Fifty years ago still seems like yesterday for Len Paglialunga.
The cheers, the tension, the bone-crushing action on the gridiron and, ultimately, the glory of defeating Darien High School that late September day at Stanley P. Mead Field in 1967 is something the former New Canaan High star running back will never forget.
“Sometimes I think I could still be playing,” Paglialunga said. “All of a sudden fifty years go by and here we are. It was an unbelievable day.”
There is no rivalry in the state of Connecticut like New Canaan versus Darien football. Nothing even comes close. And of the 90 games the two teams have played against each other since first squaring off in 1928, the greatest game—at least for New Canaanites—was the one played on Saturday, September 23, 1967.
The Rams were in the midst of a football renaissance under longtime head coach Joe Sikorski. New Canaan had won six state titles since Sikorski took over in 1949, the most recent one coming in 1965. That being said, the one thing New Canaan had been unable to do since 1946 was defeat their hated rival to the south.
To say that the Blue Wave, under legendary coach John Maher, had dominated the Rams is putting it lightly. Darien had beaten New Canaan 12 consecutive times coming into the ’67 season, sometimes by ridiculously lopsided margins. A 64-0 Wave win in 1949 led to New Canaan dropping Darien from the schedule altogether for the next seven years. And in 1962 Darien shellacked the Rams 70-0.
Peil Pennington (l) and Len Paglialunga (r)
But although the ’67 Rams had dropped the season-opener against Norwalk 16-14, there was plenty of excitement heading into the Week Two matchup against the dreaded Blue Wave. A combination of young new players such as Paglialunga, junior quarterback Peil Pennington—who would eventually play for UMass and was a pick in the 1974 NFL Draft—receivers Greg Esty and Les Mosley, sophomore running back Lem James and a solid defense led by Ben Harvey, Bob Kircher, Bob Saunders, Joe Sillo and Jeff Caldwell gave New Canaan new hope.
Coach Sikorski had also enlisted the help of former Trinity Catholic head coach Bob Lynch, who had recently completed a stint as an assistant at the University of Rhode Island. Lynch brought a fresh new confidence with him, and more importantly, along with it a new offense.
“Sikorski knew head-on football, brute force, three-and-one-third yards at a time,” Paglialunga told the Advertiser. “Bob Lynch came in and utilized a new passing offense that he took from college and revolutionized the game. We were fortunate to have a passer in Peil Pennington who could run the offense that he put in.”
Meanwhile, Darien came into the game with a contrasting style, as new head coach Vic Crump centered his offense around bulldozing halfback Fritz Seyferth, who would go on to start at running back for Bo Schembechler at the University of Michigan. Darien was a heavy favorite to win and keep its streak against New Canaan alive.
In front of a huge home crowd at Stanley P. Mead, New Canaan set the tone early that it was not to be taken lightly. The Rams forced a Wave three-and-out on their opening drive and blocking the ensuing punt to start possession at the Darien 19-yard line. A few plays later, Pennington hit Paglialunga on a 10-yard strike and after a pass to tight end Harry Hughes clicked for a 2-point conversion, the Rams led 8-0 just five minutes into the contest.
Darien would answer in the second quarter as Seyferth and quarterback Andy Cusack methodically led the Wave down the field with short, powerful runs. Cusack capped off the drive with a seven-yard touchdown run and Seyferth tied the game at 8 with a two-point conversion run.
The Blue Wave came out of halftime on fire, bullying the Rams on a nine-minute, 80-yard scoring drive with Seyferth again doing the majority of the damage. Cusack put the Wave ahead with a short TD pass to John Evans and made it 16-8 Darien with a 2-point conversion pass to Darien captain Dan Murray.
Just when things started looking bleak for the Rams, the dynamic Lem James electrified the crowd with a 31-yard return of the ensuing kickoff, setting New Canaan up at the Ram 43.
From there, Pennington picked apart the Wave defense, hitting Paglialunga and flanker Bruce Jones on short, quick passes. The short game drew the Darien secondary up, and Paglialunga burned the Wave on a perfectly thrown ball from Pennington for a 40-yard touchdown. Pennington himself then ran in the PAT for two points, knotting things up at 16-16.
From there the game became a defensive struggle, and New Canaan showed that it was up to the task. Lem James knocked away a Cusack pass at the last second that seemed ticketed for the end zone. And with less than two minutes remaining in the game, Rams linebacker Tony Suffrendini dropped Seyferth for a five-yard loss setting up second-and-15 from the Darien 16-yard line.
A Cusack run and a pass to Murray had Darien facing fourth-and-1 at their own 30, with just over a minute left. Coach Crump decided to go for it.
When the Wave were flagged for a false start, backing them up to their 25-yard line, most of the fans assumed Darien would punt, perhaps settling for a tie. Incredibly, Crump opted to go for it again on fourth-and-six. And when Cusack’s pass to Murray left the Wave a few inches short of the marker, the Rams took possession at the Wave 30, with 1:09 left to play.
A Pennington run and a few short passes to Paglialunga and Sillo set New Canaan up at the Darien four-yard line with just 41 seconds left. All day long the Pennington-Paglialunga connection had worked. But Coach Sikorski noticed Darien was starting to stalk Paglialunga, and called timeout to let Pennington know the Wave secondary was leaving Greg Esty alone.
Greg Esty hauls in the game-winning catch.
Sure enough, on the very next play, Pennington faked a pass to Paglialunga and found Esty wide open in the end zone for the game-winning touchdown. After four Darien passes landed incomplete, 20 years of agony for New Canaan ended as the Rams had defeated the Blue Wave 22-16.
“When the game was over pandemonium broke out,” Paglialunga said. “The stands were like a Michigan-Ohio State game. Fans ran out on the field and everyone was so happy. The best memory I have was that we carried Coach Sikorski off the field. I was so happy for him, because he had never won against Darien. The look in his eyes…he was just so happy and proud.”
As was the town itself. Players and fans went straight from the field to their cars to start the most memorable victory parade downtown New Canaan had ever seen. Merchants and shoppers poured out onto the sidewalks of Main and Elm Streets to celebrate. The town was so jubilant that at night the high school even opened up for an impromptu dance.
“It was a great, great feeling,” Paglialunga said. “Everyone in town knew the significance of that game. It was just one of those experiences that I’ll never forget.”