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From 'Roughnecks' To Champions: 50 Years Of Football At Newtown High School



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As the beginning of another football season gets set to kick off and Newtown High School players strap on the pads and lace up the cleats with postseason success again on their minds, it’s also a time to reflect on the start of the program — and its rich history, including significant changes throughout the decades.

This fall campaign, which gets underway with a September 11 visit to South-West Conference foe Pomperaug of Southbury, beginning at 6 pm, marks the 50th year of varsity football at Newtown High.

Six-man teams were established at the old Hawley School apparently during the World War II-era, but only since the 1966 season have full varsity squads taken to the field, to tackle the opposition and score touchdowns, while representing Newtown High.

The 2015 campaign also marks the 50th anniversary of Newtown’s first junior varsity squad. After an introductory season in 1964, in which the team members wore numberless all-white uniforms for scrimmages, a jayvee squad was established and competed in the fall of 1965 before moving up to varsity status. It was a big deal for each of these early team members, and the 1965 jayvees earned a 6-6 tie with host New Milford, in its first game, on October 2 of that year.

Just about the only thing that’s remained the same in the past half century’s worth of seasons is the standard 11-player-per-side configuration and the use of a pigskin to score touchdowns. Equipment has changed; the team name is different (going from Indians to Nighthawks); the home field — Blue & Gold Stadium — is in a different location (the original spot was Taylor Field, behind Hawley School on Church Hill Road).

NHS is in a different building for that matter; the players used to walk to practice at Taylor Field from the high school, which at the time was where Newtown Middle School is now, on Queen Street, lugging tackling dummies and their equipment along the way.

Tackling styles are different, and the play on the field overall has drastically improved since the first days of the program.

A Rough Start

“We were tough guys but we didn’t really know what we were doing,” says longtime Newtown resident Mike Cragin, who was a sophomore on that 1964 unofficial squad, and also played jayvee the next year, and was a member of the inaugural varsity lineup, in his senior year. “We got our [butts] kicked.”

Cragin recalls a 1964 scrimmage Newtown played against Sacred Heart Academy from Waterbury. The opponent had more than three times the number of players Newtown fielded, and was tremendously more experienced. The young Newtown squad got a taste of reality.

“By the third play, blood was running down both my arms,” Cragin said. “They absolutely taught us what real football was.”

Just getting ready to go out onto the field took some training. The young players had never put on football pads before and some of them were throwing their shoulder pads on backwards or unsure of where exactly the slip-in leg pads went, Cragin remembers.

“We didn’t even know how to get dressed,” he said.

Team members sat in the locker room as coaches, including Head Coach Pete Kohut, a former standout quarterback at Brown University — and the man who would go on to guide Newtown to championship success over time — went over the basics of how to play the game, Cragin said.

Cragin recalls that, from the beginning, Newtown was very physical — tackling was about all he and most of his teammates knew how to do — but had trouble staying with experienced opponents no matter how hard the players tried.

“We were unskilled so we got pounded by teams,” said Cragin, explaining that powerhouse squads piled up points on Newtown. But, Cragin points out, Newtown’s physicality allowed it to hang tough with teams that were closer to its level.

The 1966 NHS yearbook, detailing the 1965 fall jayvee season, shows results of five games: The tie with New Milford and four defeats, two of which were competitive 6-0 nail-biters.

“We were innately tough. That part of the game they didn’t have to teach,” Cragin said. “We were a collection of roughnecks.”

Steve Gass was a defensive end/tight end on the 1965 team, in his senior year.

“There was so much to know, and so much had to be learned so quickly. There were so many gaps. You had to run basic, rudimentary plays,” Gass recalls.

Bob McLaughlin quarterbacked the jayvees in 1965, during which Cragin stood out mainly from his defensive back position as a safety. Cragin, who became a lead tackler on the squad in its early years, was thrilled just to have an opportunity to hit an opponent, he said.

Cragin took over as QB on the first varsity team when he served as one of the team captains. Being a part of a team was a thrilling experience for Cragin.

“I was so proud when I got my uniform,” Cragin explains. “One of the things I tried to do — and I still see people trying to do today — is try my best on every play. Fifty years later that still remains the theme for football.”

Cragin has a framed game program from the 1965 matchup with New Milford, given to him by his younger brother, Kevin, who went on to play golf at Newtown High and is a longtime member of the Board of Fire Commissioners in town. Another of the Cragin siblings, Brian, played football at NHS and went on to serve as an assistant coach with the program. Glass also saved the program from that first game as part of a scrapbook filled with newspaper clippings and photos.

“We had quite a few kids on the team and most of them didn’t know too much about football,” said Jack Shpunt, a lifetime Newtowner, who played on the first jayvee squad, in his senior year, after transferring from private school.

Despite the fact the Newtown team was overmatched in those first few years, the participants were excited to simply have the chance to play organized football.

