WESTERLY — The Westerly Pee Wees are HUGE.
Not by height or weight or age of those who play football or cheer. But by tradition, at the core of community life, and as a badge of honor for those who have competed, coached and volunteered.
The Westerly Pee Wee Football League began in August its 50th year of fielding youth football teams for those from age 7-14. A 50th anniversary celebration will take place sometime after the season ends in November.
The football program started in 1964 with a single team, which went undefeated in eight games and won the then Stonington League championship. The Westerly Pee Wees now field four teams that compete against teams from 11 southeastern Connecticut towns as part of the Southern New England Youth Football Conference.
The teams play eight regular season games and the three older teams vie for conference playoffs in November. The Micro B team is developmental (no travel or playoffs) and includes 7-to-9 year olds and a 100-pound weight limit. The Micros (sometimes called Micro A) players are 10-11 with the same weight limit. Juniors are 12-13 with limits of 120 (110 for backs). Seniors are 13-14 with limits of 185 (150 for backs).
If you were a young boy living in Westerly in the early 1960s, you could play basketball or baseball in a youth league or for your school. But you had to look to the sandlots to play football.
Westerly natives Denie Marie and the three Cappuccio brothers (Rich, Lou and Tony — all since deceased) changed all that in 1964 by founding and then coaching in the Westerly Pee Wee Football League.
Marie was a 1960 graduate of Westerly High. The former Bulldog tailback said he had the distinction in a 1959 game of rushing for 300 yards in 13 carries. His subsequent coaching career progressed from the Westerly Pee Wees to Division I teams at Brown and Virginia Tech.
“Before high school for me, we kids just got together at some lot,” Marie said. “Someone brought a football. We chose up sides. Then we’d go out and play tackle.”
Jim Murano played quarterback on the inaugural 1964 Westerly Pee Wee Seniors team as a ninth-grader. He later quarterbacked the Westerly High team, coached the Bulldogs for 13 years to two Super Bowl championships, taught and was principal at Westerly High and still serves on the School Committee.
“Before Pee Wees, we played in the neighborhood or sometimes went up to the high school field,” Murano said. “We’d choose up teams, get picked and play. We drew up plays in the dirt. How exciting that was — pretending to be the New York Giants or Chicago Bears.”
Marie said Richie Cappuccio had talked with Paulie Bruno from Pawcatuck about the Stonington Pee Wee football program that helped feed players into the Stonington High team at that time.
“Richie and I were good friends,” Marie said.
“Richie said to me something like: ‘We oughta do something like this. Wanna coach?’
“We thought ‘Here’s what we do’ and just did it. We got it started on a shoestring. We raised some money and bought equipment. Tucker Terranova and Jimmy Gulluscio were assistant coaches. We got some early help from guys like George Turco, Syl Corina, Kenny Parrilla and Joe Vacca.”
Vacca had just graduated from Westerly High and had played defensive end under then assistant coach Sal Augeri Sr. His younger brother Charlie played tailback to Jim Murano on the first Pee Wee team. Joe Vacca started coaching the second year and has ever since. He is the long-standing league president.
“We had no idea what impact our program would have,” Vacca said. “Stonington already had a program. We wanted to feed into our high school team.”
Westerly High football
Augeri moved up to be coach at Westerly High in 1964. That first stint lasted five years and he came back for six more in 1971. His teams won Super Bowls in 1973 and 1974. He was elected to three athletic halls of fame (Westerly High, Rhode Island Interscholastic League and Providence Gridiron Club). Westerly High’s athletic field is named in his honor. He was school superintendent for a decade.
“As an assistant coach at the high school (1960-63), I remember spending days getting kids into a three-point stance,” Augeri said. “We couldn’t go near a scrimmage and had to start first with the basics. With these Pee Wee kids it was already done. When we told them to line up on the first day, they all got into a three-point stance. We just moved up (saved) a week.
“We’ve seen a tremendous flow of players into the high school program. The Pee Wee players had 99.9 percent of the fundamentals. When those kids came to high school they came ready to play. It’s sort of like learning to read. Those kids who came to us were prepared. They learned how to learn.”
