Derby’s Bob Skoronski was a Green Bay Packers’ captain in the first Super Bowl, and later was a “survivor” of the infamous Ice Bowl

EDITOR’S NOTE: In recognition of the soon to take place SUPER BOWL 50, we look back to its beginnings and the major role that was played in it by one of Connecticut’s all-time great football stars, Bob Skoronski , of Derby.

An in-depth article about Skoronski, his family, and the Town of Derby, researched and written by Joel Alderman, was posted on SportzEdge a year ago. With interest and excitement building toward the coming Super Bowl milestone, this inspiring story is even more relevant today. It is being repeated here for those who may have missed it the first time, or who would simply like to read it again.

By Joel Alderman

As we come upon another Super Bowl, it is fitting to pay recognition to one of Connecticut’s own, Bob Skoronski of Derby. He played in the first two Super Bowls in 1967 and 1968, as well as in the so-called Ice Bowl in between. He was an offensive lineman for the Green Bay Packers and one of its co-captains.

Bob_Skoronski
Skoronski won five NFL titles as a member of Vince Lombardi’s Packers.

Skoronski, who settled in Wisconsin, was on five teams that won an NFL title before the merger with the American Football League.

He took part in the first official act of what would later be named Super Bowl I. That was the meeting of the team captains on the 50-yard line at the Los Angeles Coliseum on Jan. 15, 1967.

A photo of that milestone in pro football history shows Skoronski, wearing number 76, shaking hands with a Kansas City co-captain, Jerry Mays (who died in 1994). The others pictured are Willie Davis of Green Bay and Joe Gilliam of the Chiefs.

After the handshakes and coin toss, Skoronski and his Green Bay teammates defeated Kansas City, the AFL champion, 35-10.

Growing up in Derby

Derby, Connecticut, was then, and still is, known for its rich history and the passion of its residents for football, especially as played by those who live or formerly lived there. Obviously, the whole town took pride in Skoronski’s success and fame. His exploits gave publicity and recognition to Derby, known as “The Smallest City in Connecticut.”

Although Skoronski is considered a native son of Derby, both he and his brother, Frank, were actually born in neighboring Ansonia, in their grandparents’ home  and where his parents were also living. When he was three years old, his father and mother, Francis and Sophie Skowronski (original spelling of their last name), bought a house in Derby at 7 Talmadge Street, which became the family residence for many years.

A youngster growing up in the “Valley”

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A young Bob Skoronski attended St. Michael’s School in East Derby.

When Bob was a young boy, he joined the Housatonic Council Boy Scout Troop #3 in Derby, one of the oldest scout troups in the country, and which last summer began its 101st year of scouting.

His early athletic experience was playing basketball for the AM (Adriatic Marchegian) Club and the Lafayette AC, both still functioning in Derby. He also loved to fish and hunt.  

Bob and his siblings attended historic St. Michael’s Grammar School, still located at 73 Derby Avenue, in the section known as East Derby.

“Don’t just write Derby,” Bob emphasized in a phone conversation. “The people who came from that district and those who sent their children to St. Michael’s or went to the Church next door always said ‘EAST Derby.’ They probably still do!”

A brief history of his school and church

A mostly immigrant Polish community established St. Michael the Archangel Parish in 1903, and the Church was built in 1906-1907. It still conducts a weekly mass in Polish. The school, with the engraved words St. Michaels School still clearly visible over its main entrance door, was built in 1914.

Although the building still exists, it no longer serves the needs of the community the way the Skowronski’s came to know it.  According to Sandra Jemioto, the Assistant Secretary of the Parish, it has not been used as an elementary school since 2009, due to declining enrollment.

Now it is a Polish CCD (Cofraternity of Christian Doctrine) Saturday School for language, culture and religious instruction. On Sundays it serves as the parish religious school. On weekdays, the St. Mary’s-St. Michael’s basketball team has been using the gymnasium for practices.

