NAUGATUCK — The tradition of Naugatuck football can be traced back over a century. The Greyhounds are part of one of the oldest Thanksgiving rivalries in all of New England that dates back to 1895 against the Chargers from Ansonia.
The list of coaches that have molded that tradition over the years is quite impressive. One of the most famous, if not legendary, coaches was Ray Legenza who compiled a 90-33-9 mark from 1953 through 1967.
Legenza will forever be remembered as the coach who guided Naugatuck to a 64-game baseball winning streak that drew national attention, but his .714 winning percentage on the football field ranks him third all-time at Naugatuck.
There was Charlie Bertero who coached from 1968 to 1972, won four NVL titles and had a .860 (42-6-2) winning percentage. Then came Craig Peters. From 1973 to 2000, Peters produced eight NVL titles and two state championships, going 213-75-2.
Rob Plasky followed with two NVL titles and a .648 winning percentage. Shawn Kuczenski served one season as the interim coach, and Craig Bruno went 30-13 over the last four years.
This season, new head coach Dave Sollazzo takes over the helm with an impressive resume built in the college ranks. The first thing on the coach’s agenda was to rekindle that sense of tradition in the program.
“I have been around football for a long time,” Sollazzo said. “The great programs all talked about the value of tradition and the people who came before them because those were the people who built the foundation for that success. I’m an old school guy and I want to bring that tradition back.”
In order to do that, Sollazzo heeded the advice of a former Greyhound and co-founder of the Naugatuck High School Football Alumni Association, Frank Johnson Jr.
“I was approached by Frank Johnson Jr. and he asked if I would show this documentary about a longtime Naugatuck legend Ed Poscavage,” Sollazzo said. “After watching it myself I knew that is where we needed to start to bring back the foundation of this rich tradition.”
The documentary Johnson suggested Sollazzo show the team is “The Photograph.” It’s part of a series of documentaries, called “Engraved on a Nation,” that Canada’s all-sports television network, TSN, aired in 2012 to celebrate the centennial of Canada’s Grey Cup.
“The Photograph” focused on the 1942 Grey Cup. The game was won by the Toronto Royal Canadian Air Force Hurricanes, a team made up of Canadian men training to become fighter pilots, and Poscavage, a Naugatuck native.
Poscavage was an All-State football player in 1932 for the Greyhounds. He played alongside Dick Tuckey who went on to play for the Cleveland Rams and the Washington Redskins.
Poscavage was also a national record holder in swimming and went on to play both sports at Ohio State, where he graduated from in 1941.
Poscavage then enlisted to fight in World War II as a pilot. He received an honorable discharge from the U.S. military after he crashed a plane in training, and then enlisted with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) in January 1942.
After training in Canada, and winning the Grey Cup, Poscavage returned to the U.S. and flew 13 combat missions over Germany in World War II. His plane was shot down on a mission over Gersheim, Germany, in 1945. He is buried at the Lorraine American Cemetery and Memorial in France.
The story in itself is about a star athlete whose accomplishments and tale of sacrifice flew under the radar for many years — Poscavage was inducted into the Naugatuck Hall of Fame in 2013. The lesson being, it was never about recognition for Poscavage, it was about giving your all for your team and your country.
“It was (Mayoral Aide) Ed Cater who put that video before me,” Johnson said. “I was beyond words after I saw it. I was amazed at the response by the team as they gave it a standing ovation. I really think they took a lot away from it and it resonated with them as they each came up to me after and thanked me for showing the video. Coach Sollazzo was very open to the idea, and one of his main goals is to get the alumni and the team synced up and to bring back that tradition.”
The documentary has certainly had an impact on the team.
“That film showed me that there is a lot more to being a leader on a team than just having talent to play the game,” said Mike Plasky, the senior quarterback and a captain. “You need to show up every day willing to work as hard as you can in the classroom, on the field and in the locker room. You just can’t go through the motions because everything you do affects everyone in that locker room.”
The team is responding. They meet at 6 a.m. every day to work out in the weight room or run on the track. The bond that is being built will go a long way at directing the path of this year’s team.
“There is a sense of accountability,” said Jiram Lopez, a senior defensive linemen and captain. “The coach mentions respect and trust, and the film about Poscavage showed how that dedication to one another and team brought out that respect and trust in one another.”
“That film showed that not only were those guys tough but they were family,” added Sammy Ayash, a senior offensive linemen and captain. “That is what we are trying to build up here, and coach has stressed tradition and that is what that film is about.”
The sense of family and brotherhood was evident late last month as shouts of encouragement filled the weight room of a team that believes in one another. Behind the players stood Sollazzo bellowing, “Let’s go. You’re never out of the fight. Get that meat grinding.”
“Football is a tough game, and you need to be mentally tough and that’s what we are trying to build in that locker room,” Sollazzo said. “Respect is a combination of mental and physical toughness. These kids are buying into the tradition by showing up every day at 6 a.m. It all starts with trust working side by side with their brothers.”
The Republican-American contributed to this article.