We gratefully acknowledge the story submitted by William Stapleton and Casey Stapleton, which was used in the creation of this column.
If you frequented West Haven sporting events during the 1960s or 1970s, it is likely that you saw him: a solitary, gray-haired figure, tall and thin, shuffling along the sidelines, and flashing a “V for victory” from time to time.
“Who is that guy?” “Oh, that’s Coach John.” And that’s all that anyone seemed to know. Time has passed, and memories have faded, but the image of this enigmatic man still remains. So, just who was Coach John, and what was his story? Well, it’s like this:
John Stapleton was born about 1905 in Holyoke Massachusetts to William and Lillian Stapleton. John, his three sisters, Mary (Glynn), Eleanor (Farrell) , Elizabeth (Betty Haley) and parents eventually moved to West Haven, where another brother, William, was born in 1918. By this time John was attending the old West Haven High School at the corner of Union Avenue and Center Street. After his graduation, John went to work for the telephone company. It was a well-known fact that if you gave John the number of a telephone pole, he could tell you the exact location from memory. He had an amazing knack for statistics; for such is the way with autistic savants.
John was not very athletic, so if he was known for anything it would be for record keeping and things of that nature. He never played sports or coached any teams but he would share with his listeners everything he had read, and with great detail.
In his 20’s John had what in those days was called a mental breakdown. Very little of this period in his life is known today. John’s siblings only remembered the conversations and arguments that they were too young to understand. One brother remembers his mother arguing not to send John away. The stigma associated with mental illness, and unreliable results in dealing with them ultimately compelled the family to care for John at home.
The children grew up and were married; and eventually it was just John, his parents and one brother living in their house on Brown Street. Finally, John’s brother married, just at the time that their mother passed away; the responsibility of caring for John now fell on the shoulders of the newlyweds, who would eventually care for him along with their own children.
As the children grew, they were enlisted into the role of caregiver, and took turns at looking after their uncle. According to John’s nephew, “My uncle had his room upstairs and hardly came out, except to go to work. I remember leaving a dish for supper at his door and returning to find the empty plate cleaner than a whistle. When I did get the rare opportunity to talk to uncle John he would rattle off baseball statistics or players’ histories that would impress the best of sports announcers. Unfortunately at age five I did not know the difference between an earned run average and daylight saving time. I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about.”
In 1957 John’s father passed away. By now, John was only able to hold simple jobs as a dishwasher at locations in New Haven and West Haven.
No one remembers just exactly when John became a fan of West Haven High School, but what a fan he became! He would run along the sidelines of the football games and keep an unofficial score at the High School and Twilight League baseball games. He also went to the old Sailors games and all the Yale games. John befriended a great football legend by the name of John Poe; it is believed that this might have been the time that “Coach” was added to his name.
In the early 1960’s Coach John slipped on a patch of ice and broke his leg. A compound fracture of the tibia would lead to a year or more of surgeries and rehabilitation. The entire family labored day and night to try and ease John’s pain and suffering which at times seemed unending. Finally, it was decided that John to would have to move out on his own, once he had healed. Ultimately, he was able to rent a room on Main Street. The injury would leave John with a permanent limp, and later his famous shuffle. It did not keep him from the sidelines but he was certainly slower and would hop more than run.
Many West Haven athletes will recall that Coach John would give a silver dollar to the most outstanding player at each game; hopefully the recipients kept these coins because it not only meant the Coach was recognizing their achievements; it also meant that he probably did not eat that night; for he was a man of very meager finances, and a dollar would have gone a long way for him.
By the early 1980’s Coach John’s movements had slowed down considerably, and it was evident that something was taking its toll on him; ultimately, he succumbed to cancer. Those who attended his wake and funeral were surprised to find a most touching gesture: some anonymous, appreciative soul had left their own hard-earned West Haven Varsity letters in Coach John’s casket, as a final gift to someone who had made a difference to them.
We—each of us—are brought into this world, and given a unique set of physical and mental gifts and challenges that we are to carry with us throughout this life; and we know not why they were chosen for us. It is our task to make the best of them, and to go forward, helping others to the best of our abilities. In his own way, Coach John understood this, and used his own humble gifts for the betterment of others.
It is comforting to know that although he didn’t get to enjoy them in life, the Coach finally received the High School letters that he so truly deserved.