The East Islip football stadium is the picture of serenity this Thanksgiving morning. But it was far from a tranquil scene exactly 50 years ago today.
As East Islip prepares to play Wantagh in the Long Island Class III championship at Hofstra tomorrow, the old stadium — still the team’s home after all these years — sits quiet.
On Thanksgiving morning, Nov. 24, 1966, the stadium was overflowing with a raucous crowd in excess of 9,000. They had come to see underdog East Islip take on bitter rival Central Islip in a showdown for the League III championship.
East Islip came away with an improbable 39-0 victory, one that still resonates with the players who helped to lay the foundation for one of Long Island’s most celebrated programs — 378 victories, 30 regular-season league or division championships, seven county titles, six Rutgers Trophies and heralded coaches such as Sal Ciampi and his son Sal J. Ciampi.
In 1966, EI was still somewhat of a developing program, but the team had won its first seven games. CI also was 7-0. In fact, the Musketeers had not lost a game in five years — their 37-0-2 record in that span was Suffolk County’s longest unbeaten streak at the time.
Bragging rights certainly were at stake, but moreso, playing for a league championship was the furthest a team could go in 1966. It would be another 26 years before the first Long Island Championships.
The rivalry had been established in 1959 with CI winning, 36-7. In the three games that were played since, EI had not scored a point. In addition to the 39-game streak, the Musketeers were bidding for a fifth consecutive league title. But EI fans were amped because their team never had an unbeaten season or won a conference title, and had battled CI to a scoreless tie the year before.
The crowd, a county mark, was more than the stadium could hold. Fans who couldn’t get seats surrounded the field, standing 10-15 deep in places. They brought chairs and even ladders to stand on to see the action. Others got more creative. Five decades later, then-EI coach Ron Rescigno hasn’t forgotten the scene in the woods beyond the chain-link fence along the southern property line.
“I can still see the people hanging from the trees. It was loaded with people,” said Rescigno, still working the sidelines as an 80-year-old assistant coach at Oaks Christian School in Westlake Village, California.
Linebacker Jerry McManus, a retired radiologist in Kansas City, recalled the noise. “The roar was unbelievable,” he said. “It was flattering, to say the least, that that many people came to this game.”
The East Islip players already had their game faces on as they strode in two columns from the locker room to a field bathed in the mid-morning sunshine.
“That long walk — you see the fans, you hear the crowd,” said halfback Vinny Benevento, now a manufacturing director in Aurora, Colorado. “If you didn’t get motivated then, you needed to go out for another sport.”
Retired Islip superintendent of schools Alan Van Cott, a co-captain who played center and nose tackle for EI, recently walked around the sports complex he hadn’t seen in years. He paused near the track where he and his teammates underwent grueling drills, and pointed out an area Rescigno had parents illuminate with car headlights to extend work into the premature darkness of late autumn.
Game preparation was serious business at East Islip.
“In practice, you would run every play in the playbook,” said offensive lineman John Gargan, now a fishing guide in Islamorada, Florida. “You’d run it three times to perfection. If you did not — if the second time it wasn’t correct, if everybody didn’t hit the right person — you started over at Play One.”
Said Van Cott: “The coaching staff knew how to get the best out of everybody. That was the key to our success.”
EI standout wingback Bill Donaldson, who settled in The Villages, Florida, after 34 years as a Connetquot High School teacher, recalled Rescigno’s original plan to penetrate a vaunted CI defense seeking its fifth shutout of the season.
“I can remember he said to us that he was going to add all kinds of plays, special plays. He was going to incorporate new twists on offense, and he never did,” Donaldson said. “He said, ‘Forget it. You’ve played so well all year long, I’m not doing anything. You’ll play a regular game plan.’ ”
Upon further review, assistant coach Richard Berg, a retired college basketball coach and director of athletics in Gulf Breeze, Florida, did persuade his boss to reposition split end Jerry Loviglio for one play. “Put him at tight end out there,” Berg suggested. “They probably won’t even cover Jerry.”
Sure enough, the All-Long Island receiver broke free down the middle for the longest of his seven pass receptions in a brilliant 144-yard performance.
A newspaper preview of the League III season gave East Islip no chance to defeat physically superior foes Amityville, Central Islip and Copiague, whom the Redmen swept aside by a combined 104-15 margin.
