By Steve Griffin
Editor’s note: Today’s article is part two in a series of profiles on this year’s Norwich Sports Hall of Fame induction class. The Hall of Fame banquet is scheduled May 11 at Canasawacta Country Club. Reservation forms are available at Wells Fargo Advisors, the Norwich YMCA, and Norwich City Schools.
In the 1930s and ‘40s, childhood was a wonderful time for most children. However, for some, a viral disease commonly known as polio resulted in the often permanent loss of motor ability in the arms or legs, and for those whose ability to breathe was affected, death. Norwich, like other communities, saw several of its athletes crippled by the disease, which was thought to spread in locker rooms and swimming pools. In 1946, Norwich’s football season was cancelled after three games because of the polio epidemic.
Imagine what it was like for nine-year-old Fred Swertfager to awake one morning to face the physical, psychological, and emotional challenges of partial paralysis of his legs due to the dreaded disease.
By the age of ten years, Fred was fitted with large boots and special braces to aid his weakened legs. A deep feeling of self-consciousness filled him. He was embarrassed to be seen. This young boy loathed the very things designed to help him stand and walk. All he wanted to do was run and play with his friends. While falling asleep, thoughts of adventures in a make-believe world were replaced by a frightening dread of what tomorrow would bring.
Through support of his parents and neighborhood buddies, Fred continued to play ball. When it came time for Little League tryouts, he was so self-conscious of his braces and boots he decided not to try out. However, his friends coaxed and encouraged him not to give up hope. So, he went to tryouts.
Fred was chosen by Ang Mirabito and Fenton Pooler, coaches of the Moose Club team. These men saw something beyond the boots and braces. They saw a determination to succeed. They saw an unwillingness to give in to monumental challenges. They also saw a raw talent that needed development.
Coach Mirabito and Coach Pooler worked with Fred, and soon learned the determination to succeed was stronger than they had sensed. They put him on the mound, and his pitching career began. He pitched the first three games. After the third game he made a decision. He removed the hated boots and braces and threw them away. He told his mother he was all done wearing them. His determination grew, and at the end of the season Fred pitched the Moose Club to a Little League championship.