Murano followed Augeri’s second stint three years later (1979-91). He was elected to halls of fame by the R.I. Football Coaches Association and Providence Gridiron Club. He also benefited from what became a well-organized feeder system.
“I always worked with the Pee Wees when I was the Westerly High coach,” Murano said. “They were an arm, an extension of our program. They’d come to watch us play. And we’d do the same.
“Each program had the same consistent values throughout: be a good kid, do well in school, work hard, dedicate yourself and consider it an honor and privilege to represent the program. No one cut corners.”
Chris Wreidt was an assistant football coach at Westerly High for 18 years (1976-93), including all of Murano’s tenure. He is in his 20th year as football coach (1994-present) and has coached three Super Bowl champions (1996, 2000 and 2001).
“Probably 97-98 percent of my players have played Pee Wee football,” Wriedt said. “I do get some kids who exceed their weight limits (now 185). It’s kind of like a feeder system. It definitely is a big plus for us.
“They give us 20 to 25 kids a year who want to play the game. They’ve got the fundamentals down. They already know how to run, pass, block, tackle, and kick. From their first day here they know football. They come in with the fundamentals. We do more of the technical things and work on techniques.”
Impact on the community
When former long-time Westerly Town Assessor Charlie Vacca stepped down in 2009 from coaching Pee Wees off and on for more than 20 years, he said the typical “path” to Pee Wee coaching was the path he followed: “Play Pee Wee football, play high school football, come to help or coach, get married, have kids, come back to help or coach.”
Thousands of kids now have played Westerly Pee Wee football. And an army of volunteers has been the backbone of the organization that has made that possible. They serve as league officers and coaches. They built the Pee Wee field and field house on Old Hopkinton Road in the mid-1970s, complete with lights, and on town land leased to the league at a dollar a year for 99 years.
Joe Vacca was honored in 2007 by the Dante Society as its Citizen of the Year for his community service and leadership of the program since 1965.
“Everybody in the program is a volunteer, including me,” Joe Vacca said. “They just want to give some more for some reason. Nobody gets paid, except maybe a hot dog and some water, some times.
“I don’t know why everyone gets involved — the officers, coaches, parents, kids. We live together, laugh together, cry together, bleed together. I don’t know the secret.
“They play, they cheer, they end up coaching. They say they want to take part — not just to revisit their youth or their love of the sport, but for their love of working with the kids. It’s the camaraderie. It’s a family. That’s the way it’s been.”
Those sentiments are echoed by those who look at the program from the inside-out and the outside-in. Murano has done so as a player and parent and as a school and community leader.
“Our fan base is second to none,” Murano said. “I see parents of kids who also have played years back. They come back and coach. They line the field. It’s almost like a Pee Wee Community. It’s a source of pride for the community. It’s a pretty self-sufficient organization. And it is built on a love for the game and a love of the kids.
“I had a pretty successful career. We won Super Bowls when I coached Westerly High. But I was proudest of all when I was the first recipient of the Pee Wee Football Most Valuable Player Award.”
Involvement with the program seems be a badge of honor in the community. Political bios and campaign brochures for the town council or school committee often and prominently cite involvement in the program. Obituaries do likewise, including requests from some families for donations to the program in lieu of flowers.
“Starting the Pee Wee football program was big for the community,” Wriedt said. “There’s a lot of community pride. We’ve won Super Bowls at many levels. When you talk about football in Westerly now, it starts at age 8 and goes till 18.
“Pee Wee football is woven into the fabric of Westerly. We all reap the benefits.”
Fifty years is a long time for anything. Those who were there at the beginning — and are still going strong — have a unique perspective.
“At my first meeting with Rich Cappuccio and Denie Marie, I couldn’t really fathom what the Pee Wee program might mean to the community,” Augeri said. “The fact that it is entering its 50th year is a testimony to the quality of their work.
“Here were three or four guys, who started with an idea and wound up building a program. They got players and coaches and volunteers. They raised money. They outfitted a team. They built a field and a clubhouse. And nobody ever got paid a dime. I never heard of such a thing.”
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.
The sole surviving founder searched for words to describe his feelings a half-century later.
“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.”
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