Family life

One of Bob Skoronski’s boyhood friends was Joe Pietrosante of Ansonia, a brother of the late Nick Pietrosante, who, like Bob, had  an outstanding career in the National Football League. Bob and Joe entered Indiana University at the same time on football scholarships. Joe reportedly sustained an injury and left college early to join the priesthood.

Skoronski’s parents were typically industrious Naugatuck Valley mill workers, employed for years at the former B.F. Goodrich plant on Canal Street in Shelton. Their hard work and diligent saving habits made it possible to send their four sons, Bob, Frank, Gene and Ted, and their daughter, Judy, to college. They all received their degrees.

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Derby, the boyhood home of Bob Skoronski, is noted for being Connecticut’s smallest city. (Photo by Joel Alderman)

Bob’s teen years in Derby

When he was a teenager, Bob and his friends sold souvenirs and refreshments at Yale’s annual Derby Day celebrations. Those events were centered around college crew races on the Housatonic. Thousands of students, their girlfriends, guests and parents, plus alumni and townspeople, used to gather along the banks of the river on an early Saturday each May to picnic, party, and even watch the races.

“It was quite a thrill for us kids to be a part of all the excitement,” Bob recalled. “There was even an observation train traveling along the race course on the Shelton side of the river.”

Many of the college crew members, as well as out-of-towners who came to join the festivities, stayed at the former Hotel Clark, which was a Derby landmark. It was located at Elizabeth and Fourth Streets, and was usually booked to capacity on Derby Day weekend.

Yale continues to hold crew races on the river, but its famous Derby Days are just a nostalgic memory for Valley residents in Bob’s generation. The observation trains are gone, as well as the Hotel Clark, which was later converted into a rooming house before being closed permanently toward the end of 1968.

Skoronski’s football days before turning pro

The path for Bob Skoronski to the first Super Bowl started at Fairfield Prep. He could have attended Derby High School without cost. But his parents were prepared to pay the tuition and other expenses to send him and two other sons to the private Jesuit school because of their deep Catholic beliefs and to assure the boys of getting a quality religious educations.

What they might not have foreseen, or maybe not even cared about, was that Fairfield Prep also had outstanding athletic programs, as it does today.

It may be hard to believe, but this future NFL star did not begin playing organized football until his third year in high school, and that was only on the JV level. As a senior at Prep he made the varsity, coached by Fella Gintoff, who had been a star at Boston College in the mid-30’s.

Skoronski credits the development of his football skills and love of the game to Gintoff and to Joe Brosley, an assistant coach. Brosley later followed Gintoff as head coach of the Jesuits and had many successful teams of his own there.

Bob was the first graduate of Fairfield Prep to play a professional sport on the highest level. Since then, three others have done so, all in hockey.

Chris Drury of Trumbull (and Little League World Series fame), was a Rookie of the Year in the National Hockey League. His older brother, Ted Drury, played eight seasons for six teams in the NHL. A third Prep alum, Mark Arcobello of Milford and Yale, played for Edmonton and Nashville before just being acquired off waivers by the Pittsburgh Penguins this month (January 2015).

After graduating from Prep, Bob and his brother, Frank, did a post graduate year of study at the former Admiral Billard Academy in New London.

Success in college football

From Admiral Billard, they both enrolled at Indiana University, along with Joe Pietrosante. Bob and Frank both played freshman football at Indiana.

During their time in college, Bob and Frank dropped the letter “W” from the family surname, which is properly spelled Skowronski. “It was more of a Polish spelling,” Bob explained, “and the ‘W’ is silent anyway.” The rest of the large family, including two brothers, who played for Harvard, and his son, a footballer at Yale, spell it Skowronski.

After their freshman year at IU, Frank gave up sports but remained a Hoosier until he and Bob received their diplomas in 1956. Frank was a much beloved school teacher and principal in Shelton for 37 years. When he passed away in 2013, his obituary notice described him as a “dedicated and passionate educator.” (New Haven Register; Nov. 12, 2013).

Playing football at Indiana

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A football card depicting Bob Skoronski at Indiana.

