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Friday, March 23 Sports

A half-century later, it’s still a Staples victory for the ages

It has been called the biggest upset in FCIAC football history.

And 50 years later, Staples High School’s 8-0 victory over unbeaten defending state champion and heavily favored Stamford Catholic in the conference championship game on Nov. 18, 1967, still stands alone.

“Has it been 50 years? Are you serious?” asked Tom Nistico, a two-way lineman for Staples on that memorable Saturday morning.

Over 6,000 fans packed Stamford’s Boyle Stadium to witness the second FCIAC title game. Stamford Catholic won the inaugural crown 32-6 over Bobby Valentine and Rippowam in 1966, and some thought the ’67 team might’ve been even better.

The Crusaders, Eastern Division champs for a fourth straight year, were 9-0 and ranked No. 1 in the state, winners of 21 straight and riding a 30-game unbeaten streak. They were also averaging 37 points while giving up only seven points a game.

“They were loaded. They had something like seven Division I players,” Nistico noted. “They were huge. They looked like the Green Bay Packers.”

Meanwhile, Western Division champion Staples was 7-2, including a couple of close wins, and the Minutemen — as they were known back then — averaged 17 points while yielding 10 a game.

On paper, the game had “mismatch” written all over it.

“I heard the Stamford bookies made us 19-point underdogs,” Nistico laughed.

Trying to upset the powerful Crusaders, though, was no laughing matter to Paul Lane.

“We knew they were better than us,” said the legendary Staples football coach, who will turn 90 in January. “But I thought if our kids all do what they do beyond their normal ability, who knows, maybe we could beat them.”

His players certainly didn’t lack confidence.

“We never thought we were going to lose,” Nistico said. “It was real treat to go against a terrific team like that. But we really thought going in we were going to win.”

Not surprising since Staples had been defying the odds all season.

“We were picked by the league’s coaches to finish last in our division,” Nistico added.

This game, however, would be by far their biggest challenge, forcing Lane to add a few wrinkles to his offense.

“Several times we would run two plays and then punt on third down,” Lane said. “We wanted to make them go a long way.”

The Minutemen only passed five times, all in the first half. Even that was part of Lane’s strategy.

“Every time we threw the ball we would look at their secondary to see if they made any mistakes, if there were any openings. Finally one of our coaches noticed their two deep guys were splitting up a little.”

That observation proved to be critical. Stamford Catholic drove to the Staples 29 in the second quarter, but Nistico nailed captain Tom Doyle for a 2-yard loss on first down, and on fourth down Dave Lindsay tackled all-conference QB Bennett Salvatore for a 9-yard loss.

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Staples took over on its 40 and following an incomplete pass, quarterback Steve Booth fired a pass over the middle to Lindsay at the Crusaders’ 45, and the speedy receiver outraced everyone to the end zone for the game’s only touchdown.

“I knew if Lindsay caught it they were not going to catch him,” Lane said of one of the fastest runners on his track team. “He was a great athlete.”

The 60-yard pass play would be Booth’s only completion, although technically he did complete another pass to Nick Albertson for the two-point conversion and an 8-0 halftime lead.

That was enough for a Staples defense led by Nistico, Lindsay, Albertson and Buddy Lynch up front, and Joe Murray, Gary Wilkinson, Charles Kashetta and Rick Rader behind them.

“Our linebackers, Murray and Rader, were like 150 pounds, but they could hit,” Lane said. “Stamford Catholic’s line averaged 200 pounds.”

“We knew our defense was good,” Nistico added. “Really good.”

They had to be on this day. Stamford Catholic recorded 16 first downs to just one by Staples (in the first quarter on an offside penalty). Take away the 60-yard touchdown play and the Crusaders outgained Staples 217-65 in total yards.

But Salvatore, the future NBA referee who led the state with 21 TD passes, was thrown for losses 10 times for minus-43 yards. The Staples’ defense also made two goal-line stands in the fourth quarter.

The second one came after Lindsay, who punted eight times, got off a 61-yarder on third down to the Catholic 30. The Crusaders again marched to the Staples 5 with 1:45 to go, but the Westporters stopped them again, regained possession with 1:11 to go, and ran out the clock.

“Every kid out there had a job and did their job,” Lane said. “We studied a lot of film and spent every waking minute preparing. In other words, it wasn’t luck.”

“Winning that game was a thrill,” Nistico added. “It was my biggest thrill as a player.”

Lane, who would win a second FCIAC championship as well as a state title in 1975, agreed.

“No question, it was the biggest and the best,” he said. “For the coaches and the kids.”