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Crudden's retirement leaves high school sports without one of its most noble Spartans

Whether borne of jealousy or envy, nothing else in sports fosters more animosity than success. You win? Venom accrues. Resentment harbors. Rumors, true and otherwise, spread.

All of which means that after 543 wins and seven state titles coaching wrestling and football at Windham High, more than one somebody out there has the goods on Brian Crudden. Surely, after leaving 543 opponents in tow, there’s an anecdote or two out there revealing his warts.

Or not.

And that’s the legacy.

As among the most decent men in the history of Connecticut high school sports.

The banners on the wall tell plenty of Crudden’s contribution. But the humanity tells more.

Male influence, father, disciplinarian, friend, mentor and moral compass.

Crudden stepped down last week as Windham’s football coach, citing family considerations. He will be missed.

The gravel voice, as if a cousin of Johnny Most. The visor. Buffet punctuating Windham victories the way they cue Sinatra in the Bronx. But most of all this: If you ever needed to know how to conduct yourself on and off the field, just look at whatever Brian Crudden happened to be doing at the time.

My favorite Crudden story over the years came one night after the Whips beat Waterford in a football game. The kids wanted to chant their chant, the one they always chanted, part military, part cinema:

"Up in the morning with the rising sun

Work all day till the job gets done

Run, block, hit ... all sorts of fun

That makes Windham No. 1."

And so in the wake of victory, Crudden gathered the troops, not too far from where then-Waterford coach Mike Ellis gathered his.

“I know you want to sing," Crudden said, "but we'll do that inside (the locker room). I have too much respect for them.”

Are there more important lessons to teach a bunch of kids?

That the spoils of victory are best performed behind closed doors?

That treating an opponent the way you'd like to be treated still counts?

That victory is sweet enough and doesn't always command its own spoils?

Crudden taught a lesson of true sportsmanship, well beyond the "g'game, g'game, g'game" drone of the perfunctory, but ultimately meaningless, handshake line. But then, that’s the utter decency with which Crudden oversaw “La Familia,” his appellation for every team he ever coached.

Crudden’s sunny disposition belies the heartache he’s experienced in his own “La Familia.” His dad was a paraplegic, yet the man Crudden once called “the toughest guy I’ve ever known.” Later, Crudden and his wife, “B.J.,” short for Betty Jane, experienced the unspeakable sorrow of the death of a child.

The Cruddens were vacationing in the Adirondacks. Brian and B.J. were driving with Jessica, the oldest; John, the middle child; and Kate, the youngest.

John Crudden was 9 years old that summer.

The family stopped at a roadside tourist spot. John Crudden stepped off a curb and into the path of an oncoming car.

He never regained consciousness.

He died two days later.

And yet the family stricken by death was blessed again with life. Not long after, Bran was born. He became the quarterback and a wrestler at Windham, later a graduate of Brown.

If you didn’t know the story of John Crudden — and what his dad endured — you’d never have known. The natural order of life had been upset in the very worst way. Yet Brian Crudden’s disposition never changed. His character remained his backbone. The lessons endured. On fields, wrestling mats and rattling the halls of Windham High.

Then there was one night at Fitch, when Crudden dressed about 25 players for a football game. Before it began, he told the kids about “300 Spartans,” a story from 480 BC when Spartan king Leonidis led an army of Greek soldiers to hold off an invading Persian army more than 20 times as large.

Windham won 14-0.

“What can I say?” he said after. “I'm an ancient history buff.”

Godspeed to Crudden as he tends to a sick family member and watches his grandson play college football. High school sports lost a beacon last week. Here’s hoping we remember the lessons he taught. I sure will.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro. 

 

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