Camp brings past and future together

Former New York Giant running back and Super Bowl champion Rodney Hampton speaks with children during a NFL Alumni Youth Football Camp at Naugatuck High School on July 24. The NFL Alumni Association partnered with Naugatuck High to host the five-day, non-contact football camp for boys and girls ages 6 to 14. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

NAUGATUCK — The future spent some time with the past last week at Naugatuck High’s Veterans Field turf.

About 35 youngsters participated last week in a youth football camp in conjunction with the NFL Alumni Association. Naugatuck second-year head coach Dave Sollazzo organized the camp, which brought former New York Giants players Billy Taylor, Rodney Hampton and Sam Garner to the borough for a day each.

“I had some connections with the NFL — I coached a bunch of guys who have played in the NFL — and I heard about this thing,” said Sollazzo, who was a 30-year college coach at Division I schools such as Maryland and Georgia Tech. “Most of it’s down south, so I said, hey, it’s time to bring this to Connecticut. I reached out to the NFL Alumni Association, and the president was going to be in the area, and he said he would stop by and meet with me and our athletic director, Brian Mariano. He toured the facility and really liked it, so he said, ‘Let’s do it.’ They’re trying to branch out and get north a little bit, so we’re happy to have it here.”

Hampton, who was a two-time Pro Bowl running back for the Giants from 1990-97 and won Super Bowl XXV, visited camp last Tuesday. Billy Taylor, who played running back for the Giants, Jets and Raiders from 1978-82, was last Wednesday’s guest, and Sam Garnes, who was a safety for the Giants and Jets from 1997-2003, stopped by last Thursday.

Garnes told campers about the way he overcame early struggles at the University of Cincinnati. He was recruited based on his athletic ability and strength, but his first practices as a Bearcat were marred by poor technique learned in high school in the Bronx.

“When you get tired, you can’t rely on anyone else to do something for you,” Garnes said. “You have to have good technique to do it with you’re tired. My teammates laughed at me, but I didn’t shy away. At nighttime, when everyone else had curfew, calling their parents and girlfriends, I was running a 40,000-seat stadium. It took me about 35 minutes to do it at my best. When I was finished, I was tired. Then I worked on my technique. If you can have good technique when you’re tired or sleepy or not feeling good, imagine how good you can be when you feel good.”

He also made a point to the youngsters that it’s important to be a leader who strives to be good in many areas, not just one.

“I had a nice career, so I’m not disappointed in that way,” Garnes said. “I’m disappointed that I didn’t go out and get a 4.0 (GPA). When I played football, I would do whatever it takes. If I dropped a ball, I’d go out and catch a hundred balls. But if I got a C on a test, I accepted that because I thought it was good enough. Now I’m 44, I can’t go back and bring up my GPA. I like to win. I wish I could say I had all this football success and had good grades.”

Naugatuck High School football coach Dave Sollazzo breaks down a huddle during a NFL Alumni Youth Football Camp at Naugatuck High School on July 24. The NFL Alumni Association partnered with Naugatuck High to host the five-day, non-contact football camp for boys and girls ages 6 to 14. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

Taylor echoed that sentiment during his visit.

“Most of these kids, probably 99.5 percent of them, will never even go on to play college ball,” Taylor said. “If your background is good and your mom and dad are on you the way they should, you should at least be able to get something out of school. If you are open to everything, then the world is your oyster and you can do anything you want. If you just concentrate on one thing, then you are in trouble.”

Each of the players stuck around for a little while after their speeches to sign autographs, take pictures and provide a little bit of coaching help with the staff that included coaches from Naugatuck High and Naugatuck Pop Warner.

“The youth of the area are having an experience they’ve never had before,” Sollazzo said. “They’re meeting NFL players and hearing from very successful people what it takes to be successful. We’re generating interest with the youth in terms of football and Naugatuck High School. I want to connect with the Pop Warner league as much as possible. Our Pop Warner league is tremendous. I want these kids to be fired up about coming to Naugatuck High School and having a great experience playing football here.”

The Republican-American contributed to this story.