It was before the time of two-platoon football, so Bob had to play on both offense and defense in college. Because freshmen were not eligible, he was on the varsity for three years. During that time he never missed a game. He was co-captain his senior year, and voted as the team’s Most Valuable Player.

During his junior year in Indiana he went to Montgomery, Alabama, to participate in the 1955 North-South Game. In 1956, after receiving a B.A. degree in marketing, he played against the Cleveland Browns in the College Football All Star Classic. That contest annually matched a team of recently graduated college stars against the defending NFL champion.

His NFL career was interrupted for the Air Force

After his rookie season with Green Bay, Bob served in the Air Force for two years, during which he was married and his son, Bobby David, was born. Following the service stint, he returned to the Packers which by then were being coached by Vince Lombardi.

Lombardi made Skoronski the starting offensive left tackle, and soon afterwards named him as the Packers’ offensive captain.

The Ice Bowl

Ice Bowl
The Ice Bowl will long be remembered as one of the most unpleaseant yet classic games in NFL history. (AP Photo/File)

In addition to being in the first two Super Bowls, Bob played a major role in the so-called Ice Bowl. The Green Bay Packers defeated the Dallas Cowboys in the final seconds on a brutally cold New Year’s Eve in 1967. The temperature was -15° with a wind-chill factor of -36° under today’s measuring standards. To make things worse, the heating system underneath the playing field malfunctioned and the ground got icier and harder as the game went on.

With the Cowboys leading 17-14, Green Bay was on the Dallas 11-yard line after a 19-yard run by Chuck Mercein. On the next play the former Yale star fought his way down the middle to the 3-yard line.

Years later Mercein told a reporter that Skoronski deserved much of the credit for the “give” play being so successful.

“Bob Lilly was sensing the sweep and ran down the line of scrimmage,” Mercein said.Left tackle Bob Skoronski had a great block on the defensive end and the play worked perfectly.” (Martin Hendricks, Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel Jan. 3, 2008)

As time ran out, quarterback Bart Starr sneaked over for the winning score. But the earlier run by Mercein, on which Skoronski made the key block, had set up the winning touchdown. Starr, incidentally, has been campaigning for Skoronski to be enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame.

Skoronski was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated
Skoronski was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated following the first-ever Super Bowl. (Photo: Valley.NewHavenIndependent.Org)

In Sports Illustrated it was written “Bob Skoronski, the big tackle whose face was marked and bloody, expressed a sentiment held by most of his teammates. ‘This game,’ he said wearily, ‘was our mark of distinction.’”  (“The Old Pro Goes In For Six.” Sports Illustrated. Jan. 8, 1968)

The same issue of the magazine featured a game action cover photo of Mercein running with the ball.

The Ice Bowl win took Skoronski and the Packers to the second AFL-NFL World Championship Game (Super Bowl II) in Miami, which they also won. They had gone from the arctic conditions at the Ice Bowl to the balmy climes of the Orange Bowl.

Three Halls of Fame and successes in the business world

Skoronski played in the Pro Bowl in 1967 and retired after the 1968 season. In 1976, the Packers named him to their Hall of Fame. He was also enshrined in the Indiana University Athletic Hall of Fame in 1982, and in 2000 the National Polish American Sports Hall of Fame.

Bob had started a successful career in sales while still with the Packers, as a representative for Jostens, a company that makes college and high school class rings and championship rings for pro teams. He designed and sold rings to the Packers to mark those two NFL-AFL (Super Bowl) titles.

Eventually, he turned over his position with Jostens to a friend, Tony Kubek, the former New York Yankees’ infielder and broadcaster for the Yankees and national television networks,

Returning to Derby and a KFC

KFC_LogoIn 1969, the year after he retired from pro football, Bob went into the restaurant business back in Derby. He partnered with his uncle, Tony Roginol, who at the time owned a popular diner, named the Town Liner. It was located on the Derby-Ansonia town line, on a parcel of property situated in both of those communities on Pershing Drive.