“I enjoyed it a lot. I got to be very good friends with kids on the team who I didn’t know before,” Shpunt said.

Struggles, understandably and for good reason, continued the next fall, but the first win of the varsity program’s history took place that autumn: An 8-6 triumph over visiting Bethel, on November 5, 1966. Cragin still has a newspaper clipping from the win, which details him being carted off the field on a stretcher and taken to the hospital after he sustained a kick to the back of the head and was concussed.

“I took a pretty hard beating and I always wondered if it was worth it,” said Cragin, adding that it all proves to be worthwhile when he crosses paths with former opponents who recall Cragin applying an impactful hit of his own.

In that first varsity victory, Cragin made his presence felt before exiting with the injury. Mark Richardson ran 65 yards for a touchdown, and Cragin blocked for Vic Stikkel to run into the end zone for what turned out to be the decisive two-point conversion, giving Newtown an 8-0 lead. Bethel battled back but the Newtown defense fended off its opponents to hang on.

“It was a credit to the coaching staff and the guys I played with that we got as far as we got as fast as we did,” said Glass, adding that the start of the program served as a stepping stone for success.

Fast forward five decades, and Newtown High football is a two-time defending South-West Conference (SWC) champion and has several conference and state playoff appearances under its belt.

Of course, it didn’t take the program nearly that long to make strides. After takings its lumps early, Newtown’s team quickly became competitive, recalls Shpunt, adding that he watched his brother, Bill, play on winning Newtown High teams in the early 1970s.

In 1969, the Indians had their first winning season, posting a 6-2 mark. The team was unbeaten in 1970. In 1972, the Newtown High squad earned a share of the Western Connecticut Conference (WCC) championship, along with Joel Barlow of Redding. The WCC changed to the SWC in 1997.

Shpunt has been a part of Newtown football pretty much from day one through the present. He’s coached youth football in town every year except for one since 1972. He’s currently coach of the Newtown Youth Football organization’s fourth grade team, and has helped mold young players into high school standouts throughout the years.

Shpunt, who played the position of tackle, fondly recalls the first coaches in the program, including Kohut and Norman Weslake.

Kohut coached Newtown to eight WCC championships, as well as a state title, during his 20-plus years leading the team, through 1987.

Although the players come and go, rivalries that have stuck have been forged throughout the years.

Cragin’s dad kept a scrapbook of the team, and one of the pages features a 1966 telegram sent from New Milford High School’s team to Cragin, at NHS, with some attempted intimidation in the form of a prediction: “New Milford 25, Newtown 0.”

That was wishful thinking on the part of the New Milford team, as Newtown managed a scoreless tie against its fast-developing rival. Newtown, in recent memory, has dominated the matchup, which features the battle for the Boot Trophy every time the squads match up.

Quite A History

The football team began play at the current NHS stadium in the fall of 1970, shortly after the school building opened. An October 2, 1970, article in The Newtown Bee mentions that the Indians christened the new stadium with a 34-8 win over the American School for the Deaf, behind quarterback Jason Stevens.

In 1976, the stadium was dedicated to Bruce Jenner, after the 1967 NHS football player had gone on to become an Olympic decathlete champion. Years later, the home for Newtown football was renamed Blue & Gold Stadium.

In 1978, Kohut was named the Connecticut High School Coach of the Year. In 1997, he was inducted into the Newtown High School Hall of Fame.

Newtown High football won its first state championship in 1981, defeating Branford 20-7.

“That was just a euphoric feeling,” said Carl Paternoster, a defensive back on that first state championship squad, who returned to the program to coach in 1999. A former defensive coordinator, Paternoster is the special teams coach, and has been with the program, except for a three-year stint coaching his son at Oxford High, since the ’99 campaign.

Paternoster also ran track during his high school playing days. That served as his offseason workout, far different from today’s game in which football players lift weights and workout pretty much year-round.

The Indians claimed another state title in 1990 in its first of three straight appearances in the Class MM state championship game. Steve George, current coach of the Nighthawks, played on those teams — he was a guard and defensive end — and was a part of two state champions (also winning in 1992).

“It’s great to be a part of it,” George said of his link to Newtown High football. “As a player, and as a coach, and a fan, I’m just happy to be a part of it.”

In 1997, major renovations at NHS included a new football field and the addition of lights at Blue & Gold Stadium.

The Nighthawks played much of the 2010 campaign on the road while a conversion from natural grass to turf took place. The artificial surface was in place for the final game of the ’10 campaign, November 24, a clash won by Masuk.

There have only been five head coaches in the long, and storied, history of Newtown High football. Kohut was followed by Coach Zygmunt Olbrys in the late 1980s. Bob Zito took over the Indians in 1990, and coached until Ken Roberts took the reins in 2000. George has led the team since 2007.

