Bridgeport Central vs. Harding Thanksgiving rivalry reaches 100 games.

BRIDGEPORT – Remember if you can a different time. A better time. A time when an entire city became obsessed over a high school football game.

Back then, it wasn’t just a game, it was the game. Toss the records out the window. It didn’t matter. Winning meant elation and emotion. Losing meant heartbreak and frustration. 

There were conga lines and snake dances to celebrate victories. There were pre-game banquets, sock-hop dances and pep rallies. Local newspapers filled sports pages with pre-game player features, position-by-position breakdowns, analysis and photos. 

It was a time when bragging rights reigned supreme.

It was a time when Harding versus Central meant everything.

Thursday, at John F. Kennedy Stadium, in the shadows of Central High School, the Presidents and the Hilltoppers will square off again in the 100th meeting between the two schools. To the victor will go the spoils – and of course, the local bragging rights – that always come with a decision over your cross-town rival.

Heading into the game, both teams are struggling. Both teams are winless, each standing 0-9. Central is in the middle of a 40-game losing streak dating to Nov. 16, 2017, when the Hilltoppers posted their last win, 46-44 over Ludlowe. They haven’t had a winning season since 2010. Harding is 4-17 in its last 21 games and hasn’t posted a winning campaign since 2016.

No matter. Whoever wins will own the city. 

Until next Thanksgiving.  

“When you go back and look at the past, it doesn’t matter what the records are, it’s a city rivalry game and everyone just plays differently,” second year Central coach Tom Broschardt said. “You never know what you’re going to get and this year, we’re both struggling, sitting here at 0-9 and this game … it’s going to make someone’s season.”

“We understand that the game brings the best out on both sides and that this game has a way of giving kids superpowers,” said Harding coach Eddie Santiago, who played for Harding from 1996-200 and has coached the Presidents since 2013. “For whatever reason, kids play beyond their skill level, and you see them do amazing things.”

The history between the two schools is rich and deep. Central was state champion in 1923, 1939 and 1949, won the FCIAC East Division title in 2004 and made the CIAC playoffs in both 2004 and 2007. More importantly, the Hilltoppers can boast of winning 15 straight games against the Presidents – the longest streak in the series’ history. One Hilltopper standout, Trevardo Williams, was drafted by the NFL’s Houston Texans in 2013 and played three games with Washington in 2014. 

Harding captured state titles in 1927, 1928, 1942, 1947 and 1963. The Presidents went undefeated in 1956 and in 1976, hammered Fairfield Prep 27-7 with future New Orleans Saints NFL defensive lineman Tony Elliott leading the way, to win the MBIAC championship. In 2015 and again in 2016, Harding participated in the CIAC playoffs. Along with Elliott, five additional Presidents played professional football. 

Overall, the Presidents lead the Thanksgiving Day series 57-38-4. 

“It’s been quite a run. There’s been a ton of emotion, especially for me,” said Bob Cole, who played quarterback for Central from 1966-69 and was the head coach at Harding from 1989 to 1997. “I played at Central and after I came back from college, I ended up at Harding. It all turned out great.”

“My memories … it was East Side versus North End, throw the records out the window,” said Damon Lewis, who played at Harding from 1986-90 for his father, coach John Lewis and coached the Presidents from 1998 to 2004. “They (Central) were always our one big rival. Man, I’m getting chills just talking about it. I loved the rivalry both as a player and a coach. Waking up Thanksgiving, it’s cold out, the field is wet, it’s your last game of the season and all you want to do is win because it determines how the rest of your Thanksgiving weekend is going to go. You had to win that game.”

A rivalry is born

It all started in 1926 – Nov. 13, 1926, to be exact – when Central and Harding met for the first time on the football field. Calvin Coolidge was president. The St. Louis Cardinals had defeated the Babe Ruth-led New York Yankees to win the World Series and Gene Tunney had out-boxed Jack Dempsey to take the World Heavyweight Championship. Greta Garbo made her movie debut in “Torrent,” Harry Houdini and Rudolph Valentino died, Ernest Hemmingway penned “The Sun Also Rises” and A.A. Milne wrote “Winnie the Pooh.”

Charles Lindberg’s trans-Atlantic flight in the Spirit of St. Louis was still a dream, but Route 66, the new highway that linked Chicago to Los Angeles, was opened.  Henry Ford established the 40-hour work week and in Chicago, mobster Al Capone ruled.

But in Bridgeport, on a sunny mid-November day, thousands of people gathered at Newfield Park to see the Presidents and Hilltoppers fight for gridiron glory. 