“The more we won, and the bigger the scores got to be — and the bigger the scores were against teams that we weren’t even supposed to be on the same field with — the more confident we became going into that last game,” said senior safety Carl Despagni, a retired investment banker in Roswell, Georgia, who played the finale with a separated shoulder.
East Islip also was slapped with a backhanded compliment from Len Jacobowitz, coach of League I champion Northport, who referred to them as “a well-coached bunch of little kids.”
Well-coached, indeed, with the fiery and innovative Rescigno about to be proclaimed Suffolk County Coach of the Year.
But a bunch of little kids?
“We were the mighty mites,” he said proudly. And they didn’t come much smaller than his offensive linemen, who came up big against the menacing Musketeers.
“I could see them chopping down defensive ends and linebackers coming in, just chop them right down like they would a tree,” said backup punter Bob Henke, a former New York Police Department officer from Islip Terrace, who replaced ailing all-purpose kicker Dick James. “They would hit them just below the knees, and they would go down like a ton of bricks.”
Also undersized was the swarming EI defense, which posted five shutouts that season.
“The reason why we did so well is because we were so fast,” said defensive back Dave Masuta, a retired quality assurance analyst in Canyon Country, California. “We got off the line fast, so we were able to hit them and knock them off balance to get to their quarterback or to the running backs.”
East Islip set the tone soon after the 10 a.m. kickoff, driving half the field to the Central Islip 3-yard line before All-Suffolk quarterback Fred Heller was stopped for no gain on fourth down. But on its next possession, the senior co-captain went untouched as he rolled left on a career-best 68-yard scoring burst.
Heller, a retired Nassau County police officer living in Lebanon, Tennessee, wondered how he broke out so easily. “I remember going around the end, and I’m like, ‘Where is everybody? I’ve got to keep going. I’ve got to run like crazy.’ ”
In the second quarter, the Redmen struck twice in less than two minutes. Heller and Loviglio combined on a 9-yard touchdown pass, and defensive end Werner Eckert returned a fumble 29 yards for a 21-0 halftime advantage.
“That was about it,” Rescigno said. “They sort of quit after that.”
Midway through the third quarter, senior tailback Ed “Batman” Smith rushed for his school-record 15th touchdown of the season from 2 yards out.
The play of the day came less than a minute into the fourth. Looking up into the sunlight, Donaldson pulled down a pass at the back of the end zone. As Heller focused on his target, 145-pound guard John Mazzochi spared him from another collision with hard-charging defensive end Willie Tharpe.
“To this day, I believe his mission was to take me out of the game,” said Heller, who had complained to officials about late hits by the massive lineman.
ONE MORE SCORE
Now with an overwhelming 33-0 lead against a team that hadn’t surrendered a point since midseason, Rescigno was eager to inflict more punishment. Having noticed a cornerback who seemed beatable, he summoned Loviglio to the sideline to pique his interest in another scoring opportunity from the CI 19-yard line.
“Tell Freddy to throw the post route,” the coach ordered. In a flash, the senior was plowing into the right corner of the end zone with defensive back Bob Wolf — who doubled as CI’s starting quarterback — draped around his waist.
Up in lights went the ironic final score with 5:48 left on the clock. “I wanted a hundred points against them,” Rescigno said. His players did everything they could to oblige.
“I remember when the game ended, it was just chaos on the field,” said offensive lineman Doug Torretta, managing director in a financial services company in Sarasota, Florida. “Kids were running all over, and friends and brothers and sisters and parents were all over. It was a terrific party. It was a great experience.”
Loviglio, a helicopter instructor pilot and program manager in Lafayette, Louisiana, who also chipped in three extra points in his debut as an emergency placekicker, reflected on the contagious animosity.
“It’s one thing to have a sports rivalry. It’s another thing to have just pure hate at such a young age,” he said. “I’m not saying that Ron [Rescigno] took us down that path, but if they would have sent lions out there, we’d have torn them up. It was . . . absolutely amazing.”
Tom Black never was awestruck by an opposing team during his playing days at Central Islip. A starting tight end and defensive back during three unbeaten seasons under the late Musketeers coach Dave Goldstein, the 1965 graduate enjoyed lopsided victories against quality foes, as East Islip later would at the expense of his alma mater.
