I received an email this past Tuesday informing me that former Barlow Coach John Profetto had passed away during the first week of June and that his beloved wife of some 62 years, Rose, had followed him into eternity just five days later. Remembering how respected and adored John had been among his players, I knew this week’s column had to pay tribute to one of the greatest men who had ever walked the halls of Joel Barlow.
Born to Italian immigrants Joseph and Josephine Profetto on April 22, 1933, in Waltham, Massachusetts, John was one of six children and the youngest of the boys. As a child he served as a bat boy for the Boston Braves and as a teenager fought in the Golden Gloves competition. After graduating Waltham High School 1951, he served his country in the military before enrolling at the University of Bridgeport in 1954 where he would major in physical education.
While still attending university in Bridgeport, John was hired as the recreational director to run the summer youth program in Easton. He designed programs that both entertained and kept the kids healthy. He held track meets and hosted an end of summer dance for kids in 6th to 8th grade. He taught Easton kids how to swim and coached the boys in athletics. To be closer to his job, he rented a room in a house on lower Sport Hill Road. Those who I’ve talked with this week who remember those days, recall both John’s enthusiasm and his caring attitude towards all the kids that participated in his programs.
At UB, John met Rose Angelo Zito, a student from Stamford who was studying to become a teacher. They graduated in 1958, and she began teaching at the Roxbury Elementary School in Stamford. After their June 27, 1959, marriage they settled into their first house on Old Town Road in Bridgeport.
John was hired to teach physical education at Samuel Staples Elementary School in Easton beginning in the fall of 1958. Although he coached at Barlow from the very beginning (Bridgeport Post 9/27/1959), he would continue to teach at Staples for two more years before moving to Joel Barlow as a paid member of the faculty in the fall of 1961.
While at Staples, he organized a 6th grade basketball team that played other area schools in including Redding and the Fairfield Country Day School. If the team had to travel, he would borrow one of Skip Toth’s buses and drive it himself. He introduced gymnastics into the elementary school physical education program.
Even though Barlow didn’t compete as a varsity team with a full schedule in the fall of 1959, John coached the 33 boys who tried out for the scrimmage team, no doubt prepping some of them for better things to come during the 1960 season. The 1959 team played for only 5 weeks, competing in one scrimmage against Bethel and one game against Andrew Warde in Fairfield, losing 20 to 6.
In the summer of 1960, John organized a boys’ high-school aged soccer team to play on the fields behind Staples. The team wasn’t established with just the intent to learn how to play the game of soccer, but also to condition the boys to play football once the fall term at Barlow would begin. During his first year of coaching the Joel Barlow varsity football team in conference competition, the rookie squad won five straight games after an opening loss to the Carmel New York Rams in September of 1960. Carmel was riding a 33-game winning streak, yet only managed to beat John Profetto’s debut squad by a score of 12-6.
In the games that followed, Barlow outlasted Brewster 12-8, for its first-ever win, and then went on to beat Bethel 21-0, St. Luke’s of New Canaan 24-6, Ridgefield 34-16, and finally, Wilton 14-8.
John Profetto’s team won the inaugural Western Connecticut Conference Championship that year and was recognized by the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference as the best small school football team in the entire state. With its first trophy secured in the school’s glass display case, Barlow was on its way to establishing a successful athletic program.
While winning was rewarding, it wasn’t everything as far as John Profetto was concerned. John and Rose opened their hearts and their door to all of John’s players. It wasn’t at all unusual to see several student athletes’ cars in their driveway on weekends or during the summer months. Social gatherings where John would recount every play from every game were frequent, and every teammate I have interviewed for this article fondly recalls how welcoming Rose was even while she was trying to take care of the couple’s small children. John and Rose wanted to provide his players with a safe place to gather where alcohol was forbidden, but socialization and comradery was encouraged.
John helped his college friend and fraternity brother, Gary Engler, land the job as Joel Barlow’s second physical education instructor and coach. He even introduced Gary to his future wife Linda, and when one of their children was born, John and Rose were named as Godparents.
John founded the Joel Barlow High School Booster Club. In order to qualify for membership, an athlete had to letter in at least one sport. John Profetto’s teamwork approach led to the club’s ability to raise money to purchase sports equipment that wasn’t funded in Barlow’s inter-town regional budget. If it was needed, the club found the money to fund its acquisition under John’s leadership.
