Happy Thanksgiving! This is always my favorite column of the year to write, and it’s that way for a few reasons. First, I only have two rules — don’t swear too badly, and don’t embarrass my mother. Second, I get to tell stories that amuse myself and/or others. Third, this means that we’re approaching leftover turkey sandwich season, which is the greatest time of year.
So kick back, reflect on everything you’re lucky enough to have in your life (even on days when you think it sucks), and enjoy whatever I managed to scramble together while dealing with my first year as a teacher.
‘It’s the stick’
The top row of bleachers at any Woodland football game has always been a, well, interesting place to be. Since Day 1 of the Hawks football program, there has been no shortage of characters on that top shelf.
While the pre-kickoff words of Carl Reis — “YOU GOTTA HIT SOMEBODY!” — will always hold a special place with me, there’s a new tradition at Woodland that is far goofier.
They call it, simply, “the stick.” It is, well, a stick, complete with a nonsensical history.
“We were scouting a game (last year) at Holy Cross, and Carter Amore — one of my favorites from last year — picked up a stick and was like, ‘Boom, it’s the stick,’” senior quarterback Tyler Bulinski recalls.
That was until Woodland coach Chris Moffo saw it.
“Moffo broke it because he was pissed,” says Bob Bulinski, Tyler’s father and this year’s keeper of the stick.
But that was not where our story ends.
“Frank Amore picked it back up, put it back together, painted it black, and throughout the season added our scores and player of the game numbers with the captains,” says Bob, who also noted that Frank forced him to print T-shirts honoring the bumpy lumber. “This thing went everywhere.”
It followed the Hawks through last year’s 9-2 campaign and the state playoffs, after which Frank passed down the responsibilities of the stick to the quarterback’s dad.
“I hate it, but I have to do it,” Bob says. “Do you know how many people have asked me, ‘How bad is your back that you need a stick?’”
After Woodland’s season-opening win over Torrington, many of the Hawks faithful stopped at The River’s Edge Pub and Grille. There, the originator of the stick wanted a status update.
“The first game, we all go down to Joe’s,” Bob says. “(Frank was) all over me — ‘Where’s the stick? Did you update it?’ Somehow he got in my car, I don’t know how. He broke into my car, took the stick, went home and updated it with the first game.”
But wait, there’s more.
“Frank made Moffo touch the stick after every game last year,” Bob notes. “That was part of these rules. After the first game this year, (Moffo) looked at me like, you’ve gotta be kidding me. I have to wait for him after every game this year.”
For his part, Moffo rolled his eyes and rightfully declined comment for this tomfoolery.
For as stupid as it may be, the players believe in the superstition of a stick that includes their numbers, their scores and their quotes.
“We’re 17-2 in the regular season since the creation of the stick,” Tyler says. “It’s just good luck.”
“Everything that’s played a part in our success is on there,” lineman Alek Tolboe adds.
The way-back machine
And now, a brief look back at some big anniversaries of holiday games past:
15 years ago: Jared Katchmar hit Jeff Jones for the game-winning, 12-yard touchdown with 47.4 seconds to play as Woodland rallied for a 27-22 win over Seymour to earn the program’s first Naugatuck Valley League championship before an estimated 5,000 fans on a blustery Black Friday. The Hawks went on to finish the year 12-0 and win the Class SS state title.
25 years ago: In the greatest game of the Naugatuck-Ansonia rivalry, 12,000 fans at Jarvis Stadium watched Naugy fail on fourth-and-goal from the 6 in overtime to give the Chargers a 28-21 win and the NVL championship. Both teams entered the game undefeated. Joey Edmonds and Dan Conklin sent the game to overtime with a 65-yard touchdown run and ensuing two-point conversion, respectively, with less than two minutes to play.
30 years ago: Snow postponed this game three days, and the ‘Hounds only managed 94 yards of offense in a 14-7 defeat. Greg Murphy scored Naugy’s only touchdown, while Ansonia scored the game-winner with 2:51 left on a Kevin Sharkey run.
40 years ago: Brian Antrum carried 26 times for 140 yards and a score, and Terry Palmer ran in a 29-yard touchdown, but it wasn’t enough to lift Naugy past Ansonia. The Chargers rallied in the fourth quarter, and Billy McAllister plunged in from 3 yards with 5:37 left to win it, 21-14.
50 years ago: Rallying from a 6-0 deficit in the fourth quarter, the Greyhounds kicked a field goal and John Kostka threw the game-winning 32-yard touchdown within the final 11 minutes to win, 9-6.
65 years ago: Naugy completed its first undefeated season since 1932 with a 19-13 win over Ansonia before 7,000 fans. Fred Bendler accounted for all three touchdowns on runs of 68 and 22 yards and a pass of 14 yards to Bill Brewer. Naugatuck finished 8-0-1 in Ray Legenza’s second year as coach.
Pride of the borough
On a personal note, it’s been a pleasure to get to watch Naugatuck quarterback Jay Mezzo play over the last few seasons — as much due to the pride I know his parents have in their community as it is fun to watch Mezzo lead his team.
I’ve been lucky enough to have plenty of encounters with Bob and Eileen (Jay’s parents) over the years. As I was studying broadcast journalism at Quinnipiac, many of my assignments required me to shoot news pieces at the local level. Any time I needed his time during his tenure as mayor, Bob was always gracious and helpful to an up-and-comer.
When the grumps spewed their fires in my direction over the years after writing something they didn’t like, Bob was always the voice of reason to hear on a sideline or in the press box — he enjoyed the fact that his Greyhounds were in the spotlight and always wanted to talk about the positives.
Last fall, I had the great opportunity to complete my student teaching at City Hill Middle School, where Eileen is principal. She was most supportive of my new endeavor, and it was nice to share a moment talking about the weekly football game — although her nerves were never at ease.
Local high school football is irreplaceable for reasons like these — knowing the people who gain such pride from watching their kids play adds a measure of community spirit that can’t be touched elsewhere. Congrats to the Mezzos on a great ride so far!
No big-time Woodland sporting event is complete without the woman affectionately known as “Momma Manning.”
Nancy Manning, who has taught English at Woodland for the past decade, is the faculty’s undisputed champion of Hawk pride. She loves all of her Woodland sports, but there’s no denying that she holds a soft spot for the football team.
“Mrs. Manning, we couldn’t do anything we do without her,” Moffo says. “She takes care of the stands for us, she’s cheering the kids on, she’s shaking their hands as they take the field, she’s helping them out in school. I can’t say enough about her. We’re lucky to have her.”
After school, she runs a once-weekly study hall to make sure the student-athletes are fulfilling their classroom obligations.
“She’s places where we can’t be,” Moffo says. “It’s a huge asset to the program, having someone in the building who will look after the kids to make sure they’re doing the right things and taking care of their schoolwork.”
“She gets us on top of our grades,” Bulinski says. “She helps us out. She even comes to practice once in a while. She’s always yelling and screaming and giving us bumps.”
While they appreciate what Manning does inside the building, they love it when they can hear her firing up the student section during games.
“We can’t thank her enough for what she does for us,” Tolboe says.
“Biggest Woodland football fan of all time,” senior lineman Ryan Knobel says. “Period.”
Editor’s note: This article appears in the Citizen’s News’ special Thanksgiving football section published Nov. 28, 2019.