the steepest hill in Preston to get to that field on hot August days, with all of their equipment on. It was pure torture.
My uncle’s cabin overlooked the field. I was a young boy of 8 or 10 years and would go down and watch NFA football players work out. It is no wonder that we had great football teams, though I am sure the teams today are just as good — maybe better.
Unfortunately, I am not part of NFA now and am, regrettably, out of touch. But the football schedule, years ago, was so different. NFA played all the big cities — Bridgeport, Hartford and even Worcester.
Perhaps the most unforgettable game I ever saw was against Stamford at Stamford. My memory is a bit foggy on how many trains left for Stamford. It may have been two or three, but it was the roughest, toughest game I ever remember. It seemed to me half of Norwich was at Stamford that day. After the game, there was fistfighting in the streets.
When everybody got back to Norwich, there was a big football rally in Norton Gym, similar to the one pictured here. This picture, taken in Norton Gym in 1951, was after a victory against Bulkeley in New London. The stars of that game were John Marshall and Donny Scott. They are being held high by the crowd. There are so many familiar faces in this picture, so many now gone: Charlie Witt, Beanie Bujanowski, Phil McNamara, Custer George, Dick Michonski and Ray McManus standing to the left of my brother Jim, whose face is blocked by his applauding hands.
Behind Jim is my first sweetheart, Patty Lavellee, and I though it was pretty serious. But then, after graduation, I joined the Marine Corps, and she joined the Army. I found my lifelong sweetheart, Peggy, and she found a future husband in San Antonio. We haven’t seen each other now in more than 60 years. As I remember her, she is still only 16 years old, but, in truth, I am 80 and she must be 75. Looking at this picture, many may find other faces. They are all familiar. I just can’t put names with them.
As Fran typed this story, she asked, “Did the people go by train, not bus, to Stamford?” Yes. In those days, Norwich’s railroad station was very active, and I do believe it was three railroad trains that carried people from Norwich to Stamford. That was the year, 1946, when Norwich was state champion.
As I grew up and graduated from Broadway School, I went to NFA and was a photographer for The Norwich Bulletin. I would travel to and from the games with the principal, George Shattuck, and Dr. Lewis Sears, in his car. They attended all football games. I was granted that privilege so I could get my pictures to The Norwich Bulletin and give the sports editor, Bill Cruickshank, plenty of time to organize NFA’s story with pictures.
Best at NFA
There are so many memories that I have of NFA football of the past. In my time, the big stars were John Morosky and Joe Iacoi. Joe Iacoi went to work after high school, but I always thought if ever Norwich produced a professional football player, it was Joe Iacoi. Had he gone to college, I am sure he would have been recognized.
Joe could do everything. He was a good passer, the best receiver and he could run like the wind. He was the perfect football player. One day, I will do a column on Joe with some of the great pictures I have of him.
That 1946 team included Bob Madio, Murph Butova, Tom Dorsey, Frank Leonard, Ray Lukasiewicz, Red Killeen, Done Leone, Zip Spellman and so many others whose names, unfortunately, slip my memory. This past week, Tom LaFreniere, who was part of that team, reminded me that they wore leather helmets and no nose guards. That’s how Tom, and many others, suffered broken noses.
There was another game that I remember so clearly. I believe it was in 1946 when overconfidence defeated NFA. They had been voted by the Associated Press the best team in Connecticut. They had beaten everybody, including New London-Bulkeley. Then in the final game of the year, they went against Windham High, who stood very low in the rankings.
At the kickoff, I believe John Morosky received the ball. He handed it off to Joe Iacoi, who then ran for a touchdown. NFA scored the point-after-touchdown, and within one minute, the game was 7-0 in favor of NFA. The final score, unbelievably, was 37-7, and Windham won. I always believed making that first touchdown so simple must have instilled overconfidence in the NFA team. Windham scored 37 points, their highest score of the year, against the state champions, NFA.
I guess it is true that often in life, when things seem to be inevitable, the unexpected happens, and it certainly happened that year. But my memories of NFA are so wonderful, and being a photographer, knowing the players and traveling with the team made it all the more exciting.