Page 14 - CHSCA Fall-Winter Magazine 2020-2021
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the young coach had to build a strong football culture from the ground up and took his lumps early. Corto, who never takes him- self too seriously and is always good for a classic one-liner, summed up the rough early days as only he could. “One time he came back from a scouting trip and called the coaches in,” Smith recalls through a laugh. “He said, ‘We’re in trou- ble, they got 11 guys and they all got helmets.’”
However, the kids who felt the genuine interest he took in them came out to play for one of their own, who was – just a few years earlier – that high school kid from the neighborhood with the quick one-liner and the part-time job at Carbone’s Ristorante on Franklin Ave. In the years to come, South Catholic improved. A mix of fun, discipline, and brotherhood under Corto made South Catholic foot- ball a program on the rise.
As he was building his football family at South Catholic, he quite literally built his own family as well, meeting his wife of 40 years, Debbie, who was coach of the girls basketball team. They married in 1981, and three kids – Melissa, Lenny Jr., and Clayton – followed.
As his family grew, so did the reputation of South Catholic foot- ball. The program became a legiti- mate contender in Class S. Five wins one year. Six wins the next. The old timers from the neighbor- hood started coming out to sup- port on Saturday afternoons. In 1983, Corto helped treat them to South Catholic’s best year ever behind a 9-1 record, with their only loss coming to Xavier – a peren- nial powerhouse and the eventual state champions.
A special pair of talented broth- ers – Dave and Doug Widell – soon arrived and dominated an offen- sive line. This allowed Corto to run
a brand of smashmouth football proving South Catholic had indeed become a football school too.
The Widells would both go on to star as teammates at Boston College before being drafted in the NFL, enjoying successful pro- fessional careers with multiple teams, including as teammates again with the Denver Broncos. Both appeared in a Super Bowl – Dave with Atlanta in Super Bowl XXXIII and Doug with Denver in Super Bowl XXXIV.
During the 1980s the promi- nence of parochial schools in Con- necticut diminished. With his own family growing and uncertainty around his beloved South Catho- lic starting to swirl, an opportu- nity with a bigger public school – backed by city pride and a long and rich tradition – opened up in New Britain. After coming back home to build a football family in his neighborhood, it had come time once again for Corto to leave the South End.
“You could see the Catholic schools were running into trouble,” said Corto. “We had three young kids and it was getting tougher to make ends meet. New Britain opened, and I thought, ‘What a great tradition to fall into and try and develop and work with such a history behind it.’ I was tickled to death when I got it.”
Bill Huber, the legendary base- ball coach and athletic director in New Britain, put his faith in Corto to lead one of the oldest and proudest high school football pro- grams in the country.
“It was a big deal, because it was one of the first times we went outside to get a coach here in anything,” said Ron Jakubowski, a proud New Britain native and beloved school district teacher and administrator who became one of Corto’s best friends. “Bill
Huber deserves a lot of credit and had great foresight to hire him. He had some guts hiring him away from South Catholic. He was suc- cessful there and our program at the time was struggling, and we needed someone to bring it back.”
Despite their success in Class S, Corto never did reach the State Championship with South Catho- lic. However, like the Widell broth- ers, New Britain had its own once- in-a-generation talent that would dominate the state in the early 1990s and who would go on to NCAA and NFL stardom. Tebucky Jones was the best player in Connecti- cut – a powerful and supremely gifted running back who ran all over everyone. And in 1992, led by ’Buck in the backfield, Corto and the Hurricanes won the Class LL State Championship – New Brit- ain’s 26th title and first in 35 years.
Corto was certainly blessed with a great talent like Jones, as well as many others through the years, in returning the Golden Hurricanes to glory. However, he still had to harness that talent and mold it into a family in pursuit of the same goals.
“He always used his talent in the best possible way,” says Omar McDew, also a well-respected coach at NBHS who has dedicated himself to the program after play- ing at CCSU. “He’d get the most out of the kids and put them in the right spot for the team to be suc- cessful.”
While Jones would go on to become a legitimate star with Syr- acuse and the New England Patri- ots, starting at strong safety for the Super Bowl XXXVI champs, Corto took more pride in the many New Britain kids through the years who used football as a means to go away to college and better their futures, as he did when he left Hartford for New Haven.
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