Front Row (L to R): Jim Czaja, Dan Kolakowski, Robert Fields, Kevin Byrne, Charlie Settino, Bob Fitzgibbons, Tom Piacentini, Ned Lipes, Eric Martin. Row 2: Hal Downing, Rich Cassasanta, Dave Juall, Ron Salerno, Mike DellaRipa, Tom Vicino, Serge Gregg, John Kennedy. Row 3: Jeff Wilcox, John Buersmeyer, Bob Piacentini, Phil Pasternak, Bob Quinn, Mike Bordieri, Tim O'Keefe, Bob Burton, Paul Lombardo. Row 4: Ed Schultz, John Campanello, Bob Mattison, Tom Garafalo, assistant coach Mike Cancelliere, assistant coach Joseph Klinger, head coach Joe Cottone. Back Row Chris Franchi and Tom Lasher
2020 marks the 60th anniversary of the original varsity football team at Wethersfield High School. This summer we detailed the program’s early years, including the initial varsity squad in 1960, and now we’ll take an in-depth look at the 1970 Eagles, who were a young, scrappy and hungry bunch that came together to provide a fifth and final league championship for legendary head coach Joe Cottone. A few of Cottone’s assistant coaches during the 1970 season were former players from the early 60’s teams.
Below is a recollection of the 1970 team written by All-League player on the 1970’s team Michael DellaRipa, with contributions from 1970 co-captains Charlie Settino and Bob Fitzgibbons, along with 1970 player/future WHS head football coach John Campanello, former all-league player/assistant coach on the 1970 team Mike Cancelliere, and Michele Cottone Kriticos.
“Growing up as youngsters in the 1960’s, many of us (on the 1970 Eagles team) would go on fall Saturday afternoons to see the Wethersfield High football teams play all their great players being led by their legendary Coach, Joe Cottone. We all dreamed someday we would play on that same field and win a league title.
Coach Cottone played football at Bulkeley High School, and then at Dartmouth. His college coach, Red Blaik taught football not only to Coach Cottone but also later to a future assistant coach of his named Vince Lombardi (who later would go on to be head coach of the victorious Green Bay Packers in Super Bowls I and II.)
Coach Joe Cottone served as a Lieutenant in the U. S. Army Medical Corps during WWII, and then began his career in teaching at Wethersfield High. He started the football program, winning four CCIL (Central Connecticut Interscholastic League) titles in the early and mid-1960’s.
Then, In the opening game in the 1968 season, Conard High School of West Hartford beat Wethersfield, 51-0, a stinging loss that would stay in the memory of players and coaches. That was followed by seven more losses in 1968 and seven more losses to start the 1969 season, a total of 15 games lost in a row.
Throughout the 1968 and 1969 seasons, Coach Cottone always showed us good sportsmanship and inspired his players to “never give up”. The eighth and final game of the 1969 season was won by Wethersfield, ending the 15-game losing streak, and it re-ignited the passion and confidence in the upcoming 1970 team to have a goal to win the CCIL title. Coach Cottone then brought in a weight-lifting machine after the 1969 season and many of players worked out hard in the off-season, preparing to win in 1970.
Unfortunately, in the summer of 1970 after an undefeated pre-season, Wethersfield Coach Cottone became ill for the opening game with Conard High and was hospitalized. On a blistering hot day in September 1970, we took the field at Conard High with a goal to win not only for us, but for our head coach in the hospital. Leading 15-6 In the fourth quarter, with eight minutes to go, our center Jeff Wilcox told the team in the huddle, “this drive now is for Coach Cottone”. Exhausted by the heat, we still gave our 100% then, ran only running plays, got four first downs and ran the final eight minutes off the game clock for a win.
The memory of the stinging 1968 51-0 loss to Conard was behind us. After the game many of the players went first to Hartford Hospital to celebrate with a now jubilant Coach Cottone after he heard the news of the victory over Conard. We all felt redeemed for the moment.
During the next two games our team sustained many injuries to key players which resulted in two tough losses to two other strong CCIL teams. It seemed suddenly our dream was not going to happen.
However, our assistant coaches, Joe Klinger and Mike Cancelliere, both great coaches and men of integrity, held our team together, encouraged and inspired our team to “not give up” and play to win the five games remaining. If we won all five games, we would have a chance at the CCIL title as by this point all the other CCIL teams had at least one loss. Led by our co-captains Charlie Settino and Bob Fitzgibbons, our team chose to rise up to that challenge, many coming back from injuries and doing whatever it took to win the final five games.
We won our next game and our record was two wins, two losses. Then Coach Cottone rejoined the team. We won our next three games and our record was now five wins, two losses, and alone in first place in the CCIL as by now, the two other league teams in second place behind us had a record of four wins, two losses. Our dream of a title now seemed alive again…. but only if we won our last game.
On November 14, 1970, before our final game, assistant coach Klinger inspired us saying “For the rest of your life, you will remember this day”. In that game, after being behind at halftime 8-6, we had a fourth quarter come-from-behind 14-8 win on a 91-yard drive led by quarterback Kevin Byrne and finished our season with six wins, two losses and now our team was alone in first place in the tough CCIL, for coach Cottone’s fifth and final league title.
While coming off the field at the end of the final game, the students and fans in the bleachers shouted, “We’re Number One...We’re Number One”. For most of us, this was the greatest feeling of our lives growing up. Our dream we all worked so hard for, never gave up on, had come true.
Coach Cottone was quoted that day by the Hartford Times Newspaper saying, “I am very proud of this team, they came from rock bottom to top”, which to us was quite a tribute. The Wethersfield Post Headline on the front page said it all…’WE WON!”
In remembering the 1970 season, our team felt coach Cottone and our two assistant coaches, Klinger and Cancelliere, taught us not just football, but how to be successful in life after high school with the values of teamwork, perseverance, hard work and “never giving up”. They instilled in us these values by their example we saw in them.
With a now revitalized football program the next three seasons for coach Cottone were winning seasons, 6-3 in 1971, 5-4 in 1972, and 6-3-1 in 1973. Ironically, coach Cottone’s final game in 1973 was a 12-0 victory over Bulkeley, his high school alma mater.
Then in 1974 Coach Cottone passed away. Our team, as well as all the “Cottone Boys” (members from all the other Wethersfield football teams) were saddened by his death. He will always be remembered as one of “America’s Greatest Generation” by all who were fortunate to have known him.
Our team players stayed in touch with each other through the years after 1970 and in 2003 when most of us turned 50, we decided to get together as a team each summer for a cookout. We have done this for the last 17 years.
In 2011, our 1970 team felt honored to be inducted into the Wethersfield Alumni Athletic Hall of Fame. Our team later held a fundraiser among us and donated a $500 scholarship to Wethersfield High School.
In closing, assistant coach Cancelliere said to us about our 1970 team “You may not have had the greatest players, but you were a great team which played great football together”. And yes, assistant coach Klinger was right, we have remembered November 14, 1970, for the rest of our lives for that was the day our dream came true.”
Following the 1970 season, DellaRipa and Eric Martin were selected to the All-CCIL defensive team for their work on the front seven. Fitzgibbons (running back) and Jimmy Czaja (line) received All-League honorable mention.
Klinger was an assistant under Cottone from 1969-1973, while Cancelliere and Kevin Duffy joined Cottone staff for that one magical year in 1970. Both Cancelliere and Duffy were previously WHS football captains and All-League players in 1962 and 1963, which happened to be the first and second league titles for Cottone and the Wethersfield football program.
Leave a Reply.
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin