This fall marks the 60th anniversary of the first varsity football season at Wethersfield High School.
The inaugural team in 1960 set a standard for a program, which has blossomed into one of the most fruitful and consistently successful teams in the state.
“They set the whole thing up for the rest of us,” said Bob Heimgartner, who was a freshman at the high school in 1960, “That first team really laid the foundation.”
Prior to 1958, football was something that the kids of Wethersfield only played in backyards and sandlots.
WHS was best known for playing championship soccer, capturing five state titles in the 40’s and 50’s, but in 1957 football was accepted as part of the Physical Education program and a year later the board of education allocated funds to establish an official team.
The architect hired to build the program was head coach Joseph Cottone, who was previously a three-sport star at Bulkeley High School before lettering in three sports and playing lead back for the Dartmouth College football team in the 1930’s.
After serving as a First Lieutenant in U.S. Army Service Medical Corp, Cottone eventually found his way back to Connecticut and was hired at WHS in 1957.
For the first two seasons, playing at a sub-varsity level, the team was literally flawless. In 1958 the team won all four games and the following season won all six games, outscoring their opponents 156-26.
After dominating at the JV level, the stage was set for the young Eagles to take flight at the varsity level.
In the fall of 1960, led by senior quarterback Lou “Butch” DiFazio and senior running back Greg Fay, the Eagles shut out Bristol Eastern 24-0 in the program’s varsity debut. Fay scored the first varsity touchdown and would go on to earn All-CCIL (Central Connecticut Interscholastic League) and eventually become the program’s first Division I player at Villanova University.
Heimgartner recalled Fay’s impact that first season, “They had a lot of good players and his leadership held that team together. He set the tables for the next three seasons, by bringing in all the young guys and working with them. He was a tremendous asset to the program.”
Guard Ron LaPore and Rich St. Pierre, who would later play at Colgate, were also selected to the all-league first-team following the 1960 season.
The Eagles would win four more games in 1960, finishing with a record of 5-2-1. Their tie came against Hall, who eventually won the CCIL title and the tie was the only blemish Hall’s undefeated record (7-0-1).
Other notable standouts from on the original varsity team were ends Dave Peak and Jerry Suchodolski, tackle Bill McCarthy, guards Tim Breen and Steve Desovich, center Carl Kask, backs Myles Daughn, George Mulligan, and Russ Roushon.
In a dedication to Joe Cottone and his teams, this was written about the players on the 1960 squad, “Their reputation for hard work and toughness set the foundation as role models for Coach Cottone’s future teams. Their ball control offense grinding out yardage and taking time off the clock coupled with a tenacious defense that held opponents to 45 points set the bar for the future Cottone teams. The CCIL had been put on notice that the Eagles would be a force to contend with.”
Over the first couple of seasons, the Eagles would play their home games at historic Stillman Field in Old Wethersfield while the team was waiting on the construction of the new football stadium, now known at Joseph F. Cottone Field at Wethersfield High School.
Steve Kelly, who would later be a star end on the 1962 and 1963 teams, recalled this about the original team, “The 1960 team was as good as any team around. I would be down at Stillman watching the games and my first impression was ‘I’ll never play this game’. These guys were huge, they were big, they were fast. We had played sandlot, but it was nothing like this.”
Following a successful debut at the varsity level, Cottone continue to mold the program into a league power.
The 1961 team finished 6-2, which included a season-opening victory over eventual league co-champion Maloney behind the arm of quarterback Big John Molchan, who tossed a pair of touchdowns.
St. Pierre again earned all-league first team; while Molchan, Kevin Duffy, and Big John Heaton earned second team honors.
1962 proved to be a banner year as the Eagles capture their first CCIL title, achieving perfection with an 8-0 record in their first full season on the new field.
The Eagles clinched the ‘62 conference title with a resounding 20-0 win over perennial powerhouse Platt. Junior linebacker Mike Cancelliere led a stingy defense that blanked the normally high-powered Platt offense, which came into the game averaging 29 points per contest.
All told, seven players from the 1962 team were selected all-conference (Duffy, Heaton, Cancelliere, Bill Poirot, Bob Pandolfe, Marc Cottone, Mike Tine).
Wethersfield would go on to win three more consecutive league titles from 1963-1965, amassing a record of 28-3-1 over the four-year span.
Cottone would coach the program through the 1973 season before his untimely passing in early 1974 at the age of 59.
He left a lasting impression on both those that he coached and those that followed his lead.
Longtime WHS football coach John Campanello, who played at WHS in the 70’s and served as a captain on the 1972 team, wrote this about Cottone in 2012, “Coach Cottone set the foundation for me. He did things the right way for the right reason. If I can have half the impact on my players that he had on me I will consider myself a very lucky man.”
Campanello is one of the many “Cottone Boys”, the nickname given to anyone who played under the legendary coach from 1958-1973.
Charlie Viani, who played tackle and was a captain on the 1964 title team, said this about the Cottone, “He had it all. The personality, the dedication, the passion.”
“Joe was a tremendous coach, no coach outworked him. The kids loved him,” added Heimgartner, “He just cared about everybody. He would make you be your best.”
The Cottone Boys helped immortalize their coach in 1978 when a group of players from the 60’s created the Cottone Memorial, a large cast iron archway that reads ‘Joseph F Cottone Field’ erected at the entrance of the stadium.
It serves as a reminder of the man who built a program and shaped the characters of his players.
This was written about Cottone’s legacy in his dedication---“If you had any amount of athletic talent, he would find a spot and a function for you on his team. He measured your heart in addition to everything else that would make you a football player.”
The Cottone Boys still gather for big anniversaries, which included a reunion in 2012.
Kelly helps keep his fellow boys up to date on the current football happenings at WHS.
“Steve keeps us informed about the present team and about any changes that the league has made. We are well informed because of Steve,” said Viani, “We still try and get together to talk about times passed.”
The plan was to have another gathering and possible ceremony during the upcoming high school football season to recognize the 60th anniversary, however the pandemic and uncertainty of fall sports have put that on hold for now.
Celebration or not, the legacy of both the 1960’s team and coach Cottone will live on in the hearts of the community, especially those who put on the helmet and shoulder pads at Wethersfield High School.
Front Row l-r: John Mulvihill, Russ Roushon, Joe Salvatore, Mike DeVanney, Co-Capt and All-CCIL 1st Team RB Greg Fay, Rolf Reed, All-CCIL 1st Team Guard Ron Lepore, Steve Desovich, Tim Breen, George Congdon.
Second Row l-r: Coach Joe Cottone, George Mulligan, Carl Peterson, Dave Peak, All-CCIL 1st Team Tackle Rich St. Pierre, Bill McCarthy, Myles Daughn, Doug Russell, Jerry Sucholdolski, Carl Kask, Asst. Coach Dick Lawton.
Missing from Picture: Co-Capt Butch DiFazio, Phil Mikan, John Molchan, Dick Morse, Jim Lunny, Kevin Duffy, John Heaton.
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin