It's a challenging time for student-athletes with all Northeast 10 fall competitions canceled in response to the COVID-19 pandemic — including football. Helping to lighten the load, the Football Alumni Network, a dedicated group of former players, remains committed to directly supporting today's student-athletes.
Joe Ginnetti and Larry Ciotti go way back — to the summer of ’65 when Ginnetti was a recent high school graduate from Wilbur Cross attending preseason practice with Southern’s football team, and Ciotti was a rising senior picked to captain the team that fall. The two hit it off and began a friendship that has spanned six decades. “I call Larry my big brother from another mother,” Ginnetti says. “The bonds you develop over the years last a lifetime.”
It’s a special friendship born of Southern football, one they hope to pass on. Their shared goals: to give future generations the opportunity to forge similar bonds with teammates and to help them enjoy success like they had in their glory days. Together, they launched the Football Alumni Network (FAN), which raises money to provide additional scholarships to the program, a unique venture for Southern athletics.
Ciotti, a center and linebacker, led the ’65 team to the first of four consecutive conference titles as captain his senior year, when he was All-New England and All-Eastern League. In 1998, he was inducted into the Southern Athletics Hall of Fame. Ginnetti was also an all- conference center on conference championship teams. His junior year, they whipped University of Maryland Eastern Shore, a team stocked with future NFL players, including Art Shell and Emerson Boozer. “To this day we still don’t know how the hell we did it, but we did,” Ginnetti says. “We were a powerhouse.”
Ciotti clearly recalls the impact Southern played during his formative college years. “I, like many of the others, had such a wonderful time at Southern,” he says. “The coaches were very nurturing. So were the professors. They really cared for us. It’s still the same way even though the faces have changed. We all have a passion for Southern.”
The friends also understand the university’s unique challenges. Southern is the only public university in the Northeast 10 (NE 10) conference and, as is the case for most urban state universities, its resources are limited. In the 2019-20 season, the Owls competed against eight private colleges in football. (Not all NE 10 members play the sport.) “There are a couple of teams in the league that have historically been on top in terms of scholarship dollars. But in the last 20 years, there’s also been a huge increase in the importance of football at many of the private institutions,” says head football coach Thomas Godek, ’88. “We have one-fourth of the scholarships of our conference rivals.”
Without scholarships, Ciotti says, “We don’t get the players” to remain competitive on the field.
Building a Legacy
When Ciotti and Ginnetti attended Southern, tuition was $50 a semester — providing both with an opportunity to earn their degrees. Ciotti grew up in Portsmouth, N.H., the son of an ironworker, who was frequently out of work. He ended up marrying the girl who gave him and his teammate a ride to a social mixer his first day of orientation. They wed spring of senior year, one of six football couples who married that spring and summer. Five are still together, 55 years later. Larry and Barbara now have four children and 12 grandchildren.
After graduation, Ciotti took a job teaching physical education at Daniel Hand High School in Madison, Conn. Over 19 seasons (1970-1988) he became a legendary football coach, winning four state championships and being inducted into the Connecticut High School Coaches Hall of Fame. He then coached 21 years at Yale University, primarily as the running backs coach, and now serves as a special adviser to head coach Tony Reno.
Ginnetti, the son of a first-generation, Italian-American father with an eighth grade education, grew up in the Annex neighborhood of New Haven and was the first in his family to go to college. He chose Southern because he wanted to stay close to his high school sweetheart, Ida, who followed him to the university the following year and graduated with a degree in art education in 1970. They celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary earlier this year by renewing their vows in a 14th century church in Florence, Italy.
Like his buddy Larry, he, too, became a teacher, working with sixth-grade students who had learning disabilities and emotional difficulties. Ginnetti also played five years in the Atlantic Coast Football League. While he and Ida raised their three children, Ginnetti supplemented his teaching income by waiting tables in the evenings for half a dozen years so she could stay home with the kids. A friend offered him a job in sales and eventually he moved to The Raymond Corporation, a division/subsidiary of Toyota, where he was vice president of sales until he retired last year. He and Ida have two granddaughters.
Since the two friends started FAN three years ago, they have held several events to raise awareness for their cause. These include a gathering of about 50 football alumni early on at Brazi’s Italian Restaurant; a production of The Guys, a play about New York firefighters during 9/11; and a tent at Homecoming this past fall. The Guys, starring Dan Lauria, ’70, a former Owl linebacker turned actor (best known for his roles as the father in The Wonder Years and as Vince Lombardi in the Broadway play) and Wendie Malick (This is Us and Hot in Cleveland), raised more than $20,000. But Ciotti and Ginnetti emphasize that these events are more about educating Southern football alumni and fans about the need to support the program.
Coach Godek, also a former Owl football player, concurs: “We have more than seven decades of former players. They have great history and wonderful memories — and through the Football Alumni Network they can help us take on the financial challenges that will ensure the program’s future.”
He notes that the support has never been more vital, particularly with so many students and their families facing economic difficulties as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have a very organized and committed executive board as well as an advisory board — and we are always looking for former players who are interested in joining the program and sharing ideas,” says Godek. He notes that all proceeds directly benefit members of the team as scholarship support — adding that consistent contributions ensure that Southern can continue to help students each year.
FAN has already made a significant impact. Their first year, FAN raised $67,500. FAN’s fundraising increased to more than $114,500 their second year and the goal is to continue to raise $100,000 annually — enough to provide 25 players with a $4,000 scholarship. The first scholarships were awarded to students for the 2018-19 academic year.
Ciotti and Ginnetti are pleased with what they’ve started and how well it has been received. Perhaps that goes back to a lesson Ginnetti learned from his father. “He taught me there are two types of people in this world, givers and takers,” Ginnetti says. “The takers eat well. The givers sleep well.” ■
Directly support student-athletes on Southern’s football team with a gift to the Football Alumni Network. Please write “FAN” in the memo section of your check, or for online contributions, select “Other” in the designation section and add “FAN.” Thank you!