My high school football team was undefeated my senior year and named State Champions by the Connecticut Sport Writers. Football scholarships to major universities were offered to several of my football teammates. Two of us were recruited by the University of Pennsylvania. My dad was thrilled. Wow, a Wharton School student in the family would be quite an honor.
I played on Penn’s freshman football team and being an Ivy League school, we had the experience of playing against Navy, Rutgers, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. I was nineteen years old at the time and rather immature. I was overwhelmed and got caught up in the Penn social scene and fraternity life. I describe my brief year at Penn as not finding the school up to my academic standards. Okay, looser, what are you going to do now?
Fortunately, my football credentials saved me. My dad and his brother, Paul Stark, had graduated from North Central College in Naperville, Illinois. Paul was a member of the Board of Trustees and put a bug in the ear of the North Central football coach about this Ivy League standout player—Paul’s words—looking to transfer. North Central came calling and the following year I found myself on the NCC campus.
One other interesting story before I turn to my high school experience. When first arriving at North Central I was checking out the campus and found myself in the field house. There on the wall I saw the track records were posted. In 1937 James Stark—my dad—had set a record for the javelin. Just below that, in 1940 Paul Stark –my uncle—had set a record in the high hurdles. Below that was shown the discus record. I had set a discus record in high school. How cool would it be to have my name added to those records along with my dad and uncle?
Now here’s the sad part of that story. Early that spring I couldn’t go out for track because of spring football practice. It would be a few weeks before I could join the track team, but I was practicing with the heavier collegiate discus. Guess what? At the first track meet, someone broke the High Hurtles and Javelin records. Dad’s and Uncle Paul’s names were taken off the record board. As a result, I never went out for college track.
Okay, so what about my high school football experience. I was a rough and tumble kid and went out for junior varsity football my freshman year at Fairfield Prep. We had a great varsity team that year but almost all of the first team players were seniors. With their graduation the coach needed to dip into the underclassmen to field a team. I played a lot of quarters during my sophomore year.
Prep was a private Catholic school of about 1,200 students on the same campus as Fairfield University. We weren’t included in the local athletic conference, although we did compete against some of the local schools. Most of our games were played against other much larger private Catholic schools. I wasn’t Catholic but learned during crucial moments of the game how to cross myself and ask for divine succor. That year of football was brutal. Our young inexperienced team found itself up against schools ten times our size and we took a beating. I particularly remember a game against Mt. Saint Michael Academy in New York. It was a cold wintery day in early November and the field was frozen. It was like playing on razor blades and broken glass. At half time it looked like our team had been through the Normandy invasion of World War II. Uniforms were ripped and shredded, and everyone had bloodied arms and legs. When we came out for the second half we couldn’t believe it. Our opponents had all changed into fresh uniforms and it looked like a different team. We lost that game 49 to 12.
We were able to win three games that year against inferior teams. But you know what? Despite our losing season, the team was dedicated to working together, getting stronger, and improving. Guys could be seen staying after practice doing wind sprints or running drills. Discipline was self-imposed. If a teammate was caught smoking, he would be chastised by the group. We were veterans who survived the battles and were hardened with a sprit de corps not to be denied. Guys worked out together during the summer getting ready for the next season.
1955 First Team, Fairfield Prep, Stark#53
And we were ready. The schedule was considered the toughest Prep had ever faced. Each of our opponents was considered superior to our much smaller school. Our first game was against Stratford, a powerhouse favored by three touchdowns. But they were in for a surprise. We had battled in the trenches and were annealed with the heat of resolve. We beat Stratford 32 to 7.
One by one our adversaries fell, until we met Arch-Bishop Stepinac in White Plains, New York. A school of 10,000 students, Stepinac dominated their region of New York football. If it hadn’t been for a driving rain which hampered our passing game, we might have prevailed, but alas, Stepinac was our one loss that season.
Perhaps our greatest victory was against James Hillhouse High School in New Haven, Connecticut, a school associated with Yale University. Hillhouse claimed 17 state Championships over the years. They had a number of NFL players who got their start at Hillhouse. The game was supposed to be a pushover for the Hillhouse team. It was played in their stadium filled with confident fans. My dad attended the game as he did whenever possible in his GE travel schedule. He was surrounded by hundreds of local fans, far different from the meager bleachers surrounding the Prep football field. Hillhouse threatened on the ten-yard line twice during the game but came away scoreless each time due to Prep ferocity.
Fans around my dad became frustrated and enraged at our little-appreciated visiting team. At one point they started shouting obscenities at the visitors from Fairfield. That’s when my dad reportedly stood, turned to face the hostile crowd and announced, “I thought this school was distinguished and was supposed to have class.” The crowd quieted down and resumed their seats. We won the game 7 to 0.
Our senior year was a blast. Now recognized as the dominant team in Conneciticut, we moved through the year undefeated and were named by the Connecticut Sports Writers as the State Champions. The only downside of the year was not playing much. We won all eight games outscoring our opponents 274 to 37. The first team rarely played in the second half having scored a three touchdown lead.
Prep Football Team 50-year Reunion, Stark – middle 1st row
What a great experience that was to succeed so prominently and to revel in those victories. After college, three of our guys went on to play Pro or semi-pro ball. Some went into coaching. I went into the challenging world of naval aviation but never forgot the emotion and passion of those early Prep school years.