By Dan Shine
WHHS Football 1968
An Autumn to Remember
By the spring of 1968, all those kids who had learned to play football on the sandlots of West Haven had come together to see if they had what it took to play high school football. Spring practice took place for two weeks in June, and then the prospective players entered into a regimen of eight hour days, working out in the August heat.
They were days of hitting and getting hit, of running, and passing, and sweating and nursing multiple bruises. According to Pete Chirico, “The coaches pushed our conditioning and our practices to the limit, and I can clearly remember Tom Hunt and Joe McHugh saying, ‘If you survive the practices, the games will be a breeze.’ They were right.”
The Westies Jamboree took place on the first week of September; the actual season began in mid-September, and nobody had any idea of the events that were in store for them.
The first game was played on Milford’s home field, and they beat Milford 62-6 that day. Some questioned, “Were they that good, or was this just a fluke?” It was no fluke, but the truth of that was yet to be revealed.
Notre Dame’s coach Ray Tellier, upon hearing reports of that game, is said to have commented, “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of them (WHHS).” Both he and West Haven coach McHugh were shocked at the next game, when West Haven beat Notre Dame 50-12.
And the West Haven Football Team of 1968 continued on, beating every opponent, ending the season undefeated, becoming Connecticut State Champions and being ranked #5 in the nation. That kind of record comes once in a lifetime. In the words of Ed Francis, who played slot back: “For me, the incredible season of 1968 came down to 12 minutes on a Saturday morning at Quigley Stadium against ND. It all changed in that one space of time.
“We had all known each other since we were youngsters and we knew we had a lot of good athletes amongst us. We had played with and against each other for the 10 years or so of our youth. We had size, speed, skills, toughness, and we had something no one else had…..we had depth. Most teams had 5 to 10 good players. We knew we had 20-25 kids who could play for anybody. Even so, in our first game with Milford, it was so easy for us that we had a hard time believing it. And with our nemesis Notre Dame, right around the corner we knew we would have the answer soon.
“In that first quarter at Quigley, is started off badly. ND was highly favored and they scored first. Immediately there was an air of “oh no, not again”. But literally, in the next few minutes of that quarter, both our defensive and offensive teams started to click and it was over in a flash. We were stopping them cold and scoring almost at will. By the end of that first quarter, I think we all felt we were for real. In our next 7 games we were only seriously challenged once by Stamford who we eventually beat by 15 points.
“So many years later, I can still remember the feeling that morning. The direction of many of our lives pivoted on those twelve minutes, because the opportunities we would soon be presented with flowed from those 9 amazing games. I think we all recognize that we were lucky to be part of such a great team which created wonderful memories for the City and for us that have lasted to this day.”
When Steve Johnson was asked what his feelings about the 1968 season were, so many years later, he answered thus: “I felt gratitude. I want to thank all the folks who came out to support our team; and I was grateful for the support from my Mom and Dad, as I know each of us was glad to see our parents and relatives in the crowd. To the Westie community, thanks for just being there; I am glad to read and hear that the events of that year are still remembered, over forty years later.”
In the 1969 WHHS Yearbook, may be found the following:
Coach Joe McHugh sums up this year by saying, “Everyone worked together. There was team effort and dedication.” This was the year of the West Haven High School Blue Devil team. It was a year of incredible victory, bronzed game balls, outstanding play, and slogans on helmets. It was a year that will long be remembered by the team, the students, the faculty, and alumni of our school. The team has brought honor and pride to the coaches, the players as individuals, the student body, and the community; and now we take this opportunity to honor them.”
We would like to thank Pete Chirico, Harry Conlan, Bert Siclari, Burt Cohen, Ed Francis, Steve Johnson, Ted Williams and especially Tom Lavery for their patient assistance in the creation of this column, and the retelling of this tale.
To be continued.