1958 Branford-East Haven clash more than just a football rivalry
[The following article is from the New Haven Register, November 25, 1999. Some of our football-playing classmates are mentioned prominently.]
When the high school football teams of Branford and East Haven meet this morning on Branford's synthetic turf, they will bring to the field a combined record of 18 defeats and no victories. That's no victories as in nil, zero, zilch.
It was not always thus.
Forty-one years ago, it was the dead opposite. Both teams came down to the last game of 1958 unbeaten and untied - Branford 8-0, East Haven 9-0.
Big game? Believe it.
"I don't think the town, the people have been so excited before or since," says Walt Lusteg, who went by Wally then and played halfback and defensive end for Branford. "With both teams undefeated, we felt the winner would be the state champion."
Branford won the game 13-6 and the Housatonic League championship. Whether the Hornets also won a state title is for sticklers to argue. There were no playoffs, no weekly media polls. Stamford, undefeated, turned back unbeaten-but-tied Fairfield Prep that Thanksgiving and was voted the Waskowitz Trophy winner as the state's top team. But Stamford, with its large enrollment, was in Class L, Branford and East Haven in Class M. When Thanksgiving was over, Branford was the only Class M team left standing. Branford and East Haven did things differently. East Haven, with Mike Letis at quarterback and Jim Salvati and Vinnie Virgulto at halfback, had been scoring at a four-touchdown-a-game clip that autumn. "They had a fabulous backfield and an awesome line," says Tom Murray, who was Branford's place-kicker.
Branford had a line with Parker Sund, a Register All-State choice, at guard, John Kennedy, Peter Batrow and Skip Sciarra, a 220-pound fullback who would jump in at defensive tackle. In eight games the Hornets had yielded only four touchdowns.
The game scarcely needed hype, but it got some. The late Bob Casey, then school sports editor at the Register, polled area media people on the outcome. All but one picked East Haven.
Frank Crisafi, who was East Haven's coach and athletic director, had concerns beyond preparing his team. The field behind the old East Haven High had seats for only 500.
"We bought some extra bleachers," Crisafi recalls. "I went to New Haven's park department and Jim Coogan, God rest him, and Carl Nastri let us rent the bleachers that used to be at Bowen Field." The extra seats boosted the capacity to 3,500.
Thanksgiving morning, 5,500 showed up. In places people stood 10 to 15 deep. Some perched on nearby roofs.
"I looked around and I'd never seen so many people," says Virgulto.
"It was a big-game atmosphere," says Lou Monaco, who played guard for East Haven. "Everybody was a little uptight. There had been a similar situation years earlier (1951), when East Haven went in undefeated and lost. That was brought up with us, so we wouldn't be cocky."
Good advice. Branford, which hadn't beaten East Haven since that 1951 game, scored in the first quarter. East Haven spent the rest of the day trying to catch up.
The early touchdown came after Lou Drago blocked a punt and Lusteg recovered on East Haven's 20-yard line. Six plays later Jack Cirie, the Hornets' quarterback, went over from the 6.
Cirie's touchdown was memorable. "It was a fourth-down play, and he must have been hit about seven times," says Murray, who kicked the extra point.
East Haven tallied in the third quarter on a 24-yard Salvati run, but Bill Pite, an end, was stopped short on a conversion pass. In the fourth quarter Sciarra bulled over from the 1, restoring Branford's lead to 7 points.
East Haven drove to a first down on the Branford 7 in the last 3 minutes but couldn't punch its way across.
It was slam-bang football all the way. "I remember tackling Wally Lusteg and! thought he had taken my arm off," says Virgulto.
"We had to be alert the whole game," says Lusteg. "We knew they had such a potent offense they could score at any time. At the end we were just drained."
"I just remember tremendous frustration," says Terry Holcombe, who was a guard for East Haven.
Dom Cote, who coached Branford, reveled in the moment. "We were lucky and we loved it," he says. "Of all the experts, the only one who picked us was Syd Jaffe, the TV sportscaster. The kids were so happy they sent him a box of cigars."
The world didn't stop with that game, of course. A year later Branford arrived at Thanksgiving with a 17-game winning streak and a once-beaten East Haven team wrecked it 12-6. Holcombe and Cirie, juniors in 1958, met again in that game.
Off the field, they became friends. "Jack and I, along with Rich Niglio from Notre Dame (of West Haven), made All-State," Holcombe says. "The three of us drove around visiting colleges together. ... In the end we all chose Yale and Jack was my roommate my first three years."
Holcombe is retired now as Yale's vice president for development. Cirie, a hard-nosed defensive back at Yale, joined the Marines, won the Silver Star in Vietnam and retired as a lieutenant colonel. In 1992 an aneurysm killed him at 49.
Lusteg is a stockbroker in Trumbull now, Monaco a teacher at Paier School of Art in Hamden. Murray is head of social studies at Branford High, where he coached basketball for 20 years.
Virgulto retired this year as baseball coach at Hamden High. For part of his 36 years in coaching, he was a football assistant at Branford.
Crisafi and Cote both retired from coaching long ago. Cote keeps a hand in the game as football tournament director for the CIAC.
"What was great about the rivalry was that we were rivals, but it was friendly." says Virgulto. "You might see their guys on the street; you might date somebody from the other town.
"And there was the common respect between coach Cote and coach Crisafi. The attitude I saw in the coaches then was something that helped me in my own coaching career."