Just as the NFL will have its 50th Super Bowl this season, the Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference is also having its 50th conference championship game this Thanksgiving when defending champion Darien and New Canaan have a rematch of last year’s overtime thriller that Darien won, 28-21.
There have been other thrillers and many other memorable performances.
But it would be awfully hard to top that first championship game when one factors in the quality of the opponents, the buildup leading up to it, how special it was and the electricity that enveloped Stamford High School’s Boyle Stadium when city rivals Stamford Catholic and Rippowam squared off on Nov. 19, 1966.
These were two of the best teams in the state, both undefeated and with lengthy winning streaks that began a couple seasons prior, and they would match up in the first showdown of division champions playing each other to decide the FCIAC champion.
Two weeks prior to the game both teams improved to 8-0 with victories. Rippowam shut out Norwalk, 18-0, for its 18th straight victory. Stamford Catholic increased its unbeaten streak (with one tie) to 18 with a 28-8 victory over Danbury in which Ricky Robustelli, a 6-foot-1, 162-pound senior quarterback, completed 15-of-18 passes for 224 yards.
Both teams had games scheduled the following week but a heavy rainstorm forced the cancellation of Rippowam’s home game against West Haven.
Stamford Catholic played at Brien McMahon in very muddy and sloppy conditions and Robustelli threw three more touchdown passes in a 32-6 victory. At that point he had 13 touchdown passes in his last four games and he led the state with 18.
The next game for both teams would be the big showdown – the first FCIAC football championship game. Coach Al Shanen’s Rippowam Warriors were the West Division champions while the Crusaders of coach Bob Horan had won the East.
“The buildup came from where we were both 6-0 and then 7-0 and then 8-0, and people felt like this would be two unblemished records,” Robustelli recalled. “Prior to that there were also the streaks from year before. So momentum sort of built.”
Rippowam was led by the sensational Bobby Valentine, a very fast 5-foot-9, 175-pound junior running back with sharp-cutting, elusive moves. He was selected to the New Haven Register All-State Team as a sophomore in 1965 when Rippowam was voted the No. 1 team in the final state poll. Valentine was in the midst of a career so stellar that he is still the only player from the FCIAC who has been selected to the Register All-State Team for three consecutive years.
Valentine was recruited by the best college football programs, Notre Dame and USC among them, but he opted for baseball and was on his way to a successful Major Leagues career before being derailed by a horrific fractured leg.
Both teams had an abundance of talent in which most of their linemen played both ways.
Only 11 players were selected to the Register’s All-State Team in ’66 and four of them played in this game. They were Valentine, Robustelli, Stamford Catholic senior lineman John Thies and Rippowam senior wide receiver Tom McCrocklin. Valentine was the conference’s leading scorer and McCrocklin was second.
Tickets went on sale early in the week at both high schools, Darien High School and at a couple sporting goods stores in Stamford. The Stamford Advocate reported an attendance of 10,393 in paid ticket sales but there were many more bodies in the stadium, with crowd estimates ranging from 11,000 to 13,000.
The first fans arrived at Boyle Stadium about four hours before the 11 a.m. kickoff to secure the best seats and to buy tickets had they not done that yet.
“When we got off the bus more than an hour before the game there wasn’t an open seat and there were like five or 10 rows of people standing,” Valentine recalled. “It was the most people I had ever seen at a sporting event. There was so much electricity there. It was a beautiful day.”
“I’ll always remember the pageantry of it,” Robustelli said. “When you came to the field you saw 10,000 to 12,000 people and there were more people on the rooftops of houses surrounding the field. It gave you chills. Looking back it was just a high school football game but at the time if felt like the Super Bowl to us.”
It was suspenseful for a good portion of the game – a defensive battle in the first half that ended with “Rip” taking a 6-0 lead into the locker room. The only touchdown was scored by the defense when a mishandled snap squirted past Robustelli into the end zone and Rippowam defensive tackle Wayne Hitchcock pounced on it.
The Warriors threatened to take a 12-0 lead later in the first half when they drove deep into Stamford Catholic territory but Dom Carlucci ended that threat when he came up with the first of his three interceptions.
He had, in retrospect, turned momentum Catholic’s way for good. But not many had any sense of that at the time.
“At halftime I was thinking about being the goat of the game,” Robustelli recalled. “I felt like: Please don’t have this end 6-0 with me fumbling into the end zone and me being the culprit. But in the second half we scored 32 points and 30 minutes later it turned into a rout.”
Four minutes into the third quarter Steve Colman secured the Crusaders momentum for good when he blocked a punt to set them up at Rippowam’s 19-yard line. Stamford Catholic tied the game on the next play when junior halfback Tom Doyle caught Robustelli’s screen pass and took it into the end zone.
The Crusaders rolled on to a 32-6 victory with five touchdowns in the game’s last 26 minutes. Doyle and wide receiver Rocco Possidento each caught two of Robustelli’s four touchdown passes and fullback Chris Leone had a 29-yard TD run.
“On defense we made a couple very good plays, we got a couple turnovers and we started throwing the ball down field,” Robustelli said. “They started to blitz and come after us. We offset it with one draw play and a couple screen plays. We just had it rolling as far as throwing down field, running draws and screens. Then momentum plays on itself and then it was over.”
“Their execution was perfect,” Valentine said. “It seemed like they had every snap on time. They seemed bigger than us. They were very well-coached and they had outstanding talent.”
Coach Horan and his staff knew they would not totally shut down Valentine but the plan was to contain him.
“There were very good players on both teams and they had the one exceptional player – Bobby Valentine,” Robustelli said. “The two most electrifying athletes I saw in 50 years of watching high school athletics in Fairfield County or Connecticut were (Hall of Famer) Calvin Murphy (of Norwalk High) in basketball and Bobby Valentine in baseball and football in that they could dominate and take over. Bobby was a special player who was game changer. I don’t want to say we were in awe of him but we were cognizant that he could score two touchdowns in three minutes and change the complexion of the game.
“Leading up to the game our coaches kept saying: You’ve got to gang tackle him. You’ve got to nail him, you’ve got to pin him down. If one player got him, another better come in and make sure he was down. You don’t want to get him, have him spin off and run for another 52 yards.”
The Crusaders did a solid job of implementing that plan as Frank Woodtke, Bill Perry and Carlucci had excellent games while leading a stingy defense.
Valentine rushed for 90 yards on 17 carries, with about half of that yardage coming on one scintillating 48-yard run.
For Robustelli it felt surreal to go from worrying about being the goat of the game to orchestrating a runaway rout in a span of 30 minutes.
But he was quick to point out that given the nature of high school football along with factoring in the Bobby V factor, another result could have very well been different on any other given Saturday.
“Rippowam was a great team with great players,” Robustelli said. “Certainly on another given day the score might have been reversed with Bobby V running for three touchdowns, John Baran throwing two touchdowns to Tom McCrocklin and it could’ve been 32-6 on the other end.”
Rippowam had been ranked No. 1 in the state as late as the first week of November before dropping to No. 2 going into the big showdown. Stamford Catholic rolled to another big win on Thanksgiving and ended up No. 1 in the final state poll.
As disappointing as that season-ending defeat in the conference’s inaugural championship game was, Valentine has not one iota of negativity with what transpired on that Saturday 49 years ago.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Valentine said. “It’s still one of the great memories of my life. It brought a lot of excitement to the entire town. It brought the entire town together. It will always be one of the great days of my life.”