Saturday, November 28, 2009

A HALL-OF-FAME WEEKEND

I wasn’t sure where my trip to sports writers’ heaven would take me but I knew where it would begin and end.

It began on the tarmac of Bradley International where my oldest and among my dearest friends stepped off his plane from Fort Myers, Fla., at about 11 a.m. Andy Vaspasiano (we call him Vas for the same reason they call me Lip) was coming home to celebrate my induction into the Connecticut High School Coaches Association Hall Of Fame.

Vas and I go back to when I was 3. I had just moved from Westville in New Haven to our new post-war ranch in Hamden on Belden Road. We’re literally friends for life.

The dinner festivities were to begin at 6. He would need some time to relax and we would need an hour before the gala to prepare.

When I asked him on the phone Wednesday night what else he’d like to accomplish in his four-day visit, I knew what he was going to say. Pepe’s. Vas, you’re in luck. Old Frank, the pizzamaker supreme, left some pretty savvy descendants in charge (including my former Helen Street Scholl buddy Francis Roselli). Pepe’s has a restaurant in Manchester now.

“Is it as good as Wooster Street?” said Vas, with his typically mysteriously and skeptical tone. Oh boy, I’d better answer this one right. Who knows more about pizza than the guy whose mom was born in Italy, a guy who went to St. John the Baptist School on the Hamden-New Haven border that literally was attached to the Venice Restaurant. Vas had to sit through classes smelling the world’s best pizza every school day.

We pulled into the parking lot and I looked down. A shiny quarter looked back at me. Now I knew my four-day dream was going to feature divine intervention.

If you haven’t had a Pepe’s pepperoni pizza yet, for God’s sake go out and get one right now. Vas says he isn’t leaving Connecticut without eating another one. He let me have my pepperoni. He got sausage and mushrooms before he boarded his return flight Sunday evening.

Our bellies bulging with pizza and hearts with nostalgia, I stopped in East Hartford to show him UConn’s new football palace, Rentschler Field. While there, we visited the CHSCA’s display of plaques.

We perused the plaques slowly. Vas saw many familiar faces from back in the day. Contemplating how absorbed he was and thinking about what was in store later that night, I became totally inspired about my induction. I would soon be joining these esteemed purveyors of state sports. Me! I still can’t believe it, but that stop at The Rent had much greater implications than I considered when we pulled off I-84. It was definitely the thing to do.

THE DINNER

Every moment at the induction dinner was heavenly. Every time I glanced in another direction, I saw another dear friend.

First and foremost, there was “The Family” – not my wife, son and sister, all of whom were with me and I love dearly, but “The Family.” There was me Vas, (former O’Brien Tech-Ansonia coach and administrator) Ray DeAngelis, John Coassin and “The Godfather,” Ron Sambrook.
We were inseparable back in the day. We were back together for the first time in 25 or so years.
There was another “Godfather” in the crowd.

Legendary Southington High baseball coach John Fontana is a driving force behind the CHSCA. When the Godfather says, “Keep your speech to 5 minutes,” well that’s exactly what you do. My first take of my speech lasted 4:45, so I added a sentence but couldn’t possibly thank all the people who I wanted to acknowledge.

I’ll do my best to do that here.

My colleagues at The Herald were there in number – sports guys Matt Straub and Ryan Pipke, executive editor Jim Smith and publisher/owner Michael Schroeder.

The coaches. Where do I begin? It all starts with New Britain High, which elicits the kind of camaraderie between coaches that I’ve never seen anywhere else.

Former football coach, now athletic director and CHSCA president Len Corto works long and hard for his school and the organization. He’s tireless, compassionate and wouldn’t he have loved to been at Pepe’s with us.

Ken Kezer, former NBHS baseball coach, was my presenter. After I made my speech, he handed me the commemorative diamond ring that all nine honorees received. Can you imagine? A diamond ring!

Basketball coach Stan Glowiak, a nicer man would be hard to find. Volleyball coach Michelle Abraham, stunning and tanned to perfection as always.

Track coach Darwin Shaw hands me a bag and says, “You ever have sweet potato pie? I never had the pleasure but I will now. As if Coach Shaw isn’t doing enough, he’s marketing his amazing version of the popular Southern confection. If you want one after your Pepe’s Pizza, I’ll put you in touch with him. (Why does it always get back to food? Not-so-small wonder.)

