WESTPORT—Marce Petroccio will be the first to admit it took more than a village to turn around the Staples High School football program, which had won nine games in the previous seven seasons when he was hired in 1993.
Twenty-one years, 183 wins, three state and five FCIAC championships later, Petroccio said none of it would have been possible if not for the person who has stood by his side the longest.
It is the man who convinced the search committee looking for a savior that Petroccio was the person to turn the Wreckers into a perennial contender, and has continued to make good on a promise over two decades old.
“Without Dan DeVito, we never would have had the success we have had,” Petroccio said.
Outside — and perhaps even inside — of Westport, DeVito is probably better known for being the father of Mac DeVito, a current Staples assistant coach who was the quarterback of the 1997 team that went 12-2 and won the FCIAC championship.
But as the chairman of the board of the Westport Football Association, the parent of the Staples Gridiron Club, DeVito has played an important role in making sure Petroccio and the players have the necessary equipment and tools needed to win, as well as that Friday nights and Saturday afternoons are a rewarding experience for the fans.
“We knew we had to develop a program here,” said DeVito, who is the operations supervisor for Westport’s Parks and Recreation Department. “Marce was going to do it on the field and we had to develop a booster club to make it a successful program.”
Look around the state and behind every good team there is a vibrant group made up of backers that help provide the necessary support, financial and otherwise.
“We see what Marce’s needs are, see what the school has to offer money-wise and we make up the difference to make sure the kids get what they need,” DeVito said. “We’ve done that every year.”
Petroccio said he makes out a budget every March, and then works with Staples athletic director Marty Lisevick and DeVito to try and get as close to 100 percent funding as possible.
Lisevick said the school provides about 20 percent of the program’s needs, with the Gridiron Club bridging the difference.
“They know the Gridiron Club, I don’t want to say we’re a cash cow, but we will go out and raise money,” DeVito said. “That also allows the school to use money for other sports that can’t afford it.”
The Staples Gridiron Club, DeVito said, donated $125,000 to get lights for the field and, this year, just over $30,000 for a concession stand that DeVito said was in disrepair.
“As much as it is for the football players, you want it to be a good experience for the people who come to the games,” DeVito said.
DeVito said in the past, the Gridiron Club has split the cost with the athletic department for items like new uniforms and helmets.
The two biggest fundraisers, DeVito said, are a golf tournament that last year brought in about $35,000, and a night with Mike and Marce — Westport resident and ESPN radio personality Mike Greenberg.
“When we started we made a pact that I would have nothing to do with touching money or knowing who gave how much,” Petroccio said. “I make out the budget and they bring it to the board and decide what I can and can’t have. Working with Marty and Dan, it has been great.”
DeVito played football for Stamford High School, graduated in 1965 and turned down a full scholarship from Tennessee and signed with the Orioles for a $35,000 bonus. He later got a job in Westport and moved to the town in 1974. He was part of the search committee after Pete Benedetti stepped down as Staples’ football coach in 1992.
“There were some parents, ex-coaches and students,” DeVito recalled. “Staples was on a down run and everyone was leaning toward an older coach. I said I’d like to have someone young and fresh and the kids would too.”
Petroccio, who will be inducted into the Connecticut High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame in November, recalls during the interview process asking to see the weight room, which was virtually non-existent. The Wreckers were 2-8 his first year.
“We struggled, and a woman came up to me and I’ll never forget it,” Petroccio said with a smile. “She said ‘My name is Anna DeVito and help is on the way. She was correct.”
DeVito’s wife indeed proved to be a soothsayer. The Gridiron Club became a 501(c)(3) organization in 1998, the WFA was formed and DeVito became the chairman of the board. No board member can have a child involved in the program.
DeVito now basically helps steer the ship.
“Dan’s a great guy,” Lisevick said. “I’ve known him for 15 years. We work very well together. He’s a big reason the football program is where it’s at today.”
Petroccio initially told DeVito that he planned to stay at Staples for 10 years before moving on to a college program. Petroccio said he has had offers but opted to stay in Westport. And DeVito has kept good on his guarantee.
“I made the commitment to him. I’m here,” DeVito said. “I should have stayed in football instead of baseball. I should have stayed in coaching, which I did for one year at Stamford High. I figured this is the best way to keep in contact with the sport.”