West Haven alumni hoping to forge bond between athletes, veterans
New Haven Register
WEST HAVEN — The Blue Devils football team had a special new group of people cheering it on from the stands Friday night in the first game of the season: veterans of all ages from across the state and a few active duty and reserve servicemen.
“Touchdown!” Darryl Gibbs yelled during the match-up, as he and fellow vets wearing blue “Vets for West Haven Football” hats applauded from the bleachers at Ken Strong Stadium.
The group of about 15 current and former military members came to the game at the invitation of the West Haven Football Alumni Association, which scheduled a “veterans’ night out” for those receiving treatment at the VA Connecticut Healthcare System’s West Haven campus. They enjoyed a pizza dinner while watching Westies warm up for the game against Hamden, stood with the team for the national anthem, and then settled into the stands.
Those leading the alumni group, which includes former West Haven football players from various decades, say they hope the vets forge a relationship with the team by coming to home games and serving in a mentorship role. Plus, it’s a fun time for the veterans, especially those who live at the VA and don’t have a lot of chances to get out into the community.
“Eventually, we’d like to get these kids to interact with them and get them to go to the hospital and visit the guys,” said Chris Case, a member of the alumni association and 1979 West Haven High School graduate.
“The more they talk to the vets, the more they’ll get an appreciation for a lot of different things. Hopefully this is the beginning of something real good,” added Dave Rettig, vice president of the group and a 1973 graduate.
The alumni organization formed about three years ago to raise money and send students on the team to football camp, upgrade the weight room, and offer college scholarships that are open to all West Haven athletes. But members felt they could do more and, a few months ago, began discussing the idea for Friday’s outing, said President Bert Siclari.
They initially thought only around four veterans would end up coming, but with the help of Fausto Parra, a voluntary service specialist for the VA, the group grew. “They can start trying to be part of the team,” Parra said.
The alumni arranged for veterans to be picked up at the hospital Friday evening, served them dinner on picnic tables at the edge of the football field as players warmed up nearby, and passed out “Vets for West Haven Football” caps. After warm-ups, the Blue Devils shook the veterans’ hands, thanking them for their service and for coming to the game.
Bobby Highsmith, a veteran who served in the Marine Corps in Vietnam, said he was glad the West Haven Football Alumni Association planned the event.
“It’s pretty good,” said Highsmith, who played football for East Haven High School. “I wanted to get out of the hospital for a while.”
James Kubec, a 27-year-old veteran who served in Iraq, said there should be more trips like this for veterans, especially for those in the hospital who need assistance and don’t get out much.
“It means a lot to see people who want to give back to us. ... It’s a good feeling,” he said.
Chet Malinowski, who served in Vietnam in the Navy, said he enjoyed coming because he’s a football fan, while Ton Nguyen, who served in the Air Force, said it helps vets with morale and their treatment.
The football team already is planning a visit to the VA medical center, Athletic Director Jon Capone said. The hockey team had a similar program last year.
“It’s a relationship where our kids can get up there and make a connection and see what they did for us, and hopefully they can learn from it,” Capone said on the sidelines a few minutes before the team secured a win against Hamden’s Green Dragons.
To Ervin Philips, a 17-year-old junior on the football team, the vets are an inspiration, and he hopes seeing the game “made their day.”
Philips and senior Qusaan Hoskie, 17, both said it’s also about showing appreciation to veterans.
“I thought this was great,” Hoskie said. “They’re the reason we can be out here having a football game.”