Story by Angela Dias • Photography by Chris Hetzer • Historic images courtesy NFA

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hen Norwich Free Academy senior Joey Paparelli runs onto the Wildcats’ eld on a crisp autumn day to play football, he is following in his father’s and his grandfather’s footsteps, literally. Joey’s grandfather, 71-year-old Frank Paparelli, Jr., of Norwich, played football at NFA in the ’50s and Joey’s father, John, played at NFA in 1978. Not only is football a tradition in the Paparelli family, and one that extends to other branches of the family (more on that later), it is a tradition at Norwich Free Academy, one half of the oldest high school football rivalry in the United States. e rivalry dates back to May 12, 1875, when NFA played Bulkeley High School, which later became New London High School.


Your season is pretty much judged on the New London game, no matter what your record is. Everyone’s rst question is, “Did you beat New London? Did you beat New London? — Joey Paparelli
Top left: The 1908 Norwich Left: A 1956 program from Norwich Free Academy. Images courtesy Norwich Free Academy

Top left: The 1908 Norwich Free Academy football team. Left: A 1956 program from Norwich Free Academy. • 29

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Joey Paparelli, right, is quarterback of this year’s NFA team. His dad, John, left, and grandfather, Frank, center, also played football at NFA.

he three Paparelli men are among thousands of players who have suited up for the famed NFA vs. New London High School game, a contest with a long and colorful history. e 150th game of the rivalry was played in 2011 on anksgiving Day — a fairly new part of the storied competition. In 2000, NFA Athletic Director Gary Makowicki succeeded in moving game day to anksgiving morning. e week leading up to the big game with New London is a tense time, said Joey Paparelli. “Everyone wants to win. Your season is pretty much judged on the New London game, no matter what your record is. Everyone’s rst question is, ‘Did you beat New London? Did you beat New London?’" No one associated with NFA football is immune to the fever pitch surrounding the rivalry. Linda Butchka Murkett was an NFA cheerleader in the 1960s.
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“Whoever won that game had a very special feather in their cap,” she said. “ e boys played their best. e cheerleaders cheered their best. It was the most exciting game of the year.” NFA head football coach Jemal Davis said his players can handle the pressure of the rivalry and he added that it brings out the best in the players on both sides. In the last few years, there’s been a lot riding on the anksgiving game. e winner of that game, in recent years, has made it to the state playo s and the loser has not. Going into the 2012 matchup, the Wildcats are the overall winners of the series with 73 wins, 66 losses and 11 ties. A er 10 days of focused preparation for the big game, the players arrive at NFA at about 8 a.m. anksgiving day. e players get taped and suited up. Coaches review the key plans for the special teams. ere’s a special team stretch about an hour before the start of the

game, then the entire team is on the eld for stretching about a half-hour before kicko . With about 7 minutes le , the players return to the locker room to hear a few words from alumni who talk about the signi cance of playing in the oldest high school football rivalry in the country. e players are back on the eld with two minutes to spare. Coin toss. Kicko . e tradition continues. What happens on the gridiron in the next two hours will be a part of these teenagers’ memories for their rest of their lives. Winning is the goal, but Davis said the biggest takeaway for his players is their connection to the community and the history of the city they play in. ere is a web of connections between players in both cities that make the rivalry unique. Former NFA assistant football coach Bob McPhail said, “ ere were a lot more friendships that developed because of the rivalry. ere were no Hat elds and McCoys.” McPhail is one four Bulkeley football players who became football coaches in Norwich. Of the four, Dan Driscoll became coach of the freshman football team. Jim Buonocore was the assistant football coach at NFA in the 1960s, then le to go back to New London where he became the winningest football coach in New London history. Jim Giordano, a Bulkeley boy, became the most successful head football coach at NFA and then became principal at New London High. McPhail was an NFA faculty member who coached several sports, including serving 12 years as assistant football coach before becoming NFA’s athletic director. He’s still there. Now he coaches golf. Current head football coach Davis grew up in New London and played youth football there before his family moved to Norwich, where he was a standout on NFA’s football team.