The Bridgeport Post-Telegram’s headline the next day read, “Central Eleven Wins City Title As 6,000 Watch,” while the story led with the following:  “A heavy pounding line, which aided a smart backfield upheld the traditions and glory of a half century against a new rival before a colorful crowd of 6,000 patrons at Newfield Park yesterday afternoon. Central High School defeated Warren Harding 14 to 7 and carried off the city championship in the first gridiron clash between the rival Bridgeport scholastic elevens.”

The story quotes no one. Not even the reporter who covered the game is identified, but the scribe highlighted Harding running back Leo Fisher as the game’s “real hero” as Fisher reeled off a 46-yard gain and scored the President’s lone touchdown, thanks to a 53-yard fumble recovery.

“Central’s superiority as a team was not to be denied,” the Post reporter wrote. “The Red and Black cohorts smashed through for 16 first downs to Harding’s five. Coach (Ed) Reilly presented a well-balanced backfield for the Lyon Terrace eleven. All of his ball carriers gained ground through the weak Harding line at will.”  

George Chaiklin scored both Central touchdowns and recorded both Hilltoppers point after touchdown placements. 

The reporter ended the initial Harding-Central game story with this bright commentary: “Much color was added to the game by the brilliant cheering of the two rivals. Both schools had bands to support them in their endeavors to drown out the other in the cry of victory. Central High, by virtue of selling the most tickets, earned claim to the bleachers. The students, particularly the fair sex, were gallantly attired in red. The color glistened brightly in the warm sun in the early afternoon and stood out in the dim of the closing period.”

A rivalry had been born. 

The following year, 1927, the Presidents earned a measure of revenge – and a chance to participate in their own victory snake dance in front of Central High — as Harding captured its first rivalry win, knocking off the Hilltoppers 12-7, the start of a streak that would see Harding capture 10 the next 13 games with one tie, leading into the 1941 clash that saw the two sides end in a 14-14 deadlock before 15,000 people at Newfield Park. In that game, coach Steve Miska’s Presidents boasted such standout players as Bill Hugya, Johnny Costeines, Frank Cortigiano and Joe Prisco while Central coach Ed Reilly touted such star candidates (known as the Reillymen) as Carl Mucherino, Emmett Curley, Jim Nilan and Bill O’Connell.

In the late 1940s, two of the city’s greatest high school athletes played on opposite sides – each getting the opportunity to do the victory snake dance in front of the other’s school. One was Lou Saccone, who attended Central, and the other, John Longo, nicknamed “Babe,” went to Harding.
Saccone lived in the North End and played at the Middle Street Boys’ Club, while Longo grew up on the East Side and honed his athletic talents playing sandlot baseball at the Orcutt Boys’ Club.

Ask any Bridgeport Old Timer and they’ll tell you that Saccone is probably the greatest sports star the city has ever seen. He won 14 varsity letters at Central and is still the only-five sport letter athlete at Arnold College (now the University of Bridgeport). Meanwhile, Longo ran track at Harding for three seasons and played just two years of football but registered eye-popping numbers.

In 1947, the Presidents were looking to capture the state title but needed to beat the Hilltoppers. Longo won the game all by himself, scoring touchdowns on runs of 15, 25, 50, 10 and 20 yards as Harding coasted 32-0 to finish the season 11-0.

“I always tell (Lou) that he caught a cold from the breeze of me running past him all afternoon,” Longo said in a 2007 interview with the Connecticut Post. But Saccone also had his moment in the sun, scoring two touchdowns in Central’s 19-18 win in 1946.

“Those were some great, great games,” Saccone said in that same interview. “That year, there were 18,000 people at Hedges, watching us play. It was quite a treat to play against Harding and Babe (Longo). That was always our number one game.”

“The whole town was into it,” Longo added. “When the game was over, the people would do the snake dance right through Main Street. Or the kids from Central would go to Harding and do the snake dance in front of the school. Whoever won got to brag.”

From 1941 to 1964 – when the brand new Kennedy Stadium hosted its first Thanksgiving Day encounter – Harding generally had the better of things on Turkey Day, winning 13 against seven losses and two ties to bring its record against Central to 25-10-4. Included in those wins were a 60-0 rout of the Hilltoppers in 1953 – the biggest margin in the series’ history – and a 59-6 drubbing of the Red and Black in 1963.

Two legends

The pain of that 53-point drubbing is still etched into the memory of Bob Mraz, who played fullback and linebacker for the Hilltoppers in 1964 – Reilly’s last season as coach – and in 1965 in Walt “Kay” Kondratovich’s first season.

