By KEVIN ROBERTS
Hank Papale was the spark that ignited the revolutionary Southington football “air raid” offense installed by head coach Jude Kelly and offensive coordinator Frank Stamilio.
Actually, the right-handed quarterback was much more than a spark.
“Hank Papale was the George Washington of the revolution,” said Kelly, a Southington Sports Hall of Famer from the Class of 2017. “He bought in, and he took charge.”
Papale came in on the ground floor of the “air raid” after the foundation had been laid by Kelly and Stamilio in the offseason leading into the 1996 campaign. The offense was modeled after the Florida State “red gun” scheme run so well by Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward. Southington went with a four receiver spread and handed the keys to the offense to Papale.
“Looking at what Hank accomplished in just two seasons with our new air raid offense, we certainly chose the right person to run this new attack,” said Stamilio, who is on the Hall of Fame committee and serves as the current quarterbacks coach at Southington High School.
The Blue Knights have had many a good quarterback come through the program since Papale played his last game, yet the SHS Class of 1998 graduate still ranks in the Top 10 in Southington history in nearly every passing-related category. His career remains relevant over 20 years after its conclusion, and that makes Hank an inductee in the Class of 2018 of the Southington Sports Hall of Fame.
“It’s a really humbling honor,” said Papale, who was told by committee member Mike Prairie Sr. “I’m really proud of it. It really gives me a sense of pride in my town.”
Papale also played for a terrific Blue Knight boys’ basketball team that went 19-4 in 1997-98 and won the second division title in program history. Papale was beyond happy to be a role player with standouts like Mike Verderame and Matt Galati leading the way.
For Papale, it was all about Southington, all the time. “It’s all about team,” he said. “It’s all about winning, and I happened to be the first guy to start this air raid era.”
Kelly fondly recalled his time coaching Papale during a recent interview. “I can’t say his name without it putting a smile on my face,” Kelly said. His former quarterback listened—not only with his ears—but with his eyes, Kelly said. Papale’s questions always had a deliberate purpose.
“He asked me a ton of questions as he began to learn the strengths and weaknesses of each different defense we faced from our opponent each week,” Stamilio said. “Eventually Hank understood how we planned on attacking their weaknesses and he was able to execute our game plans.”
Papale knew what the defense was going to be, and where the ball would be thrown. “He very seldom threw a ball that he didn’t have a reason why he picked that ball to throw,” Kelly said.
Papale had a baptism by fire in 1995 when he took over the quarterback position against Cheshire. The Rams were a mighty force and set the state record for wins in a 38-14 victory over the Blue Knights. Papale’s performance was, well, a little rocky.
“I’m happy they stuck with me after that night, because it was a disaster,” Papale said through a laugh. “I was terrible.”
But the offense gained momentum, and soon Papale’s air raid began lighting up opposing defenses. In Week 3, Southington bombarded New Britain 40-19 behind 331 yards passing (24-for-39) and two touchdowns from Papale. He threw for a season-high 349 yards later in the season and ended 1996 with 176 completions for 2,726 yards and 19 touchdowns.
Papale attempted 374 passes, a Southington record that still stands. Ironically, he tied his own record in 1997 with 374 attempts.
In 1997, Papale and the air raid again put up big numbers and Papale was chasing state records. It helped that Papale had his best friend Mike Prairie Jr. to throw to. The pair combined for 98 receptions and 1,476 yards over two seasons together (1996-1997). The 98 receptions rank second all-time at Southington while the 1,476 yards rank fifth.
Daryl Yarmolovich, the previous top target for Papale, combined with the quarterback for 79 catches and 1,236 yards over the 1995 and 1996 seasons, and both of those rank in Southington’s Top 10 all-time.
Papale threw for 2,681 yards in 1997, and he broke four state records, including two held by former Watertown High School great Rico Brogna. Papale broke Brogna’s career completions record during a 42-28 win over Bristol Central on Halloween. The next Brogna mark to fall was career yardage, which Papale surpassed with Brogna in attendance during a 40-8 whipping of Newington on Nov. 17.
“I enjoy watching high school football, and there was more on the line tonight,” Brogna told The Observer that night. “I wanted to get a chance to congratulate him for breaking my record. Records are meant to be broken and mine was one of those I thought would eventually get broken. I just didn’t think it would last as long as it has. You have to play a long time—at least three years, if not four—and be successful.”
Papale got a chance to meet Brogna that night, which was a thrill given Brogna had played for the New York Mets, Papale’s favorite baseball team.
“It was a real honor, but more importantly, it put a spotlight on Southington,” Papale said.
Papale still wouldn’t pat himself on the back over 20 years later, and his answer wouldn’t surprise his former head coach at all.
“He was unselfish, he never cared about what his own stats were or anything like that,” Kelly said.
Still, Papale broke Brogna’s records in less than three full seasons, and he did it while learning the nuances of a brand new offense. Even something football fans take for granted, like the shotgun snap from the center to the quarterback, took time to develop.
“It was really new,” Papale said. “We were really going through the experimentation process, seeing what worked.”
By the time Papale turned the ball over to his successor, Scott Bard, the air raid offense was a smooth running scheme. Bard credited his predecessor’s mentoring for his quick success.
“Hank has helped me a lot with reading defenses, and as a person,” Bard told The Observer in an Aug. 20, 1998, article. “With the amount of time I have spent on learning plays with Hank every day, I am comfortable.”
Bard certainly was comfortable, given he helped Southington capture its first state championship in 1998. After Bard came Dan Bruetsch, then Doug Fink, and many other standouts after him.
Before Papale left Southington, he also made an impact on the basketball court in his senior season of 1997-98. The Blue Knights went 18-2 in the regular season and captured the division title behind the play of the all-conference standouts Verderame and Galati. That’s the last division title the boys basketball program has won.
“We just had a really good group of role players to support them,” Papale said.
Southington’s dream season ended in a buzzer-beating Class LL state quarterfinal loss to Wilbur Cross, but it was still a great run.
“That basketball season was really, really fun,” Papale said. “I certainly have fond memories.”
After Southington, Papale went to Division III Union College, which had a competitive football program. Papale’s career took a drastic turn, however, when he got into competition against the talented Ben Gilbert. Gilbert wound up breaking numerous passing records at Union, and the former Blue Knight thought about transferring as his playing time at quarterback dwindled to nothing.
Papale liked Union and the football program too much to leave though. He became a wide receiver, and he had some success as a senior.
“I am really proud of battling through adversity, not earning that [quarterback] position, then changing positions,” Papale said. So were Union fans. The convert hauled in a 68-yard touchdown pass that helped Union get away from Hartwick in the ECAC Northwest Championship game. Union won that game 38-25.
“My senior year I got on the field,” Papale said. “I was playing a lot, and I made some big plays.”
That’s about as much self-congratulation as you will get from Papale. That’s OK, because Kelly and Stamilio can offer up plenty of praise.
“Hank was just the model quarterback, Kelly said. “He was a quiet guy, he loved football. Smart quarterback, he wanted to learn.”
“Hank was certainly a bit of a pioneer who led the way for sure,” Stamilio added. “He was a great quarterback and it was a pleasure to coach such a wonderful young man.”
So it’s no surprise that members of the Southington Sports Hall of Fame selection committee have named Papale as a member of the Class of 2018. On Wednesday, Nov. 7, Papale will be honored in a ceremony at the Aqua Turf in Plantsville.
To reserve tickets, contact Jim Verderame at (860) 628-7335 or Val DePaolo at (860) 620-9460, ext. 104.
To comment on this story or to contact staff writer Kevin Roberts, email him at KRoberts@SouthingtonObserver.com.