Lost balls, faculty follies and booster interference
at rst game between Norwich Free Academy and what was then New London’s Bulkeley School took place in Norwich in 1875. It was scheduled for a Wednesday a ernoon, but the score and who played are lost to history. Brian

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Girasoli, assistant sports editor for e Bulletin, wrote a book about the rivalry. During his research, he found that few records of the games were kept during the rst 10 to 12 years. Regular reporting on the game started in 1883. e Nov. 5, 1883, edition of the Norwich Morning Bulletin included an account of a game with Bulkeley that was played two days earlier. Girasoli’s book, “ e Norwich Free Academy Vs. New London Football Rivalry” ( e History Press) quotes that report: e Academy foot ball team played the Bulkeley High school team on Williams Park (now Chelsea Parade) in this city on Saturday a ernoon. e game was witnessed by a crowd of spectators and was very exciting. e Academy team were [sic] winners by a score of 31 to 2. At the conclusion of the game a collation was served to the two teams by the female students of the Free Academy. e evening was agreeably spent, speeches and dancing followed the re eshments. Not to be outdone, New London girls provided a light meal a er a rematch between the two teams two weeks later. Girasoli writes it was common back then for teams to play return or revenge games to make up for a recent loss. In the return game of 1883, however, Norwich Free Academy again beat Bulkeley, this time by a score of 33-2. ere were other features of the rivalry that seem unimaginable today. A game on Nov. 4, 1889, in New London at Cannonball Park, on the banks of the ames River, ended early because the ball was lost. In 1886, it was discovered a er the fact, that a member of the Bulkeley faculty had played in a game. Several Bulkeley alumni came back to play in a return game against Norwich in 1891. ere was no game between the rivals in 1892 because of “hoodlums” — the only reason found in any published account. A 1909 game in which Norwich was behind by a touchdown ended in a tie a er the scorekeeper, who was a Norwich booster, allowed the clock to run over, giving NFA time to score another touchdown. e game ended when the scorekeeper announced time was up. In 1951, Bulkeley and Chapman Tech merged to form New London High School. e Whalers, sporting new green and gold uniforms, took on the Wildcats in Morgan

Brian Girasoli, author of “The Norwich Free Academy V. New London Football Rivalry.”

Wait … there’s more!
Brian Girasoli, the assistant sports editor at The Bulletin, recently wrote a book about the oldest high school rivalry in the country titled “The Norwich Free Academy V. New London Football Rivalry” (The History Press). The book traces the history of the rivalry from its start in 1875 to the 150th game played on Thanksgiving 2011. It features accounts of dozens of games throughout the decades, through interviews with former coaches, players and newspaper accounts. The historic photos in the book tell a story of their own. A photo of the 1891 Norwich Free Academy team shows a motley crew of 14 players in various forms of dress. As early as 1909 however, the team photo featured 11 players wearing matching jerseys with the letter “N” emblazoned on their chests. The 1969 New London team photo has nearly 50 players in it. Girasoli’s research unearthed the highs and lows of the rivalry. The thing that impressed him most, he said, was the friendships that formed in the face of a fierce desire to win. Players were opponents on the field, but in many cases, they were friends off the field, he said. Girasoli is a Norwich native and a 1994 graduate of NFA. His family’s ancestors come from the same region in southern Italy that produced the Paparelli football family. Girasoli played football at NFA briefly, but after an injury, his parents put the kibosh on any future gridiron exploits. • 31 • 31

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Park in New London that year. A ght broke out and the two teams didn’t meet again until two seasons later. Players fought each other and an assistant coach for New London joined the fray as well. e rivalry drew intense scrutiny from fans and the media. More than 7,000 people attended the Norwich-Bulkeley game in 1945. Crowds numbering in the thousands were common in the ’50s. McPhail points out that in the ’40s and ’50s, society wasn’t very mobile and

people had few opportunities to see college football games or watch professional games on television. Local football games were the only way for most football fans to watch their favorite sport. With only about 15 miles separating Norwich and New London, it was relatively easy for people to watch the rivals play each other. Newspapers in both cities dedicated a lot of space to the rivalry in the week leading up to the game. e Norwich Bulletin and e Day featured stories on the upcoming game every day. Sportswriters and photographers went to practices in each city. One story would focus on the o ensive line for instance; the next day’s story might be about the defense. Girasoli said, “ ere was an outpouring of information, leaving no stone unturned, that showed just what a community event it was.” e players received a lot more attention than when they played other teams.

