The fire everyone knows about, the one that’s the flaming hub of a spirited Thanksgiving Eve pep rally, will take place Wednesday night, just hours before the Greyhounds host rival Ansonia. The one that players and alumni know about, the one that’s the flickering center of a pensive gathering, will take place just a few hours before the other.
It’s called The Burning of the Shoe, a tradition Naugatuck head coach Rob Plasky brought with him from Springfield College when he took the reigns of this already tradition-rich program in 2001. And it’s just what it sounds like: The Hounds gather around a burning cleat and just talk … and listen.
“It’s very significant of like the Olympics for your football program,” Plasky explained. “When they start the Olympics, they start it with the torch. And they keep the torch lit throughout the entire Olympics, and then once the Olympics are done, they move on. It’s really a major symbol for our senior class, who has had the torch lit from their freshman year, when they were there burning the shoe. … We allow the seniors to just stay there by themselves until that light goes out, until the shoe is burned, and there’s no more flame, while the rest of the team walks away while it was lit. And then once that light goes out, they have become members of the football alumni family.”
Plasky, of course, is an alumnus himself, a 1989 NHS grad, as are members of his coaching staff, including Chuck Rek, an ’81 alum. Some of Rek’s most vivid memories are of donning the Garnet and Grey—and they’re not all fond.
“I’ll never forget 1978, my sophomore year, my first game against Sacred Heart,” he recalled. “I put my head down and got planted right on my a–. And I said, ‘Wow. That’ll never happen again.’”
Anyone who’s met Rek knows it probably didn’t.
Naugatuck went 0-4 against the Chargers while Rek was in high school then beat Ansonia the next year and won the first state championship in school history. So besides one good butt-planting, there’d be reason for him be a little bitter about his time on the borough gridiron. Yet he keeps coming back, year after year, as a volunteer assistant.
“You have guys like Coach Rek here, who has dedicated so much time into this program because he knows what the program meant to him when he played here,” Plasky said. “… Loves the kids, loves working with the kids, knows what this program did for him, and wants to give that foundation back to the kids.”
Given Rek’s story, you might wonder, What’s the point of The Burning of the Shoe? There was no such thing when he or Plasky played, and its absence hasn’t made them any less dedicated to their alma mater.
“I just think there should always be something of importance,” Plasky explained, “especially for those kids that played four years in your program, that really put [in] their heart and soul, time, effort, and you just hope that they walked away with a solid foundation.”
And though The Burning of the Shoe is a relatively new addition to a Naugy-Ansonia tradition that dates to 1900, it’s starting to catch on with some of the old-timers.
“You get some alumni to come down, and they wish they had done something like that, but they come every year because they want to be a part of it,” Plasky said “And now the kids that played for us, we’re getting a lot more that come back each year for it. They look forward to that 3 o’clock burning of the shoe because they know what it meant to them.”