If he builds it, they will come; Joe LaPorte has spent 4 decades building youth sports

One question can change your life. Just ask Joe LaPorte. In the late 1960s, he was standing in the shadows at Memorial Park, minding his own business while his son Dan raced around the bases during a Little League tryout. The coach sidled up to LaPorte with a devilish grin. “Can you help out?” he asked.

LaPorte watched the two dozen boys running around the field. Did he know what he was getting himself into? Probably not, but he rolled up his sleeves and jumped in.

“I said that I wasn’t going to be one of those fathers that gets all involved, but then Danny got picked as a nine-year old,” said LaPorte. “I didn’t even want to get involved.”

Two weeks later the coach was reassigned to second shift, LaPorte was thrust into the head coaching role, and it set in motion a career that has changed the town’s landscape. There have been countless construction projects, hundreds of fundraising drives, and thousands of meetings. He’s spent 30 years on the Board of Park Commissioners and two terms on the Town Council.

His wife Delores was dragged into volunteer work. Even his sons inherited his commitment to develop sports for Southington’s youth.

That coaching job set the foundation for thousands of local athletes, and it all started with a simple question posed by his son’s coach.

“Joe’s the most amazing person that I’ve ever seen in the community. He’s always giving of himself, and he’s never afraid to challenge you,” said John Fontana, a former classmate, teammate, and fellow park board member. “If he thinks that it’s good for the kids of this town, he’ll go to bat for them. You just can’t stop him.”

LaPorte quickly looked past his own players to the many other local kids that didn’t have a chance to play Little League. With just two local programs, the competition for positions was fierce. Cutting players was heartbreaking, so LaPorte did what any good volunteer would do. He started another league.

He joined forces with Don Stepanek and Bill DellaVecchia. A small baseball field became available on Mill Street, and the trio scrambled to form a third local Little League. In 1970, the Western Little League opened its doors to create even more opportunities for Southington’s kids.

Soon, the league outgrew their small field. LaPorte and DellaVecchia spearheaded a campaign to acquire a parcel of town land on Spring Street to develop a state-of-the-art complex. Armed with just $6,000, the pair began the process of raising funds, gathering volunteers, and building the facility that houses the league today. LaPorte rolled up his sleeves and led the crusade.

“I thought he was retired back in those days because he was always around. I found out later that he was in sales, so he had the time to do it, but every afternoon he was there working,” said DellaVecchia. “What can you say about Joe? When he gets into something, he’s totally involved. That’s what makes him what he is. When he takes on something, he doesn’t do it half. He’s 100 percent no matter what it is.”

It quickly became clear that LaPorte was a great organizer, an excellent motivator, and wasn’t afraid to jump in to any project. When his sons reached the high school, they turned to soccer. Once again, LaPorte saw a need for Southington’s kids, and he began to talk about it with anyone who’d listen.

“I saw how far behind we were in soccer because we had no feeder program,” he said. “Al Lederman was the Superintendent of Schools, and he had a kid growing up. He said that we should start a youth league. We went to West Hartford and sat in on some of their soccer league meetings. We got some ideas, and we started a soccer league in 1975.”

It didn’t bother LaPorte that he wasn’t an expert at soccer or any other sport for that matter. He still champions himself as an all-conference batting practice catcher for his two years as a backup to the backup catcher in the early 1950s. It didn’t matter that his sons were too old to benefit from a feeder program. It was a good idea, and that’s all that mattered to LaPorte.

“Our rules were meant to get everyone involved,” he said. “We shortened the fields because they were kids. We had substitutions, and we played quarters. Everybody had to play at least half the game provided that they went to the practice. There were no championships. There were no standings. There were no all-star games and no banquets. We got criticized. Some people told us that the kids deserved trophies, but what kind of trophy did they deserve? They deserve to play, have a good time, and have good coaching. That’s what’s important.”

The recreational league grew by leaps and bounds on five make-shift fields behind Derynoski Elementary School. The first year attracted almost 180 kids, aged 9-14. The next year, the league swelled to more than 300 boys and girls. The next year drew 400 kids. The fourth year drew more than 600 boys and girls.

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