It touched me deeply that my Rock Cats family came in force. My dear friend Jeff Dooley, busy as he is with his full-time job and Hartford Hawks radio gig, was there. Cats owner Bill Dowling, perhaps the sincerest man on the planet, came despite suffering from the effects of the flu.
My press box buddies Larry Michaels and Ed Smith, Rock Cats photographer Buddy Robinson with his camera clicking away, Buddy’s wife Lynn. How wonderful it was to see them all.

Hamden friend Kirk Shultz came along with his parents. His father, “Big Dutch,” said he’d make it despite having to tote that oxygen tank around. His mother is my second mother. Since my mom died in 1990, she and my dear mother-in-law Fayna Birnbaum provided that irreplaceable maternal love.

I can’t mention Fayna without her husband and my father-in-law Dave. He isn’t the type to gush with emotion but his eyes told the story when he came up after the dinner and saw the ring.

Former NBHS coach Paul Majeski came up to me with a stern look on his face and said, “I want you to know that I usually don’t come to these things but for you, I came. You really deserve this award. You’ve done so much for the kids of New Britain.”

If Jerry Garcia was still alive, I’d have him lay down a guitar track for music that sweet.
And here’s the second and third stanza.

New Canaan football coach Lou Marinelli ranks as one of the state’s finest. He barely has enough fingers to contain the state championship rings and before he’s done, he may have to start using his toes.

New Canaan is way down there in Fairfield County and I’ve never had the pleasure of covering one of his teams but nonetheless, here’s what he said to me.

“I’m honored to be sharing the same stage with you tonight.”

He’s honored to be sharing the stage with me!? Here’s another, “Are you kidding me?”
After I made my speech, I was walking behind the esteemed people at the head table. Another Fairfield County legend – former Trumbull High coach and administrator Jerry McDougall – stopped me.

“That was a great speech you made,” he said as he grasped my hand. “It was from the heart.”
For those of you who couldn’t be there and would like to see the speech, here it goes:

First, I would like to congratulate the other eight honorees and thank all those who have come here tonight to support them.

I am overwhelmed by the outpouring of love, friendship and respect that my friends and family have bestowed on me by attending this glorious dinner in such number. I never thought so many of them could be gathered in one place in my honor, at least while I’m still alive.

What makes this award so incredibly important to me is where it comes from, the high school coaches. Coaches provide guidance for our student-athletes so they can learn the value of team dynamics, working together with their peers toward a common goal. They’re role models of the highest order.

Most of you have either coached or played so you know first-hand about the sacrifices coaching requires. The time spent with their families and in the pursuit of leisure activities are curtailed to help kids. When you consider how impressionable our kids are and how little these coaches are paid, their efforts are as noble as they are vital to our future.

I never heard that notion put more eloquently than in this very room when Geno Auriemma received a Gold Key from our CT Sports Writers’ Alliance. He dedicated his Gold Key to the high school coaches. Without them, he said, the success he’s achieved would be impossible. I consider that pretty staunch testimony.

Sports writing is not an individual application. It takes a lot of teamwork, and I’m excited to have some of my colleagues who have made this honor possible here tonight. After a story gets written, somebody has to be on the other end to format it, put it on a page and write a catchy headline, and I would like to thank those who have performed that and other functions over the years at The New Britain Herald and The Bristol Press.

I’d like to thank our publisher Michael Schroeder, who has saved both of those newspapers from the brink of oblivion so they can continue to be true partners in the communities they serve. Jim Smith, executive editor, sports editor Matt Straub and assistant Ryan Pipke. It’s all about teamwork, and that’s a great team.

Neither would this award be remotely possible without something compelling to write about. For that, I thank all the wonderful student-athletes, who have been so accommodating over the years.

When you come across former high school athletes, years removed from their days of glory, and they pull out a shredded piece of newsprint, well how can you not be touched by that. So many have gone on to become leaders in business, politics or education. I’d like to think that I had a little something to do with that.

I look out over the people here on my behalf and I see a table full of Rock Cats. They are more than friends; they are extended family. Thanks so much for being here and for what you’ve contributed to my life.

Special thanks to the people who are primarily responsible for putting me up here tonight. The New Britain High coaches are truly a special breed, and I know I wouldn’t be standing here if it weren’t for Ken Kezer and Lenny Corto. Heartfelt thanks to John Fontana and Larry McHugh and the tremendous work they’ve done as coaches and administrators. Getting to know and work with these four gentlemen has surely enriched my life.

