Ernie Pepe celebrated for 50 years of football

Ernie Pepe has completely enjoyed his lifelong affinity for numbers.

Spend a half-hour in his presence and those digits fit nicely into every sentence and just about every aspect of his career, from high school, through college and on to a 16-year stint as an accountant for Fairfield-based General Electric. After that, he opened up his own financial services company and its running well close to 30 years later.

It doesn’t stop there. Add 50 years of coaching football either on the youth or high school level in Milford. For 18 years, Pepe, now 69 years old, was basically the heart and soul of Milford Junior Football  — serving as the league’s commissioner, treasurer and, of course, coach of the Woodmont Packers.

A 1966 graduate of Milford High School, which closed its door in the summer of 1983, Pepe took those communication skills and became Frank Luysterborghs’ assistant at Jonathan Law. Tack on another 28 years.

When current Foran coach Jeff Bevino was hired in 2005, he asked Pepe to come over and join his staff. Ten years later, Pepe is very much going strong. In addition to being an advisor to the varsity, he coaches the freshman team where his grandson Tyler Stanko is a member.

Back on Oct. 23, prior to Foran’s SCC home game with West Haven, Pepe was caught off guard when the team and its coaching staff honored him for his 50-year tenure with Milford football.

At a 50-yard line ceremony, Pepe received numerous awards and was greeted by the city’s Mayor, Ben Blake. In his usual unassuming way, Pepe thanked all of those in attendance. He came off the field and assumed his sideline position with clipboard in hand. What followed was a numbers’ game – keeping those ever-important statistics – passing, receiving, rushing, etc.

Asked about the honor, Pepe’s response was filled with humility. “I had no clue it was going to happen,” he said. “It’s not something you expect. It was wonderful. I was thrilled. But, you don’t expect to have something done like this. Football to me has always been about the kids. I’ve always gotten so much more from them than what I thought I was giving to them.”

His start on this half-century journey began during his senior year at Milford High, where he played football, basketball and ran track.

“My brother Brett (whose last name is Assunto) was trying out for Little League baseball,” Pepe said. “I went down to the field with him and was just standing around when Art Abeshouse (a coach) approached me. There were 18 or 19 extra kids, and, instead of cutting them, they wanted to form another team.”

What transpired was coaching job number one. Three years later, Pepe found himself co-coaching in the Milford Junior League with Ed Ciarleglio, the brother of Ray Cialeglio, a former coach at Law who is now on Anthony Sagnella’s staff at North Haven.

When Ciarleglio retired, Pepe became the head coach of the Woodmont Packers, who eventually become known as the D’Amato Packers. The league disbanded in 1986. Pepe, however, kept going. He’s seen the game, on the youth and high school level, go through a huge evolvement.

“Kids are so much bigger and quicker now,” he said. “When I started it was three yards and a cloud of dust, that old Woody Hayes philosophy about always running the ball. Now, it’s an open game played with much more finesse. High school quarterbacks throw the ball 30 or more times. That never happened in the 1960s and ’70s.”

He can’t always rattle off the names of his past players, but does have an easier time remembering coaches.

“I don’t know why that is,” Pepe said. “There have been times when someone has come up to me and said, ‘I played for you.’ Okay, I’d reply, tell me who you are.”

Two prominent players that he can recall, however, are David Esposito and Andy Carlson, both became physicians and practice in Milford.

His run with Bevino, whose firebrand style of coaching could get a corpse up and playing, has endured through a mutual respect of each other.

“There simply isn’t a coach anywhere who cares more about his players than Jeff,” Pepe said. “His manner off the field is completely different from the one you see on it. He does things in a quiet way, he’s never overt. People don’t always see that, so therefore, they tend to judge him only from his sideline appearance.

“Oh, we’ve had our differences. We’ve always talked in private, with each one of us having our say. It’s never in any way affected our friendship.”

Foran’s wide-open style of offense has been highlighted by  a series of quarterback’s throughout Bevino’s stay. They included Jake White, Tucker Schumitz, Matt Aspinwall, Jake Kasuba and now, a very talent, strong-armed junior in Lance DiNatale. Throw in a batch of sure-handed, an accurate route-running receivers, and the Lions’ offense has always been formidable.

Along with coaching the freshmen, Pepe spends lots of time talking to the current varsity players.

“I’m a believer that hard work makes the biggest difference, "Pepe said. "In our society today, some people think it’s a four-letter word. Some people think being okay is just that, being okay. You only get one chance to do this, whether it’s football, another sport or getting through high school, and you’ve got to give it your best.

“My message never varies — you have to give it your best. If you walk off that field after a game and you know in your heart that you did just that, it’s all that matters. It isn’t important what other people might think, or what you read in the papers.”

With the backing of his wife, Elaine, and his daughters, Cindy and Cheryl and their families, Pepe plans to march on. More numbers are on the horizon.

“I sure would miss those Friday nights,” he said. “It’s a heartwarming feeling watching kids play at their maximum; seeing them totally focused. Of course, winning gives you an adrenaline rush when all of that hard work during the week hits a climax.”

No time table, however, has been set on that date. It’s a numbers game that Pepe says he’s in association with the Lord on.