According to John Colley in his introduction of John Profetto at his Barlow Sports Hall of Fame induction in the summer of 2015: “The 1964 team dedicated our season to John without his knowledge. We took four letters out of his last name to form the inspirational word ‘Poet.’ Our team would use the code word to pick us up in practice as well as in games. From time to time, either John or Gary (Engler) would ask, ‘Who the hell is the Poet?’ The 1964 football team won six and lost only one. Our team was the second Barlow team to win the CIAC Award of Merit. Barlow was the only small school out the 13 winners to be so honored.“
In the four years that John taught and coached at Barlow, he became a local legend. His teams were incredibly successful and his players both admired him and loved him… and both John and Rose returned that respect and love. It should have gone on forever, but it didn’t.
By the mid-1960’s, John was running a side business where he cleaned new houses prior to being occupied by their first owners. He even hired some of his student athletes to work for him. Raising a family on a teacher’s salary back then was close to impossible. Prior to the faculty becoming unionized, teachers worked under an agreement spelled out in a letter of intent rather than a formal contract. John was informed that after the 1964 season, his job as a coach would be part of his employment as a physical education instructor, and that the additional stipend formally paid for coaching would no longer be received.
In what was probably the most difficult decision of his professional career, John decided to take an offer former Barlow football player Foster Whitworth’s father had tendered. He was recruited to become a sales agent for Equitable Life, a much more lucrative career with a much higher pay ceiling than he could ever achieve in education. Rose claimed that John had trouble sleeping for weeks, but he had a growing young family to support, and family always came first for John Profetto.
John’s career at Equitable soared. He rose in management quickly. He even reached out to several of his former students to invite them to join his new team. Former players John Colley, Keith Keeton, and Mark Sommers all became members of his Equitable team for a while. By the end of his career at Equitable, John had risen to the position of a company vice president working out of corporate headquarters in New York City. Not bad for a former high school athletic coach.
While John’s career outside of coaching was extremely successful, he never forgot and never lost touch with most of the young men he had mentored during their impressionable teenaged years. Weekly or monthly calls became normal. When John and Rose moved to Florida, they regularly invited some of his aging former players to visit them. And many of them did.
In 2015, John Profetto was inducted into the Joel Barlow Athletic Hall of Fame. A great many of his former players attended the induction ceremony despite the fact that it had been over fifty years since many of them had played for John.
One of those players who couldn’t make it that day was 1961 quarterback Pete Mann who lived in England. This is the heartfelt letter he sent to be read at the ceremony:
“I’m sorry not to be there with you this weekend, John, and with the players there from your Championship team of 1960. I couldn’t fit a long trip into my work schedule, so instead of giving you a big quiet hug, here are a few loud words . . .
“On behalf of all players whom you coached at Joel Barlow, John, I want to say: ‘Thank you for a great lesson in life: “positive inspiration.”‘ That’s what you communicated every day on the field to us in our first year of interscholastic football competition. It’s a lesson in life that I know I took away and I’m sure impacted the lives of teammates too – even if we didn’t know it then.
“You became the first interscholastic football coach in the school’s second year. This was after a very disheartening first year, where a previous coach in his gym classes excluded kids wanting to play football for the first time: he failed them in the classroom because they didn’t know all the rules of a game they hadn’t competed in before. This made them scholastically ineligible to play it on the field.
“You were exceptionally appointed to come in under these disappointing circumstances to make a difference. And the difference you made upon arrival was in believing in the potential of young people. You knew they could learn to do something well when they are given the right chance to do it in the first place. Your good work helped us play well.
“And under your demanding guidance, we worked hard at playing well! All of us remember doing wind sprints up ‘Profetto’s Peak’ – that 20-yard slope from the field up to the parking lot of the old school. After a hard afternoon’s practice, I can tell you, John, that slight slope felt and looked like scaling a 20,000-foot mountain!
“Was it you whom we would hear putting inside us, ‘How you practice, how you play?’ and, ‘No pain, no gain?’
“In my yearbook you thanked me for ‘leadership on the field.’ You wrote to ‘. . . a quarterback that made our first year a Championship team.’ No, John, my position didn’t make our first year a championship team. Your positive role model as an inspiring coach did that . . .
