Terry Brannigan calls himself a “passable” wrestler at Staples High School.
But the 1979 graduate says the sport was “hugely transformative.” In fact, he says, it was one of the best things he ever did. Wrestling helped Brannigan set goals, gain confidence, overcome obstacles, and take responsibility for himself.
Right after college, Nick Garoffalo — a wrestler who graduated from Staples a year before Brannigan — asked him to be his assistant coach.
“I was 23,” Brannigan recalls. “To this day, except for being a parent, it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”
For nearly a decade, the pair formed a potent team. Helped by John Chacho’s PAL feeder program, they coached individual and team state champions. More importantly, they formed tight bonds between coaches, wrestlers and parents.
“It wasn’t about technique. It was about family,” Brannigan recalls. “We looked out for each other, on and off the mat.”
But “work and life got in the way.” Fellow wrestler Andy Lobsenz hired Brannigan at Dun & Bradstreet. Regretfully, he had no more time to coach.
Ten years ago, Brannigan moved back to Westport. He and his wife Laurie had 3 young sons. The oldest, Terry Jr. tried sports. But he was the smallest in his grade — boy or girl — and quiet. Nothing clicked.
As a Staples High School freshman 2 years ago, he decided to give wrestling another try.
Under a succession of young coaches, the program had fallen far from its glory days. Sometimes, there were only 5 wrestlers at a match. With 9 forfeits in the 14 weight classes, the Wreckers mathematically lost before even stepping on the mat.
As a freshman, Terry wrestled varsity. He learned the same lessons as his father: In this sport, size does not matter. Someone who studies wrestling and works hard can beat a pure athlete.
But Brannigan was appalled at the state of the program. “This can’t be his high school experience,” the father thought. “I want him to have what I had.”
As a sophomore, Terry Jr. had an excellent season. At the season-ending banquet — attended by only a dozen or so wrestlers — Brannigan began working to resurrect Staples wrestling.
Athletic director Marty Lisevick was all in. Brannigan went to work.
He told several key alumni, “we need your help — financially and emotionally.” Successful in fields like medicine, finance and business, they all had the same question: “How can we help?”
Lisevick agreed to move the wrestlers from the small, out-of-the-way football locker that had served as their wrestling room. When the winter season began, they would practice in the fieldhouse. It was roomier, and everyone could see what they were doing.
Snazzy uniforms were ordered. Brannigan and others built a new website, and a Facebook page. The Mat Men booster club grew too.
Another key was a coach who could also build a program. Fred Mills — the “guru” of Danbury’s strong youth program, and owner of Beast Wrestling Academy — signed on.
He brought 2 young assistants to the program. Alex Kappel — a teacher in Milford — is the son of a Hungarian national freestyle champion. Paulo Freitas is one of the winningest wrestlers in Danbury High School history. Both added immensely to the program’s credibility and impact. They served as head PAL coaches too, further tightening bonds between younger and high school grapplers.
Mills and Brannigan organized summer and fall clinics, sponsored by Westport PAL. Slowly, interest grew. Wrestlers got friends to come. The word was out: We’re doing something cool. Get in on the ground floor. You’ll get tougher. You’ll help us win. You’ll have fun.
In the fall, Brannigan helped recruit wrestlers. Some had been his son’s teammates on Staples’ undefeated freshman football team. The parents had formed tight bonds, and were eager to keep the magic going all winter long.
Forty wrestlers showed up on the first day. At the opening meet, 7 freshmen were in the lineup.
The program-building paid off — on and off the mat. The night before the Chacho Duals — a Staples-hosted event, honoring long-time coach and mentor John Chacho — a party drew dozens of parents to Wakeman Town Farm. They stayed until 1 a.m.
The next day — in dramatic, down-to-the-wire fashion — the Wreckers won the Duals. It was the first time they’d ever captured their own tournament.
The team caught fire. They earned votes in the Top 10 statewide poll. They finished 4th at the FCIAC (league) tournament.
They earned the respect of a growing number of fans — and of their coach.
Before accepting the job, Mills had been told that Westport kids are “soft.” To his surprise, he found them very tough competitors — and also very gentlemanly. (Like rugby, that’s the flip side of the sport.)
A few days ago, 119 people celebrated the season at Uncle Buck’s Fishbowl in Bridgeport. The team’s “house band” — led by Terry Brannigan Jr. and his freshman brother Eamonn, entertained. They’re called the Sing-lets (a play on the word for a wrestling uniform).
“To call you my best friends is wrong,” said co-captain JC Montoni in his speech. “You’re my brothers.
Brannigan looked back with satisfaction on the year. And he was quick to spread praise for the turnaround.
“We are an army for good,” he says. He cited Lisevick, the coaches, and the Mat Men — including “superhero” mom and new Mat Men board member Jen Montoni — for the newly revived Staples wrestling program.
The wrestlers and their parents are already excited for next year. But first there’s one final meet.
Five Wreckers qualified for the high school national championships. On March 28 Terry Brannigan, JC Montoni, George Harrington, Jake Rizy and Nick Augeri head to Virginia Beach.
They and their parents will drive down together, in an RV. They’ll stay together in an Airbnb.
It’s the new Staples wrestling way. And — Brannigan promises — this is only the first round.