“I was 5-foot-9, about 170 pounds as a junior. My senior year I was up to about 180 pounds,” said Mraz, 74, a retired Army Reservist. “I played both ways and also on special teams. Back then, you never came off the field.”

Especially when Reilly was on the sidelines.

“He was an old-fashioned, tough guy. I remember a lineman coming off the field, bleeding from the nose and Reilly yelled at him, ’Put a bandage on it and get back out there’ or if you got knocked out, it was always, ‘Get the smelling salts,’ ” Mraz said. “Oh, and we had this bucket of water with the ladle to drink from. That was disgusting. None of us would touch it. But Reilly made us. He was a tough cookie.”

And a legendary coach, not just in football, where he coached from 1922 to 1964 but also in baseball (1922-64) and basketball (1922-63).

“Coach Reilly … he was a great coach,” Mraz said. “To me, he was like a God. A giant.”

Reilly was 78 when the Hilltoppers met the Presidents on Nov. 25, 1964, in the first game at Kennedy Stadium. 

“There were 14,000 people at the game. The stands were totally filled and there were people standing on the hillside behind the end zone,” Mraz said.

In a fitting farewell, Central found a way and upset the favored Presidents 12-6 to give Reilly his final victory. Hilltopper co-captains Sherry Young and John Uliano led a ground game that recorded 191 yards rushing with Young scoring on a 24-yard run and Uliano finding the end zone on a 3-yard burst.

“The rivalry back when I was a kid … it was the game in town,” Mraz said. “I was supposed to go to Notre Dame of Bridgeport, but I went to Central because of the (Harding) game and the rivalry.”

Little did anyone know that less than two weeks after the game, Reilly would be gone.

“Finding out that he passed away literally two weeks after that last game it was almost like God wanted us to win that (Thanksgiving) game for him,” Mraz said.

The Bridgeport Sunday Post headline on Dec. 5 said: “Ed Reilly – Legend in Coaching” with the sub head reading: “Hundreds of Athletes Will Remember Rugged Little Mentor.”

Post sportswriter Tony Guzzardi said in the story: “Eddie was human. He was firery at times and was not one to condone a bad performance. His right foot found its mark on more than one player’s posterior – as many sorely remember.”

At the same time Reilly was patrolling the Central sidelines, Steve Miska was doing the same over at Harding. For 27 seasons, from 1940 until 1966, Miska led the Presidents to 15 wins in the Thanksgiving Day rivalry. Miska died of a heart attack on Aug. 29, 1967, at age of 56. Not only did Miska coach, he played for the Presidents. At Harding in the late 1920s he shined for coach Jack Mead and from 1936-39 he also played semi-professionally for the Danbury Trojans of the American Football Association. 

In Mraz’s senior season, 1965, Central suffered the most gut-wrenching of defeats – because of a rule that no one on the Hilltoppers seemed to remember.

“That 33-30 game was famous, or infamous, depending on what side you were on,” Mraz said. “That game went back and forth, back and forth.”

Central quarterback Winston Davis scored three touchdowns on runs of 8, 3 and 4 yards and also threw a 49-yard TD pass to Algernon Harris, while Harding’s Tom Sanders caught three touchdowns passes of 47, 53 and 32 yards from quarterback Steve Zacharko.

With just under two minutes to play and Central comfortably ahead 30-21, Sanders’ third TD reception made it 30-27. With many fans feeling the Hilltoppers would run out the clock, they started heading for the exits. But on the ensuing Harding kickoff, all heck broke loose.

The ball sailed downfield toward the end zone. The Central players all just watched the ball go. No one went after it.

Except Harding’s Henry Perez.

“We didn’t know that the ball was still alive. I’ll never forget that.” Mraz said. “I’m on the field and I’m watching the ball sail toward the end zone and I’m thinking, ‘There’s something wrong here,’ the next thing I see is the referee holding his hands up (to signal a touchdown) as Henry Perez is in the end zone. That was a crusher. People were leaving the game, they thought we had it in the bag with three minutes left. All of a sudden, it all fell apart. These things stick with you. It was the rivalry.”

Enter John Lewis

After Miska’s passing, John Lewis, a former Harding football star, took over the coaching reins, working the Presidents sidelines for the next 21 seasons, from 1968 until 1989, taking 15 victories in the series, including a 58-0 romp in 1984, part of a stretch of five straight Harding wins. On the opposite sidelines, George Loughery (1976-84), John Sprano (1985-86) and Joe Paslov (1987-92) all tried to reverse Central’s misfortunes in the Thanksgiving Day game.