They purchased a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise, and constructed an establishment on the Derby side of Pershing Drive. They also built another restaurant, The Galley, near by. Since then the KFC has been replaced by a larger building at the same address, and is still owned and operated by the family.

Bob’s last and by far most successful commercial venture was to join with former Packers’ teammates, Willie Davis and Ron Kostelnik, to buy the Valley School Supply Company. Bob became its president and CEO, and it grew to employ over 100 workers, achieving an annual gross of over $16 million.  

Currently

Bob is now nearing 81. For the past 20 years, he and his wife, Ruth Ann, have been living in Middleton, a suburb of Madison, Wisconsin, spending winters in Florida with the extended family.

He still enjoys hunting and fishing, the same passions that he developed in his youth back in Derby.

“Fishing was always good in the Housatonic and Naugatuck Rivers, and in those days there were a lot of woodlands to hunt in,” he recalled.

Seeing his son play under Carm Cozza at Yale

While living in Menasha, Wisconsin, Bob indirectly reconnected with his geographical roots by sending one of his sons to Yale. His family and close friends know the son as Bobby David, to distinguish him from his father of the same first name, but with a different middle name, Francis.

Bobby David Skowronski (spelled the original family way) was an all-Ivy League defensive tackle at Yale.

“He loved Yale and its coaches, especially Carm Cozza and (defensive line coach), Buddy Amendola,” Skoronski told me by phone.

It turned out to be quite a coincidence that after he enrolled at Yale, Bob’s son found he had two teammates, John Pagliaro and Mike Sullivan, who hailed from the same town of Derby in which his father had been raised.

Bob David Skowronski had been accepted by Harvard, but he chose to enroll at Yale. That may have been due in part to the influence of Amendola, who was Yale’s defensive line coach at the time.

Amendola was a former star at the University of Connecticut, and after his Yale work became head coach at Central Connecticut. He was a close friend of the elder Skoronski while they were growing up in Derby.

Perhaps another factor leading to Bobby David choosing Yale could have been its proximity to the Valley area, where so many of his relatives were living at the time (and still do). In that way it was convenient to visit them and attend family gatherings. Conversely, many of them were able to see him play in the famous Bowl, just a short distance from the Valley.

Bob Skoronski was often in the Bowl and almost played there

Long before he began visiting the Yale Bowl when his son was on the Bulldogs, Bob often made the 10 mile trip from Derby to watch the Bulldogs when he was a youngster.

He himself never got to play in the Bowl, but it might have happened. In 1961 the committee for the Albie Booth Memorial Boys’ Club game was looking for an opponent to face the New York Giants that summer.

The year before, in the inaugural Booth game, the big draws were Ansonia’s Nick Pietrosante of the Detroit Lions and Andy Robustelli, who was from Stamford, and played for the Giants. A crowd of 50,000 sat in the rain for the first professional game ever played in the Bowl.

To find another Connecticut drawing attraction the following year, especially from the rabid fans in the Valley, it was witten that “the Packs, with Derby product Bob Skoronski at tackle, were one of a few teams that would make ‘naturals’ to oppose the Giants.” (Bridgeport Sunday Herald, February 5, 1961)

The Associated Press reported that J. Ray Ryan, general chairman of the Memorial Fund Committee, confirmed that the Packers were one of four teams being considered. But for whatever reason, it did not happen.

Bob remembered the Valley

Bob continued to remember Derby and Ansonia, while making his home in the mid-west. For several years he would come back home for the annual Sports Nights at Warsaw Park in Ansonia, bringing along a few Packers’ teammates.

He appreciated that they asked for no payment, not even for travel. The appreciation was mutual. They, and of course Derby, have always appreciated Bob Skoronski.

In conclusion

Robert Francis Skoronski was a college and pro football star, born in Ansonia and raised in Derby. He is but one of the Skowronski/Skoronski members who in sports, business and the professions, has firmly established a family legacy in the smallest town in Connecticut.

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