1981 Yale football team - shared courtesy of Mory’s

Super Men

Watch the right highlight reel and you’ll see #33 on the Miami Dolphins plow through the Buffalo Bills defensive line. That’s running back and Hamden native Rich Diana, who also played football for Yale. As legendary commentator Howard Cosell called it, “This kid gets opportunity, you’ll see him ‘bulldog’ his way through the league…”

After that regular season matchup with the Bills, the Dolphins made it all the way to the 1983 Super Bowl. That makes Diana one of just a handful of NFL players with a connection to greater New Haven who’ve made it to the big game.

A Hamden High alumnus and a graduate of Yale with three Ivy League titles, Diana was in his rookie season when he played in that Super Bowl, where the Dolphins lost to the Washington Redskins 17-27. The following year, at training camp, a neck injury during practice caused numbness in Diana’s right arm, persuading him to retire and pursue his second dream: becoming a surgeon. Today, Dr. Diana is an orthopaedic surgeon who lives in Hamden and practices with Connecticut Orthopaedic Specialists.

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People often ask him about the Super Bowl, he says, adding that losing the game has “haunted me for my life, but at the same time I wouldn’t trade it for anything.” The Dolphins were ahead at halftime, Diana recalls. He can still describe the details of two key plays in the second half that turned the tables. “We’re all defined by sometimes just a few different plays in our careers,” he adds. “Every play that you go on that field as a professional football player is a show of courage.”

A long roster of NFL players were either born in greater New Haven or came here for college, but just 14 of them made it to a Super Bowl game. Among the natives is Ron Gardin, born in New Haven and educated at Ansonia High School, who played just two seasons but helped the Baltimore Colts to a 16-13 win in Super Bowl V over the Dallas Cowboys.

Hall of Famer Ken Strong, born and educated in West Haven, played for the NFL in the days before the Super Bowl. With the New York Giants, Strong played in five NFL Championship Games between 1933 and 1946, three of them against the Chicago Bears. The Giants prevailed in only one of those matchups, taking the NFL title in 1934 with a 30-13 win over the Bears. Strong also took honors as the top NFL scorer in 1933. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1967, the same year the Super Bowl began.

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Three other Super Bowl or Championship players were born in New Haven but grew up elsewhere: Johnny Sisk, who as a halfback for the Chicago Bears celebrated a 1933 Championship win over the Giants, playing against Strong; Willie Clark, who played defensive back for the San Diego Chargers in their 1995 Super Bowl loss to the 49ers; and defensive tackle Nate Hobgood-Chittick, whose St. Louis Rams beat the Tennessee Titans in 2000 to win Super Bowl XXXIV.

Then there are the Bulldogs. According to Yale, 44 of its alumni have been NFL draft picks, and 24 have played in regular season games. But only eight of them, including Diana, made it to a Super Bowl or Championship game. Among them, only two-time Super Bowl champion Kenny Hill made his post-career home in New Haven, where, according to reports in the New Haven Independent, he developed properties in Wooster Square and tangled with the city over a Winchester Avenue property. As a defensive back, Hill earned his Super Bowl rings playing for the Los Angeles Raiders in 1984 as well as the Giants in 1987.

Another Hill has a special place in the hearts of many New Haveners: Calvin Hill, the namesake for the local Calvin Hill Day Care Center, a tribute he once called “one of his great honors at Yale.” Hill played 12 seasons with the NFL, the first five of them as a running back for the Dallas Cowboys, who beat the Miami Dolphins 24-3 in Super Bowl VI in 1972. Five other former Bulldogs also went on to play in a Super Bowl or NFL Championship: John Spagnola of the Philadelphia Eagles, Gary Fencik of the Chicago Bears, Chuck Mercein of the Green Bay Packers, Mike Pyle of the Bears and John Prchlik of the Detroit Lions.

Conspicuously missing from the list is Hall of Famer Floyd Little, a graduate of James Hillhouse High School and arguably New Haven’s most beloved NFL player, whose nine seasons with the Broncos from 1967 to 1975 made for an illustrious career but no Super Bowl play. (The Broncos first made it to the big game two years after Little retired.) When the Floyd Little Athletic Center at Hillhouse was named for him in 2011, Little told the New Haven Register that the honor meant even more to him than being named to the Hall of Fame: “…o have it in the place where it all started for me, that’s what makes it more significant.”

This Sunday, when the New England Patriots meet the Philadelphia Eagles in Minneapolis for Super Bowl LII, New Haven won’t be represented on the field, as far as we know. But you can bet New Haveners will be in the stands and on their couches, many cheering on the closest thing they’ve got to a hometown team.

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image, depicting the 1981 Yale football team (including Rich Diana, #33), shared courtesy of Mory’s.

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