To my dear friends in New Britain:
It hasn't been easy driving through the city since late last November, knowing that I was no longer writing stories for y'all. My writing comes from the heart, and you know the thousands of stories I wrote over 15 years at the Herald, speak to the passion I have for the kids, the coaches and the people who make sports news in the city.
Well, I'm back, but don't look in the Herald for me! I'm writing for a weekly paper, the New Britain City Journal, that was started by Robin Vinci and is doing very well. The NBCJ hasn't had much in the way of sports so we decided that collaborating was a win-win proposition.
Below is my first effort for Robin and her loyal readers. You'll see plenty on New Britain football, that wonderful boys soccer team that Matt Denecour has assembled, and all the other fall sports. I still have my ear to the ground with the Rock Cats and perhaps we'll connect on them next season. Look forward to hearing from you.
The intangible characteristic that depicts sports tradition in New Britain as time-honored beyond most is best described by a French saying that has found a niche in English because English scholars cannot find a better way to say it.
Je ne sais quoi.
A less elegant way of saying it is that when it comes to sports, New Britain has that “certain something.” Translated literally, it means, “I don’t know what,” but since I wrote sports in New Britain on a daily basis for 15 years, I DO know what. I don’t know exactly why, but I’ll give you the particulars.
It has to start with New Britain High School football.
I first felt that je ne sais quoi on Nov. 24, 1999 at Manchester High School. It may seem unusual that I never felt it to such an extent at Hurricane-charged Veterans Memorial Stadium, but such eerie forces generally cannot be explained.
The Hurricanes of Coach Len Corto – the steamrolling ground game provided by senior Chris Bellamy and sophomore Justise Hairston, the leadership of able quarterback Mike Donnelly, a couple of Madigans and thundering fullback Steve Wysocki – were on a roll. They dropped a 27-26 decision at Southington in the season’s second game, but just whipped up unmercifully on people for the next seven weeks.
In my heart and mind, New Britain had the best team in the state, yet with the Manchester game on the horizon, the Hurricanes needed help to get into the Class LL playoffs and the prospects were too far-fetched. Three undefeated teams and several once-beaten squads had mathematical advantages in the CIAC ratings race that only a series of unfathomable upsets could change. Help wasn’t coming.
The game against Manchester had already begun. My wife Lisa, a 1973 NBHS grad with a heart of (maroon and) gold, was in attendance. I never saw her so excited for a game, and that certainly shaped my emotional composition.
Far off in the distance, at the other end of the parking lot, it rose like a crescendo. The New Britain High School Golden Hurricane Marching Band had run into some Hartford traffic, but the unmistakable sound of “Bingo” pierced the night air.
As Bellamy, Hairston and Wysocki were in the midst of rolling up over 250 yards and nine touchdowns, I felt a trickle down my cheek. Wow, I knew I cared, but I didn’t know I cared that much. “Bingo,” and the band marching into the stadium has some deep-seated ethereal effect on me.
Well, New Britain’s 58-0 victory wasn’t enough for a playoff berth. The Hurricanes had outscored their foes 316-12 over the final six weeks, and that wasn’t enough either.
Masuk, Fairfield Prep and eventual champion Greenwich finished their seasons undefeated. Southington notched the fourth and final spot despite losing to Cheshire on Thanksgiving Day. New Britain was a staggering seventh in the ratings, but that day the Hurricanes sealed the number one slot in my heart.
Five years later, as Coach Jack Cochran drove the ’Canes toward their third ‘LL’ title in four years, I had another experience that convinced me just how special New Britain football is.
The date was Nov. 30, 2004. New Britain ventured to Kennedy Stadium in Bridgeport to play Bridgeport Central in the semifinals. I got there good and early as I always try to do and was introduced to a man who personifies extreme dedication to NBHS football.
Eugene Johnkoski, 79 at the time, had relocated to Palm City, Fla., from the Hardware City in 1994. He missed his New Britain football so much that he would return home every fall to take his place among the Willow Brook Park faithful.
I can’t recall exactly what Mr. Johnkoski told me that chilly night in Bridgeport when I asked him why he did this, but it was something along the lines of, “Je ne sais quoi.”