And the First Occurrence of “Fake News”
The year was 1978. It was Thanksgiving Day.
Westerly, RI and Stonington, CT played the annual Thanksgiving Day Football Game.
Westerly won 2-0.
“I was there.”
Coming off the heels of yet another controversial football game yesterday, and another win for a team many loathe and some love, the New England Patriots, made me reminisce about a controversial game I played in many, many, moons ago. There was not near as much fanfare, but the game tore two towns (further) apart–and this particular game is still hotly debated, for some in a fun way, to this day!
The game was the annual Thanksgiving Day rivalry game between Westerly, Rhode Island and Stonington, Connecticut. This is one of the longest Thanksgiving Day rivalries in the country and the most played rivalry game in the country (because they played twice a year many, many, many moons ago!)
Actually, at the time, it was a very intense issue and a recent published article brought people back into my world who wanted to claim that, “they wuz robbed,” that the “kick was good” and that their team–the Bears, won the game.
Nonsense and wrong on many levels.
Like Dickens, I take you back in time to 1978. I was a high school senior, captain of the Westerly football team and starting QB (that and $1 won’t buy me a cup of coffee, but I still think you will find the story interesting!)
To this moment, like Jerry Seinfeld in “the race” episode, “I choose not to run.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kXPiEicc59s) I have chosen “not to speak.”
Until now–partly because I felt responsible for a game that, to me, felt like a loss for a long time. Our head coach was the type who would rather see “three yards and a cloud of dust” than a pass beyond 10 yards downfield. I was a drop back QB who wanted to throw the ball (downfield) every play–and was in his dog house plenty because of it!
We were actually having success in the first half of this game throwing the football, but that plan went out the window. Regarding that, I will just say that if our offensive coordinator my junior year was there, we win this game by three TD’s (as we did that year). Bob Mitchell who went on to be a great high school head coach, had a great football mind—and utilized the talents he had on the team. Mitch actually was a Westerly and URI standout who wound up coaching Stonington to a state title years later.
To the facts: Westerly scored its safety on a fourth down punt as a bad snap sailed out of the end zone from deep in its territory. I am not sure who that kid was (the center) but to this day, I feel bad for him. However, that was not the issue.
Early in the fourth quarter (with a LOT of game remaining), Stonington’s Lou Stefanski attempted a field goal, (guessing) in the 40 yard range. Lou, who passed away recently, (RIP) was, in my opinion, the best athlete on the field that day; he was also great basketball player and golfer—and for some odd reason he got a kick out of tackling me—he happened to mention that on the field.
Lou drilled this ball.
It had the length to be good from 50 yards, maybe longer!
From my vantage point, I saw it very close to the left upright—
The referee under that upright gave a “no good” signal, with a quick indicator that it was wide. (Some say the ref on the other side gave a good signal…I did not see that) but, as most people know a kick that goes directly over the upright is good. There is no such thing as an imaginary box….these were all wild and fake accusations against the officials that grew as the stories spread. Westerly got the ball back and held on to the (ugh) 2-0 win. At some point I am sure the Stonington coaches asked why it was no good. The head referee on the field, back behind the kicker (who had not communicated with the official who made the call, wide left as I had hoped) said, he “could not tell (from where he was)…it was ‘too high.’ ”
Fake news is born! (I just didn’t know that was what it was called!)
This quote spread like wildfire throughout the stands that day, into the papers and on the radio the next day, week and months. It practically ruined my year. These refs do not do postgame interviews and other than the athletic directors nobody probably ever knew who they were!
Seriously, this was a contentious issue in the local media and was brought up almost every year since that day. Even the Westerly Sun took to making this a statement of fact. Ask anyone from Stonington if the kick was too high and they will know exactly what you mean. And while some in Stonington (like people in Darien, CT and maybe even Pittsburgh Steelers fans today) will say “they won” that day, the score and the record indicate that is not the case. No matter the false narrative or urban legend, it simply was not true.
Even if the kick were good that day, the complexion of the game changes. My thought is we finally go away from the “three yards” philosophy, open it up again and score a TD to win, but again, that is almost as wishful as saying the kick was good. I wish that was the way it played out. Honestly.
Now almost 40 years later, I have a wife from Stonington (she was a cheerleader at that game, but has never really asked me about it, she gets more annoyed with my intense hatred of the Patriots!) We have a place in Stonington and if my niece’s boys ever play for the Bears, I will root for them to do well! (Win the game??–Maybe).
So there it is. The truth from my perspective, and unlike Laurie Manzella or Leigh O’Connell, Barbara LaMarche or Jean Fiore—I was on the field…I heard what was really being articulated (although maybe not so well).
So, next time you want to bring it up remember;
Westerly won, just like the Pats did in the “Tuck Rule Game,” the “no catch game” and the Super Bowl….
I wish it were 28-0 and not two, but–it is what it is.
Merry Christmas. Happy New Year and good luck to any team that plays the Pats!
From the Westerly Sun
Series Highlights 1917 — Westerly 122, Stonington 0. Nearly all Stonington’s players had entered the military service.
1965 — Westerly 38, Stonington 0. The only night game played between the two schools.
1978 — Westerly 2, Stonington 0. Controversy ensues as a 41-yard field goal attempt by Stonington’s Lou Stefanski is deemed wide despite it being signaled “good” by one referee. Somehow, in Westerly-Stonington lore, this becomes the day Stefanski’s field goal was “too high.”
1991 — Stonington 25, Westerly 13. In a game played before 7,000 fans, Stonington’s victory qualifies it for the state playoffs. Both schools go on to win state championships.
2000 — Westerly 24, Stonington 17 (OT). This is the only overtime game on record in the series. After a 57-yard field goal attempt by Stonington’s Mike Mellow misses on the final play of regulation, Westerly’s Brian Lynch rushes for a 10-yard touchdown on the first play of overtime.
2008 — Stonington 22, Westerly 19. Considered one of the best fourth-quarter finishes in series history. Westerly drives 77 yards in seven plays to take a 19-16 lead with 1:39 to play, but Stonington responds by going 70 yards on four plays to win the game with 42.7 seconds remaining, capped by a 19-yard touchdown catch by Brendan Wilkins.