And where would I be without the support of my family. My wife Lisa and son Jason have been in my corner 100 percent of the time so I could keep plugging away with my labor of love that totally transcends what most would consider just a job.

Thank you, everybody, for being a part of one of the most special moments in my life.

People said it was good. That isn’t for me to say, but I crammed in most of what I wanted to say while satisfying Fontana’s Five-Minute Frontier. People say I talk too much. Geez, and they say that to my face!

I understand my Herald colleagues were timing the speech with most betting it would go into overtime. Sorry, boys, but I wasn’t going to get on Godfather Fontana’s bad side. Mr. Straub said he had to hand it to me. Thanks, Matt. Coming from you, that’s high praise.

COOPERSTOWN

On Friday, Vas, Ronnie “Samlione” Sambrook and I hopped in my Chevy Avalanche and drove to Cooperstown, N.Y., and the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

The long ride (3 ½ hours) was anything but tedious. With my two best buddies sharing stories of our glorious past and a day of baseball reminiscing, the day went by like the snap of your fingers.
Vas was into the first boutique he saw and had a Whitey Ford display scoped out. Old Vas is a lefty himself, and that combined with the interlocking NY makes Ford one of his favorites. Whitey now joins the Vas Pinstripe Hall of Fame, which occupies its own Cooperstown-like room in Bonita Springs, Fla.

Vas refused to believe Dooley when he said Joe Mauer was winning the MVP. Oh, no, it had to be Jeter. Sorry, Vas. You got the world title but former Rock Cat Joe got the MVP hardware. I told you Dooley knows these things.

Vas wasn’t finished shopping. He was piling up stuff in the Hall of Fame store, too, including a photo of opening day at the new Yankee Stadium. Ronnie and I don’t share Vas’ Yankee passion. We can’t stand ’em.

Ronnie is a longtime Orioles fan, and he’ll tell you he hasn’t smiled since Ripken was playing. He got in front of the Orioles display case at Cooperstown and you’d think he was in church.

COUPE DE GRAS AT CONFETTI

The Family – Vas, Ronnie, John Coassin, Ray DeAngelis and I – got together again for a gala dinner Saturday night at Confetti (Farmington Avenue, Route 10, Plainville), the restaurant owned by a fellow Hamdenite and Belden Road girl, Joanie Spinato-Lemniotis.

My wife Lisa and son Jason accompanied me. John’s wife Linda and Ray’s wife Liz accompanied them. Also on hand were dear friends David and Amy Dippolino, who thankfully honored me with their presence at the Hall of Fame Dinner, too.

What a great time!

Afterwards, we posed for “Family” photographs. Combined with those taken at the Hall of Fame Dinner, they are priceless and will forever populate the walls of my cozy home office.

Joanie, her husband Peter (who was Lisa’s paper boy in New Britain long before he became a talented chef, especially with fresh fish) and her brother/bartender John were gracious hosts. John Spinato and David Dippolino were best buddies growing up on Belden Road. Some of these friendships should give you an idea what it was like in Hamden’s Pine Rock region in the 1960s. There are so many more friendships that are too many to mention, and some of them continue to live on.

AND FINALLY …

The time went by too quickly. I wish every minute could have been an hour and every hour a day. Friendship, camaraderie, sincerity and love were all around. I couldn’t have imagined that something so wonderful could ever come together.

Sincerest thanks to everybody who was a part of it, and to those without whom it would have been just another Thanksgiving. Coach Kezer, Coach Fontana, Coach McHugh and Coach Corto – I’m not sure if you will ever fully realize how grateful I am.

4 comments:

Phil0822 said...

Congratulations on your well-deserved Hall-of-Fame honor, Ken! I'm sorry I wasn't able to be there to share in your revelry, but by reading all about it in your blog, it almost feels like I was there!

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kirk shultz said...

Congrats Ken, well deserved. I enjoyed your blog, glad to hear it was such a grand weekend for you. it was good to see old friends I haven't seen in years

Lou Rio said...

Ken, Sorry I missed the party. As Kezer would say: "You are one of the good ones!" And Majeski was right when he said you did so much for the kids in New Britain. You played a key roll in supporting my son with his baseball career, as well as many other student athletes in town. Thank you Ken, and the best to you and yours in this holiday season.

Lou Rio
Bisbee, AZ