A Half Century Of Youth Football And Cheer Success: NYF&C Celebrates 50 Years
This is the first in a series of articles, including a feature on cheerleading, covering Newtown Youth Football & Cheer as the organization celebrates the 50th anniversary of the youth program.
A half century ago, representatives of Newtown’s Pop Warner Football team — sponsored by the Newtown Lions Club — suited up and took the field (Hawley Field to be exact) for the first time. A group of players broken into two teams — the older squad was named the Lions in recognition of the sponsor, and the younger group was nicknamed the Mighty Mites — ran the ball, tackled opponents, and participated in a sport that had started at the town’s high school only a handful of years prior.
Inexperienced in everything from the process of strapping on their unfamiliar equipment to running plays on the gridiron, these football newcomers were a big part of planting the seed of what has become quite a tradition in town. Newtown youth football, although it has changed programs and league affiliations — going from Pop Warner and the Candlewood Valley Conference to American Youth Football and the Shoreline Conference over time — has been going strong ever since the 1969 season opener. Newtown’s youth football players and cheerleaders will kick off the 50th anniversary campaign this year, with games to begin Labor Day Weekend.
The up-and-coming pigskin enthusiasts will put on their helmets, lace up their cleats, and line up across from opponents on the same home grounds — now called Taylor Field, behind Hawley Elementary School — where it all began a half century ago. The field is in the same area but goes left to right rather than front to back of the property now.
There has been substantial overall growth in the program since its early days; now, there are six youth teams for grades 2-8, with the program adding teams to accommodate increased numbers of participants, allowing it to divide the grades. There is a combined grades 2/3 team and individual teams for grades four through eight. The helmet decals and colors have changed; different shades and combinations of blue, yellow, and gold present throughout the history of the program.
“I’m pretty sure my reaction was ‘What’s Pop Warner Football?’” Mark Faller, one of the program’s first players in 1969, said of hearing the news from his father that there was a chance to play the game at an organized level for the first time. “I don’t think anybody knew how to snap a football.”
Faller said Pop Warner was an unknown entity in Newtown back then. All of the town’s football players became familiar with it quickly, and Newtown football played under the Pop Warner umbrella all the way until 2005, when it switched its affiliation to American Youth Football, which is where things stand as youth football in town celebrates its 50th anniversary. It switched from the Candlewood Valley Conference to the Shoreline Conference in 2014.
Football in Newtown has certainly come a long way since those early days, with teams piling up conference and state champions, although it had immediate success.
The Mighty Mites, also referred to as the Junior Midgets in the 1969 issues of The Bee, won the town’s first game, defeating the Brookfield Jets 14-0 on September 14. “Scoring was by Speedy Wally Randall, who scored in the first quarter on a 32-yard reverse play and again in the third quarter on a 70-yard kickoff return. Extra points were added by Cris Wolfe and Jeff Cramer,” according to an article in the September 19, 1969, edition of The Bee.
In the second game of the day, the Lions blanked the Brookfield Packers 13-0. Quarterback Mike Newman and Paul Granieri rushed for touchdowns in the win.
The coaching was led by Charles Chamberlin, and the teams were supported by cheerleaders — much like they are today — as documented in those past issues of The Bee.
Then an 11- or 12-year-old, Faller was thrilled for the opportunity just to play, and one of his fondest memories came at the end of a day that did not start out so great. He remembers not getting into a game with the Mighty Mites. A coach of the Lions saw Faller’s disappointment and put him in the older squad game. The young player got in for a play or two on defense and made his presence known by recovering a fumble. At the end of the game, he joined his Mighty Mite teammates, who had been waiting around since the earlier game for their team photo. Faller was still on a high and stood out in the picture.
“I am beaming from ear to ear in this photo. I’ve got this huge grin,” said Faller, who went on to become sports editor at the Bridgeport Post, which became the Connecticut Post. Now, he is covering professional sports on the other side of the county, working as sports editor of the Arizona Republic.
Jeff Cramer was the quarterback on the 1969 Lions.
“He could throw the ball quite well. As he got older, he became a center,” said his dad, Al Cramer, who still lives in Newtown. Al Cramer coached at Newtown High School and also served as principal at NHS.
Jeff Cramer went on to earn his doctorate degree and become executive director of oncology research at Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation and led a team in the creation of early stages breast cancer treatment Kisqali, which was approved by the Federal Drug Administration just before his retirement a couple of years ago, Al Cramer said. Additionally, Jeff Cramer’s name is on the patent for Claritin going back to his days as a researcher with Schering-Plough Corporation. Jeff Cramer currently resides in Chatham, N.J.
A family with strong ties to the program from its inception to date is the Shpunts. Jack Shpunt’s days of coaching in this program date all the way back to 1972, and he has led teams at each of the program’s age or grade levels during a nearly 50-year run. “I used to go wherever they needed somebody,” he said.
