SEPTEMBER 26, 2006

September 24, 2006

The year 1963 was in many ways one of the most critical and monumental periods of time in U.S. history. A year that began with hope and promise ended with despair and social unrest as the world changed almost overnight. It was indeed a different world, a different time, especially for a small close-knit town like Norwalk.

And for the 1963 Brien McMahon High School football team, it was a memorable year for several reasons.

The biggest reason? The Senators compiled a 4-3 record that year for their first winning season in only their third year of existence. It would be the first of 30 winning seasons in the history of the BMHS football program, now in its 46th year.

This weekend, about a dozen members from that team will get together once again in Norwalk to celebrate the 43rd anniversary of that inaugural winning campaign by the Senators.

Some of them will even be at tonightıs McMahon-Bassick football game at Jack Casagrande Field, and will be introduced at midfield prior to the 6:30 kickoff.

Then on Saturday night, all of them will gather at the Laurel Athletic Club for dinner and a night of reminiscing thatıs sure to last into the early hours of Sunday.

And in between tonightıs game and Saturday nightıs get-together, they will be special guests of the Norwalk Museum where they will attend a roundtable discussion of that ı63 football season, on video tape no less. More on that later.

But there will certainly be a lot to talk about in what promises to be a very memorable weekend. Almost as memorable as that football season 43 years ago.

"Iım really excited about it,² said Mike SantaLucia, the senior quarterback and leading scorer on the ı63 team and now a McMahon assistant coach. "And I know the guys who are coming are real excited, too."

"But itıs not all about football,² he added. "We all turned 60 this year. And the seniors on that team were all born in 1946, the first year of the Baby Boomers. So that was a big year for a lot of reasons."

"A few guys said they would love to be here but had previous commitments and a lot of them are scattered all over the country. But it should be a lot of fun for the ones who can make it."

Including their former head coach.

"Quite honestly, the memories are still pretty fresh," Frank Morgan, the Senatorsı coach their first seven seasons, said. "As a matter of fact, I was looking at an old yearbook the other day from that year and whenever I would see a picture of one of the football players it would spark a memory. Those were great years and I have fond memories."

It was a different time, too, for coaches back then.

"I didnıt get paid to coach back then,² Morgan, who was also athletic director, said. "But thatıs not a negative because nobody got paid for coaching. Thatıs just the way it was. The year before I coached four teams. I had come over from Norwalk High and we had a pretty good hockey team coming back."

"So I coached both hockey teams plus the McMahon football and baseball teams and got paid for none of them. It never entered my mind."

In fact, his assistant coach in football was Jack Casagrande while Leroy Vaughn and Walt Czekaj were the JV coaches. All of them would be future head coaches, Vaughn and Casagrande at McMahon following Morgan.

"And Ralph King joined our staff the following year," Morgan said of the man who would eventually start the successful McMahon soccer program."

Brien McMahon High School opened in September of 1960, but with no senior class.

"So we played a JV schedule that first year," SantaLucia, a freshman then, said. "I was in the first senior class that went through McMahon four years."

He was also the starting QB on the first official varsity football team at McMahon in 1961.

"That first season was very difficult," he said. "I remember we opened with St. Maryıs of Greenwich and we didnıt score until our third game."

Good memory, even after 45 years. The Senators lost their very first game to St. Maryıs 10-0, and then fell to Staples 12-0 the following week. In fact, they lost their first six games and finished 1-7-1.

"The next year we won three games," SantaLucia said. "We went 3-5 so at least we were more exciting to watch. We threw a lot more, too. We only lost to Norwalk 14-7 and we felt we were really coming on."

"So my senior year we had high hopes for a good year. We had a good line coming back. We had Fred Cumminger back at center. He actually went to Annapolis and played football there for Navy. He lives in Texas now and canıt make it, but he sent a little note for me to read to the guys."

"Ron Bradley, one of our guards, and Dennis Marron, a tackle, were both back, and Bob Halderman was the other tackle and he was back, too. Heıs gonna be there this weekend."

The highlight of the season was McMahonıs 6-0 win over Norwalk, the Senatorsı first win over their more-established city rivals.

"What a game,² SantaLucia, who was captain of the team, recalled. ³We held them to 23 yards rushing and Jimmy Monroe scored the only touchdown late in the game. We played the game at Central Catholic (now All Saints Catholic School). We had no field at Brien McMahon. We didnıt even practice there. We practiced at Brookside and we played our home games at Norwalk Highıs field, which is now behind City Hall."

"But we played Norwalk that year at Central Catholic and I remember it rained."

"It was a miserable day," Morgan added. "Oh, it was miserable. It was cold, it was damp, it was raining. You couldnıt do much, but we won the game. We had never beaten them before."

McMahon was also hoping to post its first win over Stamford Catholic in its final game that season to finish 5-3. But that game was scheduled for Nov. 23, 1963. The day before, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and game was canceled.

"That was on a Friday and somewhere around 1 oıclock I was sitting in my office when someone came running in saying the President had been assassinated," Morgan said. "Of course, everyone was shocked, but we were preparing to go practice for our game the next day."

"We decided to wait and as more news came in they began canceling a lot of things," he continued. "But the kids wanted to play. This was our big chance to beat Stamford Catholic. We hadnıt beaten them before."

"They were only 2-5 that year and had quite a few injuries," SantaLucia pointed out. "So we were very confident we were gonna beat them."

"I had a little radio in my office and I heard Yale-Harvard didnıt cancel," Morgan added. "That was at 3 oıclock and I said if Yale and Harvard are playing, then weıre playing."

"But sometime late that afternoon we heard Yale-Harvard was canceled so we canceled our game, too. So did everyone else."

It was a weekend nobody from that 1963 team will ever forget.

"It was like the end of the world as we knew it," SantaLucia said. "I can remember girls crying hysterically, running out of class just screaming and crying. It was incredible. It touched us deeply."

"Everyone was glued to their TV the whole weekend," Morgan said. "Of course, as we watched it, the magnitude of the event became obvious. That was a very traumatic year for the whole country."

SantaLucia agreed.

"Ever since the end of World War II, life had been so good. Life was so easy," he said. "You had no cares, no worries, and then boom. The world changed after that."

That historical event will no doubt be discussed this weekend and even captured on tape by Mike Shaffer. It was Shaffer who came up with the idea of holding this reunion.

And he wasnıt even on the football team in 1963.

"I played JV one year, but I was in the band so I was at every game," Shaffer, another Œ63 grad now living in Georgia, said. "Mike (SantaLucia) and I met when we were in the seventh grade at (Ben) Franklin so I knew him along with a bunch of other players from that year. A lot of us went to school together from kindergarten through high school."

"I was thinking about Jimmy Monroe one day and I found out that everybody had lost contract with him," he added. "Then this girl I knew who I went to school with got a hold of list with every McMahon graduate on it. So I told her, ŒLook up Jim Monroe. Heıs probably not on it anyway." But there he was. He was living right in Southington

"So I called him up, left a message, and he called me back. It was like finding a long-lost brother. Jimmy was one of the sweetest human beings to walk the face of the earth. We would talk everyday and then one day, one of us, Iım not even sure who, said why donıt we have a reunion. So I started working on it."

But Shaffer decided to take it even one step further. He owns his own Web builder and marketing company in Georgia called Pier Image Group, and heıll be video taping Saturdayıs discussion at the Norwalk Museum to put on a Web site.

"I have my video team coming up from Georgia and we want to come up with an historical documentary. It will be like coming up with a one-hour TV show of this event. I already interviewed McMahonıs first four football coaches for it and Iıll be interviewing Joe (SantaLucia), the present coach. I interviewed Leroy Vaughn in Virginia on my way up here (available on www.C500.org/LeroyVaughn).

"Iım just gonna let everybody at the Museum on Saturday talk about their memories, not only of football but of the time in history it was. It was before Viet Nam, and long before drugs, the womenıs movement and all that stuff. It will be more like a documentary on turning 60. Life, liberty and the pursuit of history and football."

If successful, Shaffer would like to donate the Web site to the Norwalk Museum, and eventually expand it to include a history of Norwalk. But that will have to wait. His main mission right now is to make this reunion a success.

"The guys who are coming are really excited about this," Shaffer said. And the memories will no doubt flow, starting tonight and lasting all weekend.

"There was a naivety about all of us, coaches and players," Morgan said. "Brien McMahon was only three years into Brien McMahon. We still didnıt have a football field."

The will be the second reunion this year Morgan has attended. In the spring, the 1966 McMahon baseball team he coached to a state championship celebrated its 40th anniversary. Now heıll be reunited with some of his players from the schoolıs first winning football team.

"I didnıt have great success with wins and losses with my football teams," Morgan, who led McMahon to one more winning season. "But looking back, all my players seemed to have a good time and that was important to me and Jack (Casagrande) as coaches."

"It was a great time," he added. "I have nothing but fond memories of that time."

Brien McMahon has won 263 varsity football games in the programıs tradition-rich history, which includes five division titles, four FCIAC crowns and a state championship in 1994.

But only one team can lay claim to the Senatorsı first winning season. "The first of anything is always a great thing," SantaLucia concluded. ³And Iım speaking for the team when I say weıre very proud, and I personally am very proud, to have had the first winning season at Brien McMahon."

copyright September 2006
The Hour