“It just happens. You get a couple of breaks, and you get on a roll. You can’t stop it, I guess,” said Black, a Central Islip Sports Hall of Fame inductee and its current president. “It was just East Islip had the right day, and they played well together. You’ve got to give them a lot of credit. What are you going to do?”
Central Islip 0 0 0 0 - 0
East Islip 7 14 6 12 - 39
EI – Heller 68 run (Loviglio kick)
EI – Loviglio 9 pass from Heller (Loviglio kick)
EI – Eckert 29 fumble return (Loviglio kick)
EI – Smith 2 run (kick failed)
EI – Donaldson 9 pass from Heller (kick failed)
EI – Loviglio 19 pass from Heller (kick failed)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bob Bellone was an East Islip High sophomore and Newsday carrier who wished he could have written the 1966 Thanksgiving game story rather than deliver it for the newspaper. A half-century later, the 24-year Air Force veteran and Tampa-based sports reporter got his wish.
“There were so many people. Not only was every seat in the stands taken, but every tree had people in it. People had ladders they were sitting on. People brought chairs. . . . It was unbelievable.” – Linebacker Sandy Montalto (general practice dentist and corporate developer, Supply, N.C.)
* * *
“We had confidence going into the game. We had the jitters, obviously. That’s pretty normal, but I think that we were confident that they weren’t above us, that they put on pants just like we did, that we had weapons that we could compete with them.” – Linebacker Jerry McManus (retired radiologist, Kansas City, Mo.), who also replaced ailing tight end Dick James
* * *
“I’m going, ‘What are we playing against here? We’re going to get killed. Here we are, baby faced, and this guy’s got a two-day growth on his face.” – Quarterback Fred Heller (retired Nassau County police officer, Lebanon, Tenn.) on his thoughts during the midfield meeting for the coin toss
* * *
“We were taught to play by the rules, and some teams didn’t play like that … especially Central Islip because they were always notorious, bigger, faster. More or less like bullies.” - Running back Vinny Benevento (director of manufacturing, Aurora, Colo.)
* * *
“Most everybody was bigger than we were. Very few teams were our size. We were a cocky bunch. We were very cocky. We had never been beat. We were always quicker than everybody. We were quick as cats, and that’s what it was all about then.” – John Gargan, a 5-foot-6, 156-pound starting guard (fishing guide, Islamorada, Fla.)
* * *
“He always made it sound like, ‘We can’t let up. We’ve got to kill them. … We can’t let up because they’re big enough to come back.’ That’s what stuck in our head.” – Defensive back Dave Masuta (retired quality assurance analyst, Canyon Country, Calif.) on Rescigno as the lead grew
* * *
“Every 10 seconds, you go totally insane and totally violent. And there were those of us who didn’t think they had a good game unless they hurt somebody. Once you go for the kill, you just keep going. There’s no holding you back.” – Offensive tackle Frank Scafuri (general manager of mason and building supplies company, Islip Terrace) on the intensity of each play
* * *
“We had a lot of respect for them. There was a mystique about C.I., the way they approached the game, very methodical. They had a top-notch program. I remember thinking to myself as the game ended and they walked off the field, none of those guys ever lost a varsity game in their high school careers. What an accomplishment!” – Two-way lineman Alan Van Cott (retired Islip superintendent of schools, Middle Island, N.Y.)
* * *
“It was just one of those things. Obviously, we were not as good as what the score indicated, and C.I. was not as bad as what the score indicated, but the wheels came off for C.I. … Things just started out well for us, right from the get-go, and they just continued and snowballed.” – Wingback Bill Donaldson (retired Connetquot High School teacher, The Villages, Fla.)
* * *
“I knew we were going to win, but I didn’t think it was going to be that high, let alone shut them out. They had a tremendous offense.” – Punter Bob Henke (former New York Police Department officer, Islip Terrace)
* * *
“We were ready, and Central Islip didn’t know how ready we were. From the opening kickoff to the final whistle, we beat them like drums. … We could have played four more teams that day without giving up a score.” – Safety Carl Despagni (retired investment banker, Roswell, Ga.)