“From all of us who played our hearts out because you gave us the chance to do something we wanted to do well, we say thank you for encouraging – requiring – us to be champions. The word ‘inspiration’ of course comes from the Latin, inspirare (as the four of us who studied Latin our final year know!). It means ‘to breathe into.’ And that’s exactly what you enabled us to do, John: to breathe your leadership into ourselves, so that your skills and your knowledge and your love of the game became part of us inside, so that we had that ‘can do’ attitude installed in us.
“That’s the stuff of good education and learning. And that’s why we honour you here this weekend, Coach.“
On June 5, 2022, John Gerald Profetto left this earth. It is undoubtedly a much better place for his having lived here for 89 years. The lives he touched were numerous and the memories he left behind will be forever cherished. Five days later, his beloved wife Rose joined him. After nearly 63 years of marriage, it seems only fitting that they should be together again.
As I conversed by email and phone this week with so many of his now aged former players, I was overwhelmed by both their generosity to share their thoughts on both John and Rose as well as their expressions of love, respect and gratitude for having known them. What follows is just a sampling of what they wrote in their emails.
From John Colley, JBHS Class of 1964: “In my last conversation with John a few weeks ago he was as upbeat as ever, though he had lost his hearing aids. The conversation volume was similar to halftime talks when we were losing. Very Loud.
“The Profettos were very special, and we all were very lucky to have them in our lives.
“John and Rose had an incredible life working together in a very loving marriage. They loved each other as much in the end as they did in their early life together. When their daughter Mary called to tell me of both of their passing within a few days of each other I told her I was not surprised. Neither one could live without the other. They were teammates for life.
“Coach Profetto was a great coach but an even better human being.
“John and Rose and I would talk regularly. John’s success at Equitable Life was not the subject he was most interested in talking about. He wanted to talk about his wonderful experience as a coach at Joel Barlow, UConn Women’s basketball, and his family. He felt his experience working with young men and giving them a chance to be part of team working together was his highlight in life. Rose said it was what he wanted to be remembered for in his life’s work.
“Joel Barlow establishing the JBHS Sports Hall of Fame was just what John needed in his later life, and induction into JBHS Sports Hall of Fame was perfect. Thank you, Tom C and Joe K in the communication to Joel Barlow that coaches should be a priority in JBHS Sports Hall of Fame not just players.“
From Biff Clark, JBHS Class of 1965: “I wish to reflect back at my time at Joel Barlow. First, I had great parents. They were so tremendously supportive – no doubt about it.
“It was my good fortune to meet John at the first day of summer day camp in 1960. My folks had moved from Fairfield to Easton, and I took to John right away. I was in 8th grade, and he saw something in me that he passed on to my dad. I was 5 something and 120 lbs. And Mom was set on sending me to Andover for high school. The consensus was go to Barlow until 9th grade and reevaluate after one year of football.
“After that first year, it was never a question of where I would finish high school. Over four years, John taught me many things on the football field. But it was the things he SHOWED me that resonated in my years in college and law school. First, to respect a woman. Second, to cherish your family children graced by God. And lastly, to take the responsibility to raise your children the way you were raised. A great man and a great woman that influenced so many young men and women. I am happy to say both will remain embedded in my heart.“
From Tom Chrzanowski, JBHS Class of 1964: “We all share the same feelings about John and Rose. They were, and will always be, loved and respected for all the positive influence they had on us during our Barlow years. There were great memories of John long after Barlow; the many conversations I had with John, where he would recall time, place, who Barlow was playing, who ran the ball, Often Joe Klinger, who made a great block, often Frosty Whitworth; I loved listening to John recall memories of all that he loved so much.“
A sincere thank you goes out to all who helped put this tribute together in such a short time frame. Among the many who contributed their thoughts and photos are: Glenn Govertsen JBHS 1962, John Colley JBHS 1964, Mary Mahoney JBHS 1966, Pete Mann JBHS 1961, Foster “Frosty” Whitworth JBHS 1961, Gene Horrigan JBHS 1965, Tom Chrzanowski JBHS 1964, and Bill “Biff” Clark JBHS 1965. There were many more stories and recollections than I had space to include in this article and I apologize for having to omit more than I would have liked to. John and Rose’s life story was mostly put together from the best recollections of the people listed above.
For those who knew John and Rose, if you would like to send a note of condolence to their daughters Megan Profetto and Mary Profetto Irwin, the address is 358 Caloosa Palms Court, Sun City Center, Florida, 33573.