Congratulations to the Westerly Pee Wee Football League on its 50th year of fielding youth football teams.
That is quite an accomplishment for any organization and a testament to the coaches and volunteers who have worked to maintain its viability. In a time when volunteers are hard to find, the league has survived and thrived.
The local group took to the gridiron in the same year that Ara Parseghian began his storied career as head football coach at Notre Dame. And that same year marked the first time the National Football League televised its championship game. In that game, the Cleveland Browns destroyed the Baltimore Colts 27-0.
The Colts were led by second-year head coach Don Shula and quarterback Johnny Unitas. The Browns had powerful running back Jim Brown and receivers Gary Collins and Paul Warfield.
It seems that finding an opportunity in Westerly to play basketball or baseball was fairly easy back in the 1960s. There were YMCA and CYO basketball teams. Little League and Twilight League baseball teams flourished.
But organized football was nonexistent. Before kids got to high school, football games consisted of a pickup game in any open field, with our aspiring pro players choosing names of their favorite teams and pretending to be Unitas dropping back for a pass. The basics, or fundamentals of the game, didn’t come until later.
This lack of organized competition and the lack of a feeder system for the high school changed when Westerly natives Denie Marie and the three Cappuccio brothers, Rich, Lou and Tony, founded the league in 1964.
The local football league initially fielded a single team, which went undefeated in eight games and won what was then called the Stonington League Championship. It was a grand beginning for this storied program, which now fields four teams with players 7 to 14 years old. It competes against teams from 11 southeastern Connecticut towns as part of the Southern New England Youth Football Conference.
The names of the people involved in the league over the years reads like a who’s who of Westerly athletes and local legends. At the helm the longest has been Joe Vacca, who started coaching with the league in its second year after graduating from Westerly, where he played defensive end under then assistant coach Sal Augeri Sr.
He is the longstanding league president and he notes that everyone in the organization is a volunteer. And so it was that out of that volunteer spirit a group of volunteers built a field and clubhouse on Old Hopkinton Road.
Although residing in Blacksburg, Va., for the past 25 years, Marie maintains his ties to Westerly through his mother and children, who still reside in the area.
“I never realized the impact the program would have on the community. We just said, ‘Let’s get it going.’ We never thought this thing would go 50 years. That’s amazing,” he said.
But that is how history is made, with a simple idea and the drive to make it succeed. Having that drive last 50 years with other people picking up the mantle along the way is simply amazing.