The football gene

Frank Paparelli played for three years at NFA starting in 1956. It was a time when few

families had more than one car. Kids went on hayrides in October, the school held dances a er basketball games and students had one day o from school on “Nutting Day.” Paparelli remembers as a child going o into the woods on Nutting Day in autumn to gather sweet hickory nuts from shagbark trees. He’d crack the nuts, put them in jars and his mother would use them to bake cakes and other treats from scratch. ere were no prepackaged nuts back then. Autumn also meant football, but Paparelli played a game that was somewhat di erent from the game his son and grandson know. Paparelli played on grass. His grandson Joey plays on springy synthetic turf that covers the eld with a green similar to the color of an arti cial Christmas tree and end zones covered in vivid re engine red and white. Paparelli used a helmet without a face mask. All the equipment back then was heavier than it is today. However, today’s players are generally heavier. e heaviest high school football player in the 1940s might have weighed 180 pounds. Today, there are some players on the eld who weigh more than 300 pounds. Frank Paparelli said the biggest difference, however, is the introduction of free substitution. During his days on the gridiron, Paparelli o en played an entire game. at’s a rare occurrence in today’s age of special teams, when players are freely substituted throughout a game. In

Left: A program from the Nov. 4, 1961 game against Hartford Public. Below: The 1961 Norwich Free Academy football team. Right: A recent reunion of the 1961 NFA team.

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Whoever won that game had a very special feather in their cap. e boys played their best. e cheerleaders cheered their best. It was the most exciting game of the year.
— Linda Butchka Murkett
the 1940s, a game started with 11 players and players generally couldn’t come out of a game until the end of a quarter. At most, 14 or 15 players were involved in a game. Today, dozens of kids play, at least for a few minutes each game. Aside from cosmetic changes, the eld on Broadway where all the Paparellis played is the same. John Paparelli remembers playing where his son, Joey, a starter since he was freshman, is playing now. “It seems as the though the years have gone by so fast,” he said. “It seems like it was just yesterday I was out there.” Frank Paparelli also remembers. “I thought when I was in high school we

Linda (Butchka) Murkett, top row, left, remembers her days as a cheerleader for NFA football team fondly. the Here, a team photo from 1967. Image courtesy Lind a Murkett

were so grown up. I thought we were young men. I look at these kids now and I realize we were just kids, the way they are now.” Grandson Joey feels he’s part of something special. “When I graduate, I’ll be able to look back and say my dad played and so did my grandfather. Not that many people can say that about one particular school.” In fact, several branches of the Paparelli family have played football at NFA. When Joey was a sophomore, there were four members of the extended Paparelli family on the team. In addition to Joey, cousins Nick Cipriano, Anthony

Facchini and Drew Brigner were varsity players. ey all trace their heritage to Giuseppe Paparelli, Frank’s grandfather, who immigrated to the United States in 1910 from southern Italy. Paparelli descendants have played football at NFA for decades. Frank’s cousin, Frank Cipriano, a 1960 graduate, was an all-state player from NFA. Frank Paparelli’s nephew, David Brigner was an NFA star and David’s cousin, Chris Cipriano was also a standout. Nick Cipriano now plays football for the Cowboys at e University of Wyoming. Anthony Facchini plays for the Blue Devils at Central Connecticut NFA continued on Page X • 33

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State University and Drew Brigner signed with West eld State University. Joey hopes to play college football next year. What is it about the Paparelli genes that produced so many family members who became successful football players? Frank Paparelli traces it all back to Giuseppe who worked as a mason in his native Italy and in Norwich. “Maybe it goes back to the old country,” he said. “ ey were all masons, pretty tough nuts. If you were a mason, your uncle was a mason, your kids were masons. It was hard work, whether it was digging footings or mixing cement.” Frank Paparelli says there’s a pretty strong competitive streak that runs in the family. ey want to win and they like a challenge.

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The 151st matchup between Norwich Free Academy and New London High School is Thanksgiving day, Nov. 22, with kickoff at 10 a.m. This year’s game is scheduled to take place in New London. The Norwich boys will travel 15 miles to take their place in history.

NFA football players Anthony Gomes, left and Steven Makowicki. • 35

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