October 10, 2009
By Ken Krayeske • 9:45 PM EST
Old meets New - The 2009 Western Connecticut State University Colonials and their counterparts from 40 years prior, the 1969 Western footbaill team stand at attention for the Star Spangled Banner before a home game in Danbury Saturday, October 3, 2009.
For as long as I can remember, behind my father's desk, on his bookshelf, sat a football, painted in white "Wesconn 1969 2-2-1." I knew it wasn't one to be played with.
I always vaguely understood that in 1969, three years before I was born, my father was the first head football coach at Western Connecticut State University. And by 2-2-1, I understood that the team had a .500 record.
Exactly who those men who played for him that year were, and exactly what that experience meant to those men, and to my father in general, and even to me, had been somewhat blurry. It was one of those things about your dad that you consider, but cannot necessarily communicate about.
Months ago, my dad told me to block out Saturday, October 3, because the 1969 Wesconn football team would celebrate its 40th anniversary at the Western campus in Danbury.
In the late 1960s, the students at Wesconn wanted a football team. In one parade, they built a float envisioning their dream. The grainy newsprint picture showed a car towing a float, featuring a few football players and a scoreboard of Wesconn beating UCLA in the Rose Bowl.
While that dream still remains far off for the Western football program, which is winless in 2009, Western actually has a football team. The student body rallied together in 1969 and voted in favor of starting a team, against the wishes of the academic dean.
The concept of that kind of student-fueled democracy and campus management may seem startling to students on today's campuses. That an administration would follow student demands and budget money for such a vast undertaking as a football team seems stunning to me now.
The inverse, then, should be true, that a student body could vote to dissolve a sports program, too. But considering how universities have been co-opted by corporations, and how the profit motive dominates college sports, I doubt it could ever happen.
That vote was in the late Sixties, though, and students exercised their political muscle in ways unheard of now. Even the clips from the student newspaper, with headlines bragging how Wesconn's fledgling program beating UConn 44-0, shows a different time.
The student paper seemed fuller, more thoughtful than the version of the Western Echo available on campus this past Saturday. But I don't want to sit here and say "My how things have changed."
The Wesconn varsity board of governors hired my dad, Jim Krayeske, as head coach. He had experience starting programs from scratch, as he did at Watertown High School in 1966.
Some 60 players tried out for a team without equipment, fields or even a team trainer. Coach K picked 48 players, some of whom had never played football in their lives, some of whom had been recruited by other colleges in New England to play ball, but went to Western because it was inexpensive and close to home.
At the time, Western cost maybe $250 a semester, from what the players I met told me. A semester's worth of books might often cost more than the credits themselves. Today, not so much.
Before Saturday's Western football game, about 24 players from the original 1969 team showed up for pregame ceremonies. These graying, or balding, slightly overweight men were celebrated for being pioneers.
As with all reunions, some of the players had died, some were not to be located, and some couldn't make it. Some of them had not been back to the campus since 1969, when they were called the Indians. Now, Westconn's nickname is the Colonials.
For those who did make the reunion and the pregame festivities, Western's coach allowed them to stay on the field and watch the game from the sidelines. I brought my camera to keep my photo skills sharp, but I found talking to my father's former players far more interesting.
I learned about my dad's mannerisms as a coach (He was like a grandfather – one player said, even though he was only ten years older than these guys). I enjoyed the experience of talking to people who were looking at seminal events in their lives with 40 years worth of perspective.
One player, a defensive back who graduated, became a teacher and now works in industry, talked about how some 20 years later, he had to have his knees replaced because of a crackback block in that 1969 season.
The player was lost for the season, and crackback blocks are now illegal because they were so injurious. But this player went on to a full life. He got married, had children, and while on the sidelines talking, he said he wished he could have one day to go back.
One day to play again, and then leave it. He wished that he could have one day to visit with his children when they were two years old, four years old, six years old and ten. Just to remember what it was like. And then return to the present.
Another player talked about how when you are 22, you don’t quite know how influential being on a team like this will be. Some said it was the best time of their life.
They certainly had fun, like when 275-pound defensive lineman and team co-captain Joe Sacca made national news for dressing in drag, calling himself "princess" and trying to win the title of Homecoming Queen.
The picture of a local hotel marquee described Sacca's pursuit: "Gadzooks: He's Here. Tiny Joe Sacca. 270-Pound Fairy Godmother."
Sacca's dad was also the team doctor. It was a tight-knit group. Saturday night at a banquet, listening to players recall the season, it became clear what was important to them. Not just the experience of being first, but 40 years later, they seem to appreciate what was was lasting, what they took with them.
The quarterback of the team said that he didn't even know he threw the first touchdown pass in Western’s history. He got flattened on the play. He looked up in the stands at the tiny field, and saw his dad cheering, and he knew they scored.
I loved looking at the black and white pictures of my father, young, handsome, crew cut, wearing sunglasses, leading his team, a ragtag bunch of future teachers.
Even though I didn’t play on the team, I sat there thinking about how that football on my father's bookshelf shaped me: I spent my youth looking up to a pigskin that symbolized what it meant to take on challenges, build teams, and break ground, even if it means only winning half the time.
I consider myself lucky for this, and when I watched the players gather round my father on Saturday night to give him a trophy for being that coach, I was proud of my old man. Some 40 years later, these men have come to recognize how five months changed the course of their lives.