“My dad went to Harding, he played for Steve Miska. I have so many memories,” said Damon Lewis, 51, currently the principal at Ponus Ridge Middle School in Norwalk. “I played and coached at Harding. He played and coached at Harding. How often does something like that happen? Father and son at the same school? I loved it. My dad was a great mentor and role model to me. I learned so much from him. He passed down a ton of knowledge on discipline, structure and having systems in place. He taught so much more than just football.”

Father John would take son Damon to Hedges Stadium, not just for Central on Thanksgiving but pretty much every high school football weekend. “I was 7 years old and I’d run across the field to get the tee after the kickoffs,” Lewis said.

One thing that John Lewis, and later his son, were known for was bringing back former Harding players to speak to their teams, especially about the history of the rivalry, the traditions … and the bragging rights.

“They would come in and give passionate speeches,” said Lewis. “I remember Larry Rudd and Ernest Brown and Keith Pierce and Tony Elliott and Mark Perkins, guys that paved the way for us. Those were the days and honestly, I don’t think a lot of the kids knew how special football was at Harding.”

In 1989, Lewis was murdered in his East Side apartment. The gunman was never arrested. Having huge shoes to fill, Bob Cole took over and spent nine seasons at Harding. 

“John was my mentor, no doubt about it,” said Cole, 70. “People wanted to play for him. He was old school, a gentleman. Incredible leader. Incredible man. He just had a certain way about him. He was in the Marines. He was a MP (Military Policeman) and he carried that with him. A man’s man, for sure. A presence.”

As a quarterback at Central, Cole led the Hilltoppers to three straight wins from 1996-68 and as coach at Harding, directed the Presidents to seven wins in his nine seasons.

“It was a big deal, the (Central) game,” Cole said. “The whole week leading up to the game. The pep assembly was incredible, the cheerleaders, the high steppers, The emotion was crazy. I remember the snake dance. We walked from Central up Boston Avenue wearing our jerseys and we danced right in front of the (Harding) steps. We had the bragging rights. We were the kings.”

Joe Paslov started coaching at Central in 1978 as an assistant under George Loughery until 1985 and, after one season at Joel Barlow, returned to the Hilltoppers as head coach in 1987.

“When I first started coaching, you’d go to the game and there would be 10,000 people in the stands, the place was packed,” Paslov said. “They had the Harding-Central Hop, a combined big dance a couple of days before the game. We always held a big dinner (for the team) the night before. There was always a pep rally at school. The kids got really excited about it. Everyone knew everyone from both schools. They were friends, they all grew up together. Very exciting game.”

One of Paslov’s highlights came in his first season as the Hilltoppers defeated Harding 21-8, one of just two wins against the Presidents in his seven seasons as coach.

“My first Thanksgiving game as a head coach was pretty exciting. It was a great game,” Paslov said. “I had some really good players. A kid named Elliott Sparks was the (John E.) Johnasen Award winner. We ended the first half with a Hail Mary pass from Andre Lancaster to Sparks in the end zone to take the lead, so that was exciting.”

But throughout the 1980s and into the mid-90s, Central wins were few and far between as Harding – highlighted by a 58-0 victory in 1984, upped its overall record against the Hilltoppers to 38-18-4, taking 13 of the next 16 contests. Headlines in the Bridgeport Post touted the Presidents dominance, stating “Presidents batter Central … Harding mauls Central … Central disappears in Black hole.” In that 1996 game, Harding’s Terry Black scored three touchdowns and intercepted two passes in the Presidents 28-6 victory.

Changing Times

On a bitterly cold Thanksgiving Day in 2002, Gerald Pugh stood on the sidelines at Hedges Stadium, hands stuffed into his heavy coat pockets. Built and opened in 1935, Hedges was showing its age. The grass had long since been torn up and lost to the elements. What was left was an icy field of dirt and snow. Frozen tundra, indeed.

Since 1949, Pugh had been coming to Hedges to see the Presidents play football, especially on Thanksgiving. He played at Harding for three seasons, from 1957 to 1959, and he could boast of two victories over Central, including a 42-0 pounding in Pugh’s senior campaign.

“I can remember having to stand and watch a lot of the time because the place was always packed,” Pugh said in that interview 20 years ago. “Those players were my heroes. That’s all I ever wanted to do was play football for Harding.”

