By Jim Dunne
1951 was the fifth and final season for the Norwich Y Giants. This season was different from the first four in several ways. There were more players on the squad who did not play their high school ball under the tutelage of Kurt Beyer, making the Giants’ system, which was based on Beyer’s, more difficult for them to learn. Coach Bob Crittenden, who had just started work as an accountant with Clarence Gaines in Sherburne, was sent to the Gainesway Farm in Kentucky for the first two weeks of the season, causing him to miss those games. In an effort to compensate for the retirement of the veteran players, some former members who were not in Norwich during the week and so could not attend practices, played when they could get home.
Interest was on the wane for both players and fans. After the first game, a 6–0 loss to North Utica, only13 players showed up for the next practice. North Utica had been beaten by the Giants four times before, and this was the first time Norwich had been shut out since the first game in 1947. It was not an auspicious start to the season, but it was not a blow-out either. Mike LaCava, the leading scorer on the 1948 NHS eleven, had been slated to start at quarterback, but Don Crittenden was home from the Army and assumed the role. It was a defensive battle, with Utica picking up four first downs and Norwich three. Buddy Seaman carried the ball on almost every play for Norwich, but was victimized by a dearth of blocking. The Utica score came on a blocked Norwich punt. Next on the schedule for the Giants were the undefeated Syracuse Red Terrors.
The Red Terrors were led by Chuck Pertilla, described in the Norwich Sun as the “giant Negro fullback.” (It is interesting that Ray Clark, the only black man to play for the Giants, was never identified by his color in the two years that he played.) Pertilla lived up to his billing. John Ebovicz, home from the Navy for the weekend, was drafted into uniform for the game, and took a blindside hit from Pertilla. “Ebo,” not a small man himself, remembers that Stan Georgia found him wandering around the Y gym in a daze, still in uniform, long after the game ended. How did the game end? It ended with Norwich on top, 15–12!
At the end of the third quarter, Norwich was ahead 15–0, on a pass from Mike LaCava to Nick Sylstra, a safety by Ed Winner, and an interception by Don Tomaselli. Interceptions were also grabbed by John Ebovicz and Harry Thompson, and Ezra “Red” Horton recovered a fumble. Syracuse came roaring back to score 12 points in the final quarter, and would have won if a touchdown had not been called back by an offsides penalty. A couple of days later, Bob VanTine reported that the Syracuse newspaper had claimed a victory for the Red Terrors, who had decided to ignore the penalty. As Van pointed out, the penalty was called well before the play turned into a touchdown, and Norwich had won fairly.
Mike LaCava, who had starred in basketball at Broome Tech for two years, quarterbacked the Giants for the Syracuse game and the next against Scranton, backed up by halfbacks Buddy Seaman, Harry Thompson, Don Brown and fullback Ed Winner. Oxonian Winner was playing his tenth semi-pro season (the first nine for Sidney and Oxford), was over 30, and had always been a lineman. After the third game, he asked to return to defensive line play, so LaCava moved to fullback and Coach Bob Crittenden took over at quarterback. Don Brown, soft-spoken Carolinian airman and friend of Buddy Seaman, began making the trip from Vermont with Seaman every weekend, and proved to be a welcome addition to the backfield. The Giants lost to Scranton 13–0 on October 7, 1951, and to Elmira 7–6 on the following Sunday. Frank Cline of Gilbertsville rejoined the club for the Elmira game, replacing Mike Champlin of Oxford, who had played the first three games. Norwich’s lone touchdown in the Elmira game was scored on a great catch by George Echentile of a Crittenden pass.
The Giants’ failure to convert after the touchdown in the 7–6 loss to Elmira reflected the retirement of Plum Palmer, the steady extra-point artist, and his return the next week gave them a 7–7 tie with North Utica. Norwich scored on a Crittenden-to-Seaman pass, and Tex Haynes also caught two passes. Don Tomaselli was the top performer, starring on defense and keeping his club out of danger with some superb punting. Other defensive stalwarts were John Pierson, Ray Turner, Ed Winner, and Frank Cline, while Mike LaCava and Ed Taylor, another Vermont airman who made the trip with Seaman in place of Don Brown, ran the ball well.
After a cancellation the following week, the Giants traveled to Elmira for a return match with the Iroquois Chiefs on November 11, 1951. For this game, the Norwich squad consisted of only16 men, and everyone played well. Norwich dominated statistically, and deserved a better outcome than the short end of a 13–7 score. Scoring opportunities created by a LaCava interception and a Tomaselli on-side kick were nullified by penalties handed out by the refs, two of whom were the owners of the Chiefs.
By the following week, the season would have been completed if the original schedule had been followed, but a postponement left one game to be played, a home contest against the Scranton Anthracites, 13–0 conquerors of the Giants in their first meeting. At this point, the record stood at 1 win, 4 losses, and a tie. Bob VanTine, planning by the original schedule, had tickets for that weekend to see Navy play Columbia, the Syracuse Nats, led by Dolph Schayes, against the Nicks, and on Sunday, the Cleveland Browns vs. the NY Giants. He was accompanied to NYC by Dick Simmons, O’Dell Ray, Ed Ackley, Jack Stone, and Ernie Schraft. Ackley and Stone had just completed their junior year season for NHS, compiling a 5–2 record, and the next year Ackley would lead Norwich to an undefeated season as captain, quarterback, runner, passer, and a leader who personified the term “field general.”
VanTine felt bad about missing what he must have known was the swan song of the Norwich Y Giants. However, when he returned to town he found that he had a positive story to write, as the team finished in glorious fashion, whipping the Scrantons by the same score as the earlier loss, 13–0. Providing a major offensive boost for the Giants was Don “Deac” Haynes, younger brother of Bob “Tex” Haynes, who had just hung up his high school moleskins the week before after a big win over Cortland. After a scoreless first half, Buddy Seaman, Mike LaCava, and Deac Haynes alternated in carrying the ball down the field, with Deac scoring from three yards out. Two plays after the start of the final quarter, LaCava intercepted a pass and then, on the first play from scrimmage, dashed 30 yards to pay-dirt. For the remainder of the game, Norwich held, with some great defensive work by Nick Sylstra, John Pierson, George Echentile, and Don Tomaselli.
The win over Scranton was a gratifying end to the season. Although the 1951 record stood at 2 wins, 4 losses, and a tie, all the games were close. The opposition scored 58 points to 48 for the Giants. Some great players donned the green and silver of the Giants, and for many it was their final go at the contact sport. There was no banquet, and no picture of the 1951 squad exists. The decrease in interest on the part of the fans resulted in a poor season financially as well, with only $285 distributed to the players. Thus, the era of Norwich Y Giants football came to an end, not with a bang – but not with a whimper either. The 5-year record stood at 33 wins, 10 losses (4 in the final year), and 2 ties. The Giants scored 749 points, and the opposition 258.
For five years between World War II and the Korean War, Perry Browne’s “ancient plains” of Alumni Field was the stage for some great football played by some great athletes. A total of 88 men played, some for 1 or 2 games, some for several years, and two, Bob Crittenden and Bob Palmer, for all 5 seasons. Many have passed away, but several are still with us.
This 15-part series will conclude in Friday’s edition.