EVENTS: Villanova’s Wright, MLB’s Robinson the headliners at 34th annual Franciscan Sports Banquet

SOUTHINGTON — Once you visit the Franciscan Life Center in Meriden and attend the group’s annual sports banquet, you are hooked for life.

Just ask former UConn men’s basketball coach Jim Calhoun.

“Once you come, you will come every year,” Calhoun said at the 34th Annual Franciscan Sports Banquet and Silent Auction on Tuesday night at the Aqua Turf.

“That is what I tell everybody. I think we have 15 former award-winners coming tonight. (The Franciscan sisters) are special people who do special things, and you don't meet human beings like that every day.”

Calhoun became involved at the Franciscan Life Center when he was invited to the banquet after his Huskies won the NIT championship in 1988. The sisters made Calhoun feel right at home. They knew just how to do that.

“As I left the banquet, they sang the Husky fight song,” Calhoun said. “From that became an association with the Franciscans. You know, in ’99 we went to the Final Four and about four or five of them came up and did things. And, all of a sudden, I said, ‘I think I can get Bill Raftery, Jay Bilas and Jay Wright.’ That's kind of what my role has been over the years.” 

Calhoun eventually did get Villanova men’s basketball coach Jay Wright. He was at Tuesday’s event to receive the 2019 St. Francis Award. 

“A couple of years ago, Jim Calhoun called me and he was so passionate about it and he said, ‘You have to come to this event,’” Wright recounted. “But it was actually the same night as another event last year, so he said, ‘You better come next year.’ He really sold me on it and I learned all about it today. I met all the sisters. Amazing. Absolutely amazing what they are doing.”

Wright’s counterpart on Tuesday night was Sharon Robinson, winner of the St. Clare Award. The daughter of legendary baseball player and civil rights activist Jackie Robinson, Sharon Robinson has worked as an educational consultant to Major League Baseball for 24 years.

She began Breaking Barriers: In Sports, In Life. 

“I teach kids that barriers and obstacles are a part of life and they need values to help them get beyond their barriers,” Robinson said Tuesday night. “Once they realize that they can get beyond barriers at this point in their life, they will realize when other challenges come up, they can pull from the same strengths.”

Tuesday night’s banquet was a fundraiser for the Franciscan Life Center and Franciscan Home Care and Hospice Care. The event’s honorees also included:

■ Ray Andrewsen, former general manager of WQUN, who received the Dean of Sports Award; ■Paul Polo, senior vice president of ACMT, Inc., who received the Jim Calhoun Community Service Award; ■John Sullivan, owner of Sullivan Brothers Remodeling LLC, who received the Mother Shaun Appreciation Award.

Also recognized was North Haven varsity baseball coach Bob DeMayo, who is still coaching at age 86 after 61 seasons. He has won more than 900 career games.

DeMayo was already decades deep into his North Haven career when Calhoun and Wright became close during their time coaching in the Big East. With Wright being the new and young coach in the conference — he arrived at Villanova in 2001 — Calhoun took him under his wing.

“I had great respect for him. I was the young guy in the league and he was the king,” Wright said. “When I became head coach, he was the king and he was always good to me. I think he was good to me because he knew I was no threat to him. He always looked out for me as a young coach and I always respected him and admired him for doing that.”

Calhoun was not necessarily impressed with Wright’s youth. Instead, it was his unique coaching style that drew Calhoun in.

“I'll tell you what, for a guy that kind of looks like George Clooney, he also has an old, old coach’s soul,” Calhoun said. “He is much more like an old-time coach. He is a special, special guy. Obviously, he has two national championships. He has proven to be one of the best coaches we’ve had.”

Being in Connecticut, Wright made sure to discuss the UConn men’s basketball team on Tuesday night. The Villanova coach has turned around programs in his career and he thinks the Huskies are on the same track.

“You just have to be patient with it. There is no secret sauce,” Wright said. “You’ve got to grind it out. Jim Calhoun grinded it out for a number of years before he got it going.

”Everybody in Connecticut has to be patient with (UConn men’s basketball coach Dan Hurley) because I know he's a great coach. I recruited his players when he was a high school coach because I knew the players we got and that's the kind of players there will be in Connecticut.”

As for Robinson, her Breaking Barriers program includes a national essay contest in which students write about how they utilized values by Jackie Robinson to overcome challenges in their lives. Robinson said about 9,000-13,000 essays are submitted each year. Winners are honored in their schools and in Major League ballparks.

Robinson said she is inspired by the young people she works with and believes their involvement in society is imperative.

“I think kids have got to care about the world and care about their community and schools, and the community beyond them,” Robinson said. “For me, I've done a lot of work with kids on voice, and voice is all about self-confidence and developing an inner strength. So I'm not just speaking out against issues, I am also just talking about what comes from the inside and what prepares you for the world.”

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