His brother, Bill, represented Newtown as a member of the Lions in its first season of 1969, and another sibling, Andy, also played in the program. Jack Shpunt, being the oldest sibling, did not have this youth football playing opportunity and suited up as part of the high school program’s first varsity team in the middle 1960s; he played offensive and defensive tackle.
Football was around at the high school level in the 1940s. The Bee has records of six-man teams. “They stopped playing for a number of years,” Shpunt recalls.
Shpunt was asked by Rick Medve to help coach the older team back in 1972, and little did he know how long his tenure would run.
“I’ve really enjoyed over the years getting to know the kids. You spend so much time with the kids in football,” Shpunt said of coaching in the youth program, adding that he has made a lot of good friends through his connections to parents and other coaches.
Shpunt said a game that stands out was a battle for the league championship with Monroe in the early 1970s. With Newtown trailing by a point, Phil Skalandunas stopped Monroe four times inside the 10-yard line. On the first play from scrimmage on Newtown’s ensuing drive, David Caruso rushed 95 yards for a touchdown and a lead the team wouldn’t relinquish.
The 1974 team Shpunt helped coach, along with Bill Wertz and Lou Pepe, got to visit Cary, N.C., at the end of its perfect season to represent the state and play one of the best from Carolina, and won easily. The headline in the November 22, 1974, edition of The Bee reads “Lions Smash Dixie.” The 1975 team, which included a many of the same players, also had a stellar season and went to North Carolina for a postseason game.
Even though the players had a lot to learn from the onset, they were among the best in the Candlewood Valley League from the get-go.
“We were one of the best teams in the league for years at the beginning,” Shpunt said.
Joe DeVellis served as a head or assistant coach from 2000-10 and was vice president of the program for a few years. Each of his sons, Joey, Jake, Justin, and Jaret played a dozen years of football in town, starting with the youth program and continuing through high school.
“Each had their share of wins and successes, with playoff wins and some championships along the way. Jaret’s teams coached by Pat Smith and his staff were probably the most successful of all the teams that I have seen go through our program, traveling also to Florida a couple of times for national championships,” DeVellis said.
During high school, the DeVellis children all helped out with summer camps, and each has continued to stay involved with the sport in some capacity or another.
Jaret went onto play four years of football at Western Connecticut State University and received the National Football Foundation’s Hampshire Honor Society Award his senior year for academics. Joey is a teacher at Westhill High school in Stamford and has been a football coach there for seven years, the last two years as head coach. Jake is on the coaching staff at Seymour High School. Justin covers sports and broadcasts for News Channel 12.
“Sports in general, as you know, teaches kids a lot about things they need to know in life. The youth football program was a positive experience. My sons have made many friends over the years. I have made many friends over the years. Sports has always been and continues to be important in a young person’s life. Football keeps youngsters involved and active in positive ways. Especially today with so many negative influences out there,” DeVellis said.
Football, although predominately played by boys and men, has a long history of female involvement.
“I had a team with three girls on it,” said Shpunt, adding that running back Dara Zemo was one of the best players on a 1987 seventh grade team he led.
The youth program has always helped prepare the up-and-coming players for competition at the high school level, with the programs working closely together throughout the years.
Steve George, who was part of the Newtown High School coaching staff for 18 years, including a decade-long run as the head coach through the 2016 campaign, points out that the youth feeder program is essential for success at the high school level.
“You have to prepare the kids with the terminology and the proper tackling technique and blocking technique — the fundamentals of football is what it really is,” George said.
“It is important to have the youth program on the same page as the high school program in regards to scheme, technique, and language. It helps with a smooth transition when the kids are in high school,” said Bobby Pattison, Newtown High’s current head coach, who played in the youth program from 1999-2001.
“The best way to describe the experience was fun, win or lose,” Pattison said of playing in the youth feeder program.
Sean Dunn served as president of the league for nearly a decade. His sons, Julian, Justin, and Joshua all played in the program for many years and continued their careers at the high school level; Julian went on to compete at the University of Maine.
“It was an honor to lead the Newtown Youth Football and Cheer organization from 2008-14. I have many fond memories of the great people I worked with supporting the program and the amazing progress we made improving and growing the organization — including formally connecting the NYF&C youth as a pipeline of talent to the Newtown High School football and cheer programs, initiating community engagement as part of the player experience and launching ‘Newtown Day’ as a way to collectively celebrate our football and cheer teams and families. But most of all, it was all about the kids and what we could contribute to their athletic and personal development. I’m hopeful we positively influenced several generations of football players and cheerleaders with life skills that helped them beyond the program. Congratulations on 50 years NYF&C.”
“The camaraderie between the coaches and players during the season was something I will not forget,” said Smith, who coached many young athletes — including his son, Colton — from 2005-13, leading several of his squads to conference, state, and American Youth Football national championship games. “All of my good friends were the parents of the players that I coached. I still stay in touch with a lot of the parents. I am also playing softball with seven of the players that I used to coach. We talk about the youth football days all the time and the great memories and championships we won together.”