The outpouring of grief in the passing of New Haven area football and baseball legend Jim Guercia has impacted multiple generations of the lives he touched during his time as a decorated student-athlete at Wilbur Cross High School and Southern Connecticut State followed by a 45-year run at Notre Dame of West Haven.
“I’ve heard from kids who played in the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and kids who played two years ago,” former Notre Dame football and baseball coach Tom Marcucci said. “He was quite a guy. He was the most unassuming star athlete. I never heard him brag about himself ever. He was one of those guys, we were together 50 years, we were together every single day, coached together in football, coached together in baseball and he just had it. He didn’t care about himself at all, just a great person to be around.”
The 74-year-old Guercia was a football and baseball star both in high school and college, earning New Haven Register’s Class A All-State honors in football in 1963 helping the Governors be voted as the best high school team in the state. Two years later he authored one of the most memorable plays in the Southern Connecticut State’s proud football history with a kickoff return for a touchdown in the final minute in a win over nationally ranked Hofstra.
“I can still envision it today, everybody was screaming at him to get to the sideline and get out of bounds,” former Southern Connecticut State quarterback Fred Salvati said. “He did break to the sideline but he was hit by one of the Hofstra players. I asked him countless times, was it a spin move you made or did the impact of the hit make you spin around and outrace everybody to the end zone. His answer was, ‘I don’t know, I just did it’ and that was him. He didn’t realize the impact he had on the players who played with him.”
More success followed in spring when he helped the Owls’ baseball team to the NCAA Atlantic Coast Championship at Yankee Stadium. After a career that would land him in Southern Connecticut State’s Athletic Hall of Fame, he began his coaching career at Notre Dame. He was the Green Knights’ head football coach from 1977-81 before deciding to step down from that position. He spent years on Marcucci’s football and baseball staffs at Notre Dame and was the Green Knights’ track and field coach as well.
“He had the ability to not only work with outstanding athletes because he was a great coach but the kids loved his phys ed classes because he was so compassionate,” former Notre Dame athletic director Joe Tonelli said. “He had the ability to take kids that did not have great talent, get them to like phys ed and they couldn’t wait to get to his class. He just had great compassion, love for the kids and certainly loved the school, he had a 45-year career at Notre Dame so this definitely was gutwrenching. His passing will be so heartfelt by so many student-athletes he impacted in a positive way.”
Back in March one of his former players Casey Hoban invited Guercia, Marcucci, Tonelli and former Notre Dame boys’ soccer coach Rudy Raffone and their wives to the Ocean Casino Resort in Atlantic City, N.J. It was a couple of days that they will cherish forever. Six months early Marcucci and Guercia headed out to Iowa to see former Notre Dame star Nico Ragaini play a football game for the University of Iowa.
Guercia has been inducted into the Wilbur Cross and Notre Dame Hall of Fames, been honored by the New Haven Gridiron Club, the West Haven Twilight League and countless other organizations but those who know him best know that no amount of individual accolades fully define his impact on the New Haven area sports scene over the last 50-60 years.
“He was such a tremendous, great athlete but carried himself about what is all the uproar about?” Salvati said. “We were great friends, we were there for each other during some hard times but he was always an inspiration to me that when things got tough, I always reflected on him and the strength he had during the hard times in his life because he had some tough times but I always drew on that strength.”
Salvati fought back tears as he called a popular refrain during the successful run of the Sopranos that always made his think of his best friend.
“The best analogy I could make is that there were many times during the Sopranos when Tony would lament about, ‘where are the strong, silent types? Where are the Gary Coopers?’” Salvati said. “There were four or five times when that reference was made and I always thought of Jimmy, that was what he was, the strong, silent type, a tower of strength. It is hard to lose your best friends of 50 years but when all the memories subside, I am going to be left with memories of a great friend and the great times that we had and all the happiness he brought into my life. People should know the kind of man he was.”
His daughter Alison created a tribute page on Facebook where people can reflect on her father’s life and legacy. Not surprisingly, it is a page generating plenty of emotional posts.
“He has a ton of friends,” Tonelli said. “He was just an outstanding person, an outstanding coach, a great teacher and a good friend to so many people.”