So did his family. Pugh’s brother was the Presidents’ captain in 1961, his oldest son, Gerald Pugh Jr., captained Harding in 1980. His next son, Richard, was captain in 1982. And his grandson, Germar Gardner, played at Central and captained the Hilltoppers in 1999.

Before that game, Harding head coach Damon Lewis asked Pugh to speak to his players. He talked about tradition. How important the game was. Records never mattered. Bragging rights did.

At that time in the rivalry, everything seemed to be going Harding’s way but with coach Dave Cadelina taking control at Central in 1997, the Hilltoppers started to develop a new mindset toward football. In his first Thanksgiving game, Cadelina and Central won 14-8. And after losing the second game to the Presidents (14-7), the Hilltoppers set off on a streak that would see them win the next 15 games.

“All of them (games) stand out. When I first came here, it was Bob Cole’s last year (at Harding), we were good friends (and still are) and we were able to squeak that game out, the first Central win in a long time,” Cadelina said. “That started the rivalry back up again. My second year was Damon Lewis’ first year (coaching at Harding) and he won that game … now it’s (the rivalry) getting heated.

“My assistants were former Harding guys … Jose Castillo, long-time assistant and friend, he played at Harding, he played with Tony Elliott back in the day, so he was a Harding guy, a blue and gold guy through and through and then he comes here, his son’s played here at Central, so now he’s red and black.

“So, the rivalry ran very deep and very emotional for a lot of people not only because of the tradition but because of family. There were a lot of people that have been on both sides and experienced it. After the game we lost (1998) we never lost another game, but we easily could have. There were a lot of close games.”

According to Cadelina, the records never mattered. 

“Throw them out the window,” he said. “There were years when we were going to the FCIAC championship and Harding … they might be having a down year, but a lot of those games came down to the wire. When we played at Harding, they would always return a kickoff for a touchdown, which would either get them ahead or get them going, or they would complete (a pass) a third and a country mile. And we knew what was coming. They’d be in that I formation, play action, the quarterback dropping back, and he’d launch the ball 50 yards down the middle of the field into double and triple coverage and their guy would catch it. Are you kidding? A great rivalry.”

A rivalry full of tradition. During Cadelina’s tenure as coach, Central would give the seniors their moment in the spotlight, running their “last gasser” with the underclassmen lined up on both sides, the seniors would cross the finish line, as it were, to handshakes and hugs and tears. 

“The emotion was authentic. We had traditions. There were pep rallies. We had senior traditions,” Cadelina said. “Kids were emotional, crying, this was it. After that last practice and everyone was dressed, we’d all go out to dinner somewhere. That became a regular thing.”

Another tradition was burying a deflated football, filled up first and then punctured by the seniors and buried somewhere on the Kennedy Stadium field.  

“We had our final record put on the football, assuming we were going to win the Harding game and we had every senior sign it,” Cadelina said. “Before they put the turf in (at Kennedy), we’d go down to the field and dig a hole somewhere and the seniors would stand around the hole and hold the ball and talk. It was a very emotional thing.

“When everyone was done, we’d punch holes in the ball and squeeze the air out, that was symbolic of them giving everything they had the next day and we’d bury the ball. When the turf was installed, we had to find other places to bury the balls. There are 16 footballs out there somewhere. All the seniors know where their ball is. It’s their little part of Central football forever.”

Today, the past traditions may not be the same, but the history will never be forgotten. Right now, Harding has had the upper hand in the rivalry, winning seven straight contests – their longest streak in the series history – and a victory Thursday in the series would give them 59 wins overall, an amazing accomplishment.

“I’ve been fortunate to play in the game as a player and as a coach and it’s always been filled with excitement,” Santiago said. “I think the kids really enjoy the festivities. The game is special, it’s one of the oldest rivalries in the state. Both sides always come to play and the kids get super excited over it.”

And like Broschsardt said, throw those 0-9 records out the window. Thursday, it’s going to come down to who wants it more and who makes fewest mistakes. 

“I keep telling the kids, just do your best and everything else will fall into place,” Broschardt said. “I’d be lying if I told you this was just another game. It isn’t. Not to these kids. A lot of them grew up together. It’s the game to them.”

And it always has been. 

“The bragging rights, Harding versus Central. You wanted those bragging rights,” said Damon Lewis. “You wanted to shout, ‘We beat Central.’ It was such an amazing feeling. Better than anything. We beat Central. We are the champs of the city.”

Chris Elsberry covered sports for the Bridgeport Post-Telegram and the Connecticut Post from September, 1984 until November, 2018 and worked many Central-Harding Thanksgiving Day football games.