* * *
“Well, it certainly had a lot of significance. Who knows what divine intervention there was.” – Split end and emergency place-kicker Jerry Loviglio (helicopter instructor pilot and program manager, Lafayette, La.) on contributing to the ironic final score by missing three second-half extra points
* * *
“Take a moment to cherish this moment because it will never come again.” – Coach Ron Rescigno (still coaching at age 80, Oaks Christian School, Westlake Village, Calif.) on his advice to the late John DeLuca, an assistant who took over two years later and promptly earned Suffolk County Coach of the Year honors with a perfect record and Rutgers Trophy of his own
Heller connected on nine of 12 passes. Three went for touchdowns and six for first downs. The three incompletions were drops. … The Musketeers used three quarterbacks, who were a combined 4 of 20 passing. … Smith finished the season only 10 rushing yards shy of 1,000 with 90 in the finale. … The 39-0 score that snapped a 39-game unbeaten streak left the average total points for an East Islip game that year at 39. (The Redmen outscored eight opponents by an average score of 35-4.) Fittingly, the game coverage in Newsday appeared on Page 39A. … The dethroned Central Islip team responded to the loss by hanging a countdown calendar in anticipation of its revenge opportunity the following Thanksgiving. The result was a second straight scoreless tie on C.I. turf, this time in a cold rain on a mud-soaked field. … The 1966 Rutgers Cup was the first of six awarded to E.I., which also received the honor in 1968, 1975, 1978, 1980 and 1982.
After an 0-3-1 start in the series that kicked off in 1959, East Islip finished strong, winning all but one of the last 14 contests (including the final 10) for a 15-7-2 record and a 420-265 scoring advantage. The storied rivalry has been dormant since 1997, when E.I. improved to 10-3 on its own field. C.I. went 4-5-2 in the host role. … Defense often was the name of the game. The Redmen notched seven shutouts and the Musketeers five in the 24-game series. East Islip accomplished the feat in three consecutive Thanksgiving meetings (1965-67), each time ending a Central Islip bid for a perfect season. The Musketeers averaged more than 26 points per game against all other teams during that span. ... C.I. won five league titles and E.I. the other two during a seven-year span from 1962-68.
YEAR BY YEAR
1959: CENTRAL ISLIP 36, East Islip 7
1963: CENTRAL ISLIP 26, East Islip 0
1964: Central Islip 20, EAST ISLIP 0 *
1965: CENTRAL ISLIP 0, East Islip 0 *
1966: EAST ISLIP 39, Central Islip 0 *
1967: CENTRAL ISLIP 0, East Islip 0 *
1970: CENTRAL ISLIP 12, East Islip 6 *
1971: Central Islip 16, EAST ISLIP 6 *
1972: EAST ISLIP 24, Central Islip 0
1973: Central Islip 38, EAST ISLIP 24 *
1975: EAST ISLIP 26, Central Islip 6
1982: East Islip 17, CENTRAL ISLIP 0
1983: EAST ISLIP 17, Central Islip 6
1984: CENTRAL ISLIP 33, East Islip 0
1985: EAST ISLIP 19, Central Islip 7
1986: East Islip 31, CENTRAL ISLIP 12
1987: EAST ISLIP 14, Central Islip 13
1990: East Islip 17, CENTRAL ISLIP 14
1991: EAST ISLIP 27, Central Islip 6
1992: EAST ISLIP 49, Central Islip 8
1993: East Islip 27, CENTRAL ISLIP 0
1994: EAST ISLIP 35, Central Islip 0
1995: East Islip 7, CENTRAL ISLIP 6
1997: EAST ISLIP 28, Central Islip 6
Thanksgiving Day *
Home team in CAPS
THE PERFECT SEASON
Sept. 24 East Islip 20, WEST BABYLON 18
Oct. 1 EAST ISLIP 19, Sayville 0
Oct. 8 East Islip 39, HALF HOLLOW HILLS 0
Oct. 15 East Islip 26, AMITYVILLE 9
Oct. 22 EAST ISLIP 46, Connetquot 0
Nov. 5 EAST ISLIP 39, Copiague 6
Nov. 12 EAST ISLIP 54, Harborfields 0
Nov. 24 EAST ISLIP 39, Central Islip 0
Home team in CAPS