The team name changed from the Indians to the Nighthawks in 1996, the year in which Newtown football had the highest-scoring season in its history, according to a game program from 2010, highlighting Newtown football success

Team, conference, and state record-setting success has been achieved by players, including Julian Dunn who, just last fall, tied the state touchdown record, before it was broken later in the postseason by another player. Newtown High has not only made history, but also prevented it from being rewritten; the 2014 Nighthawks ended Ansonia’s 48-game winning streak, just one victory shy of Cheshire’s state record.

The roots of all of this success go back prior to the start of 11-player football in the 60s, to the six-man team era, led by Coach Harold DeGroat. Hawley School, then the high school in town, won the Housatonic Valley Schoolmen’s League championship in 1948. According to the game program’s history, football program was dropped after the 1950 season, and wasn’t resurrected until 1964.

In 2005, the conglomerate of athletic fields behind Newtown High was named the Harold S. DeGroat and Ann M. Anderson Athletic Complex, honoring DeGroat and Anderson for establishing programs for youth and adults, including varsity sports, in 1944.

Gass recalls DeGroat offering Kohut old equipment, including leather helmets, leftover from the first era of high school football in town. The 1960s Indians wore hard-shelled helmets, however. Bee photos from the 1940s teams show players in leather helmets without face masks. Although much has indeed changed, including games being moved from afternoon to night starts, there were games played under the lights even during the six-man football days. Articles in The Bee, show that night games were played under lights at Taylor Field.

The first jayvee team touchdown, in 1965, was recapped in an October 8 article in The Bee as follows: “The Newtown score came in the last minute of the game with Vic Stikkel crossing the goal line after taking a pitch from quarterback Bob McLaughlin and skirting the left end.” Wayne Hartman made a tackle to prevent New Milford, on the final play of the game, from going ahead. The article also suggests that both inexperienced teams had a lot of work to do.

“While the score indicates a close game, statistics show a great deal of improvement needed on both sides of the ball. And this does not come as a surprise to anyone as both squads are still feeling their way,” the article reads.

As Cragin describes it, members of the mid-1960s teams thought they were better than they really were, but their enthusiasm and heart helped drive the inexperienced team members to give it their all, he notes.

“We thought we were the cat’s meow — we thought we could walk on water,” Cragin said. “We were nobodys who thought we were somebodys. It was a wonderful time.”

Cragin described the early days of the program as “a wacky start to a renowned Newtown football program.”

“It was fun and I wouldn’t have traded it for the world,” Cragin added.

In that October 8, 1965, edition of The Bee, it mentions the team’s first home game, set for Saturday, October 19, against St Joseph of Trumbull. Tickets were 50 cents.

The first varsity game was at Ledyard. Front page coverage in the September 16, 1966, edition of The Bee features a photo of the coaches and captains as they prepared for their first battle, set for September 17.

Ledyard had its way with Newtown, in a 44-8 triumph. The first varsity TD for Newtown was scored by Richardson, on a one-yard run. Cragin hit Hartman with a pass for a two-point conversion.

Gregg Simon, athletic director at Newtown High since 1999, coached girls’ basketball at NHS from 1992-2003, and remembers collecting tickets for Saturday afternoon games before lights were installed. Simon recalls Kohut running the scoreboard for the Indians in the early 1990s.

In honor of the 50-year history of Newtown varsity football, and 50th anniversary of competitive football at Newtown High, Simon plans to honor players from those 1964, ’65, and ’66 teams at a game this fall. Appropriately, plans are being made for New Milford’s visit for a 7 pm kickoff on November 6.

“I just think it’s really important to be able to connect to your past,” said Simon, adding that he’s planning to bring back and honor players from the first teams in the mid-1960s.

They are invited to contact Simon via e-mail at simong@newtown.k12.ct.us.

Although football has been played at Newtown High for a half century, the game was played by high school athletes in town back in the 1940s, when six-man squads represented Hawley School. This 1948 coverage, in The Newtown Bee, details the team's league championship triumph.
The December 11, 1981 is issue of The Newtown Bee featured coverage of Newtown High School's first state championship team on the front cover.
This photo, from the September 16, 1966 issue of The Newtown Bee, shows coaches and captains from the first varsity team preparing for their opening game.
The football page from the 1966 Newtown High School yearbook features the 1965  team. Some of these players will be on hand, at Blue & Gold Stadium on November 6, to be honored as Newtown High recognizes 50 years of football. A ceremony will take place at 6:45 pm, just before the Newtown-New Milford game.
The October 8, 1965 edition of The Newtown Bee includes coverage of the jayvee team's first game, a 6-6 tie with New Milford.
These photos, from the 1966 Newtown High yearbook, shows the first jayvee team, from the fall of 1965. A year later, the first varsity squad competed. A half-century later, the program is a conference powerhouse.
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