Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the New Haven Register on December 18, 2012 as part of the paper’s 200th anniversary celebration. The Register published 200 articles based on historic people, places and events. GameTimeCT.com will run high school related stories from the series on GameTimeCT.com
A bruising 6-foot, 220-pound running back, Edwin Esson drew comparisons to Earl Campbell and high praise from just about every high school coach and media member who saw him in action during a brilliant career at Seymour High.
“He had size, excellent speed and the ability to deliver a blow when he was about to be hit,” the Register’s Mark Lewis once wrote.
Said an opposing coach in 1980, “It’s unfair that high school kids have to tackle him.”
Perhaps the most telling praise came from former Derby coach Lou DeFilippo. Near the end of a legendary coaching career, DeFilippo, a one-time member of the New York Giants and longtime NFL scout responsible for signing, among others, Hall of Fame lineman Andy Robustelli, was impressed with a
player he’d known little about at the time.
Esson, in the second game of his junior season, torched an excellent Derby team for 401 yards and six touchdowns on 33 carries. It was the third-highest single-game rushing total in state history at the time, thrusting Esson into the limelight. He’d played sparingly as a sophomore, but would soon become one of the most sought-after college recruits in state history.
“He’s the best high school back I’ve ever seen,” DeFilippo said. “I was amazed how he broke so many tackles. We hit him hard, but he kept on running. The kid’s got everything: power, speed, the hips, strength and acceleration. He goes from first to second gear without shifting.”
That game, Esson’s most dominant performance, included touchdown runs of 1, 55, 88, 49 and 51 as well as an 82-yard kickoff return for a sixth score. Lewis, writing for the Register the next day, reported Esson had 386 yards rushing, long credited as the final tally. Seymour statistician John Commune had Esson with 401 yards, the official amount as recognized by the Connecticut High School Football Record Book.
Esson was on the bench early in the fourth quarter, a game Seymour won 62-16. It was just the third time Seymour coach Dan Heffernan had beaten Derby in 13 tries.
“I had a great day, the best I ever had,” Esson told Lewis. “When I got home, I was sore but happy. I guess I had thought about rushing for 300 yards in a game, but I never thought I’d do it.”
Esson was born in Meriden, where he lived until age 11, when his family moved to Oxford. His first experience in organized football was with Seymour’s freshman team, and he once ran for six touchdowns against Naugatuck. His varsity debut came a year later where, as a slotback, he finished the season with 438 yards on 50 carries.
His epic afternoon against Derby gave him 675 yards and nine touchdowns over the first two games of his junior year. Five days later, he went for 204 yards on 28 carries and returned a punt 80 yards for a score against Lyman Hall.
Esson missed three games later in the season, but still ran for 1,568 yards, an average of 224 per game. The lone junior on the Register’s 1979 All-State team (famous for picking Greenwich quarterback Steve Young to the second team), Esson was also voted the state’s most valuable player. A year later, again missing three games to injury, he repeated both feats and remains the only two-time state MVP.
Parade Magazine picked Esson to its All-American team in 1980, honoring him along with future NFL players Mark Rypien, Mark Bavaro, Mike Golic and Jack Del Rio. One recruiting service listed him as the No. 2 running back in the country. Esson, also the State Open champion in the shot put, had nearly every college program in the country on his tail. Offers rolled in: Boston College, Pittsburgh, Florida State, Alabama, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Southern California.
Esson picked Missouri, enrolling there in the fall of 1982 following a year of prep school. Missouri, then a member of the Big Eight, switched him to fullback, where his duties centered around blocking. He carried just 21 times as a freshman, but averaged 5.7 yards as Missouri reached the Holiday Bowl (where it lost to BYU and quarterback Steve Young), and posted similar numbers over the next four seasons. There was little glory, but Esson had no complaints.
“I enjoyed the experience (at Missouri),” Esson told the Register’s Scott Ferrari in 1997. “They let you know right away when you redshirt what your role is going to be. Some guys crash and burn, but I understood my role. I played with and against some great players in college, guys like (ex-Oklahoma All-American and Seattle Seahawk) Brian Bosworth and (ex-Nebraska and San Francisco 49ers star) Tom Rathman. I had my fun and my glory days. I had to get out and find my place in society.”
Esson, now 49, returned to the Naugatuck Valley. A longtime resident of Watertown, he is involved with the town’s youth lacrosse program. His uniform was retired by Seymour in 1996.