The atmosphere was thick with inspiration April 28 at the 71st Gold Key Dinner.
Like all great events, the Gold Key Dinner, administered by the Connecticut Sports Writers’ Alliance, has evolved since the group banded together in 1939 to honor those who have enriched the sports scene across the state.
In the Dinner’s early days, it was common to see the major league franchises in Boston and New York well represented. Those were the days when teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, Knicks and Celtics coveted state coverage and Connecticut’s newspapers staffed their games.
But as more and more athletes demanded heavy appearance fees and sports staffs were sliced and diced into near oblivion, the focus turned to the colleges, high schools and minor league teams that call Connecticut home.
Proceeds go toward scholarships for youngsters with the passion in their heart to chronicle the exploits of our young athletes. The mission is to pass the torch of crafting sports stories to the next generation after as the fingers of ours grow brittle, our abilities erode and our mentors fade away.
This year’s scholarship winner – Kathleen O’Brien of Shelton High School – looked me directly in the eye and spoke of her passion to follow in our footsteps. It matters little to her that most newspapers are just a trace of the great publications they once were. Now that’s passion.
Joining the roll call of esteemed Gold Key winners Sunday were Trinity Catholic-Stamford boys basketball coach Mike Walsh, Bacon Academy-Colchester girls basketball and baseball coach Dave Shea, Former Trinity College ice hockey coach John Dunham and, as John Nash of the Norwalk Hour so aptly put it, one of the greatest athletes the state has ever known in the inimitable women’s soccer pioneer Kristine Lilly of Wilton.
All recognized that the state holds no higher award for its sports brethren than the Gold Key.
The Gold Key Dinner always has a New Britain flavor. The Hardware City has long established itself as one of the state’s top sports towns so a Dinner without a New Britain representative is virtually impossible.
Past Gold Key recipients Andy Baylock, Ken Kezer and Howie Dickenman were on hand Sunday. Kezer was the long-time baseball coach at New Britain High. Dickenman, of course, is the highly respected men’s basketball coach at Central Connecticut State University.
Baylock, a city native who has served on the UConn athletic staff since 1964 including 24 years as head baseball coach, accepted the award for Athlete of the Year in a Male Sport that is destined for the trophy case of Kemba Walker.
Other Gold Key winners with New Britain ties include: former Yale assistant football coach Harry Jacunski, CCSU basketball coach Bill Detrick, NBHS football coach Tony Apisso, CCSU football coach Bill Loika, CCSU baseball coach Hank Majlinger, CCSU women’s basketball coach Brenda Reilly, CCSU golf coach Lowell Lukas, New Britain Red Sox owner Jose Buzas, CCSU administrator Dr. William Moore and NBHS track coach Irving Black.
The inaugural winner of the Hal Levy High School Athletic of the Year Award knows New Britain. Everybody wanted their photo taken with Casey Cochran, the record-setting quarterback of Masuk-Monroe who is striving to play the position at UConn.
Cochran’s father Jack, the ultra-successful football coach at Bloomfield, New Britain and New London high schools was in attendance to honor his son. When Jack was guiding the Hurricanes to state championships in 2001, 2003 and 2004, Casey was just a youngster. The sight of Casey hugging his father after games became riveted in the minds of those close to the program.
New Britain fireman and popular youth football coach Brian Anderson, an assistant under Jack, was also present.
You’ll have to go a long way to find a 17-year-old high school athlete with more polish than Casey Cochran. His respect for the man whose name adorns his award was touching, particularly for Hal Levy’s two sisters Sara Kobylenski and Charlotte Harrison. Hal Levy died in 2008 after a Hall of Fame career as the sports editor of the Shore Line Times in Guilford.
The Dinner remains a tribute to another of our fallen colleagues, master storyteller Bohdan M. Kolinsky of the Hartford Courant until his untimely passing late in 2003 at only 48-years-old. Bo, whose name was affixed to the scholarship program in 2004, was represented by his widow Jill. His spirit flashed through the room and the hearts of those who had the pleasure to have known and loved him.
The CSWA’s other major fund-raiser, the Bo Kolinsky Memorial Golf Tournament, will be held June 28 at the Lyman Orchards Golf Club.
Perhaps the most inspiring moment of the dinner came when former city sports journalist Robert Mayer presented the Bob Casey Courage Award to Dave Balfore of Berlin. Balfore was a promising young athlete when he was stricken with leukemia. A contemporary of current UConn running back Max DeLorenzo, Balfore spoke about what enters a youngster’s mind when he encounters a life-threatening challenge.
The speech touched Casey Cochran to the extent that he made it part of his presentation moments later.
Manchester High School track coach Thayer Redman offered another heart-rending moment when he thanked his older brother for helping raise him during a challenging childhood in Portland, Maine. Redman, whose squad brought home the school’s first track-and-field state title in more than 50 years last spring, was overcome by emotion several times during his presentation.
The founders of the Connecticut Sports Writers’ Alliance would have had a hard time recognizing the 71st Gold Key Dinner without the fanfare generated by past award winners like baseball’s grand old man Connie Mack, beloved boxer Willie Pepe and NBA legend Calvin Murphy. But whatever flourish may have been missing was replaced by the inspiration that the state’s great athletic achievers will always be able to supply.