STAFFORD — Brian Mazzone went to his dad’s house on Saturday morning to retrieve his Stafford Bulldogs sweatshirt, the one with “Big Gar” inscribed on the left sleeve. He went over to coach his sons’ flag football game in Enfield and now here he was walking onto the field at Stafford High, hand in hand with Brock and Brodie, before facing Valley Regional/Old Lyme.
“My dad had been upset because it was supposed to be an 11 o’clock start today and he had to teach a hunter safety-class,” Mazzone said. “When it got moved to 2:30, he went, ‘Oh, good, I can come late.’”
The Stafford co-op football coach, the man selected by his peers as the 2018 Coach of the Year in Connecticut, paused for a moment.
“That was hard,” Mazzone said. “I wanted my dad.”
Gary Mazzone was one of seven who died in the crash of the B-17 Flying Fortress, a vintage World War II bomber, at Bradley Airport on Wednesday morning. Mazzone, 66, had been a Vernon police captain and an inspector for the State’s Attorney’s Office for Litchfield County. He had degrees in forestry and criminal justice and graduated from the FBI National Academy. He was a justice of the peace, champion for Special Olympics, an author, a hunter and explorer, a history buff, a family man, and, as the back page of the Stafford program read, a proud moustache owner, prankster and truth teller.
“He was just full of life,” Mazzone said. “He was a people collector. Everyone he knew, he had genuine relationships with them.”
There is a deep and undeniable pain in this tragedy that found headlines across the nation. Yet on this day there also was a remarkable sense of reflective joy with a life so fully lived that it burst and spread from his son to Brian’s players from the communities of Stafford, Somers and East Windsor.
There was no moment of silence for Gary Mazzone before the kickoff of Stafford co-op’s 21-7 victory. There was a “moment of celebration.”
Applause rang out from the sidelines to the stands to a hill where many of the fans watch. It was nothing short of stirring.
“My dad was full of life…”
— Pete Paguaga (@PetePaguaga) October 5, 2019
Behind the bench stood a dozen recent Stafford graduates, members of last year’s team that went 10-0 before finally falling in the state Class S semifinals. When they heard the devastating news, they made sure they were at this game for Brian Mazzone.
“We wanted to see him,” said Colton Engel, the star quarterback of last year’s team. “He loves us. We love him. It’s a bond we will have forever. He’s more than a coach to us. He’s a father figure in life. Of course, we were going to be here.”
Brian said Gary loved being around the Bulldogs. He rarely missed a game. He stopped by for practices. He’d be in meetings. He’d attend banquets. Sure, he had plenty of opinions, but most of all “Big Gar” cared about the boys.
“He was always here, in the coaches’ room and cheering us on,” said Engel, who attends Central Connecticut. “It’s so tragic. It’s almost disbelief. I was hurting Wednesday. Coach already lost his mother and that was really hard on him. Now, this.”
Athletic director Damian Frassinelli left it totally up to Mazzone on whether he wanted to coach Saturday or if he wanted to postpone the game, going so far as to start arranging a makeup date during a bye week. Valley Regional and coach Tim King were admirably accommodating.
“Whatever Brian needed, that’s what we were going to give him,” Frassinelli said. “It was hard. It’s raw.”
Mazzone insisted on coaching.
“There wasn’t even a question, to be honest,” Mazzone said.
“He came for the kids,” Frassinelli said. “I think the kids needed to see him. Teenage kids, I’m sure they’re trying to figure it all out, too.”
Team picture day for the fall teams was scheduled for Thursday and the football leaders and Frassinelli agreed it was best to postpone it.
“They said, ‘Coach isn’t here and we’re having a hard time smiling,’” Frassinelli said. “That tells you a lot.”
Mazzone did arrive later Thursday. He walked over to practice with Frassinelli. The team was working on a two-minute drill. They didn’t seem to notice their coach. Mazzone wondered what was going on. “My dad died and you’re going to ignore me?” he said.
All of a sudden, one of the assistants went over and hugged Mazzone. Everyone descended on him. Staff, players, one by one.
“Next thing you know, 50 guys are hugging coach,” Frassinelli said.
“We had a good laugh and a good cry,” Mazzone said. “I never used to cry. My mom died 10 years ago and once she died, I was telling Damian the other day, you say hi to me and I’ll start crying. I’ve been choked up in games thinking about her.”
For as much of an emotional mess Mazzone admitted to being Saturday morning, there he was a ball of a joy during the game. There was a fumble recovery. Mazzone was jumping around like a kid. A fake punt and pass for a first down. Mazzone went fairly nuts in celebration. Turns out he was only warming up. When quarterback Tyler Ouellette found Tristan Julian for an 84-yard touchdown pass, no lie, Mazzone sprinted down the sidelines, yelling and cheering for 60 yards of it.
A big hell yeah from Mazzone after Stafford’s Tyler Ouellette hits Tristian Julian for an 84-yard TD. XP good #cthsfb
Stafford leads Valley 14-0 with 4 mins left in half pic.twitter.com/jc8t706rEN
— Pete Paguaga (@PetePaguaga) October 5, 2019
“These guys are always making fun of me when we watch film,” Mazzone said. “If you notice, I run like an idiot, too. I’ve got my chest out, I don’t know who taught me how to run.”
I think we know dad taught Brian Mazzone how to live.
On this day, Mazzone reminded me of Jim Valvano and his famous 1993 ESPY speech. “You laugh, you think and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special.”
“One thing I always talk and think about is being frontrunners,” said Mazzone, an English teacher at Enfield. “High school kids, it’s nature to be a frontrunner. When things are good, you’ve got a great attitude and great spirit. We talk about being tough when times are tough.
“I wouldn’t have asked for this to happen to teach the lesson, but I thought I had to be tough for them. They were tough for me. I always talk about needing each other. I told them, ‘I need you guys more than anything this week and probably the rest of this year.’ The relationships are strong. There’s a lot of love. And it’s not new.”
Folks at Enfield. Players from where he previously had been assistants. Former college friends. Other coaches. People have been filling Mazzone’s life with condolences and best wishes. Even before his dad’s death, he said, he had given much thought about coaching and leading young men.
“The thing I hate about high school sports is people are so competitive,” Mazzone said. “We can act like real jerks sometimes. I definitely fractured some relationships when I was younger.”
He came to some conclusions.
“All I want is people to say every year, ‘They kicked our (rear ends). God, they were nice.’”
Yes, people say that now about Stafford.
Mazzone said he worried plenty before the game that the players felt like they had to win for him. He kept telling them he doesn’t need a win. He only needed them to play tough, show good sportsmanship and be good teammates. As badly as the team wanted to win, Ouellette said that’s exactly what Mazzone said to them.
“The kids get it because of the way he treats everybody,” Frassinelli said. “He’s kind. He doesn’t think of them only as players. They’re all his kids. He’s genuine that way.
“We’re going to help Brian along, but the one thing we can’t replace is his father was always the first one to embrace him after every game.”
The team did give their coach a Gatorade bath at the end of this game. His dad’s sweatshirt drenched, it helped wash away some tears and put a smile on Mazzone’s face.