MERIDEN — The annual tradition that is the Meriden Sports Reunion has reached its 40th anniversary.
This year’s Sportsmen of Distinction are a pair of Platt grads a generation apart: Rico Buccilli, Class of 1969, and Chris Bourdon, Class of 1991.
They will be honored Tuesday, April 18, at 6 p.m. at the annual Reunion dinner at the Meriden Elks Club.
Though separated by 23 years, the 72-year-old Buccilli and the 49-year-old Bourdon both came of age in the Meriden sport world and both worked and coached in their hometown — Buccilli in the school system as a teacher and administrator, Bourdon in the Parks and Recreation Department as program director.
Patsy Papandrea, chairman of the Meriden Sports Reunion, said Bourdon and Buccilli were unanimous selections as Sportsmen of Distinction.
“Both are knowledgeable and active in the sports arena,” Papandrea said. “They have served the younger people of the city. They met and exceeded all of the requirements for consideration. Both deserve it and are hard-working individuals. Both have also given back to the community, which is a big factor.”
This year’s dinner will mark the end of an era. After nine years, Papandrea is stepping down as chairman of the Reunion, though he will remain on the committee.
Papandrea could go out with a capacity event. The Elks Club holds 225. Last year’s event drew more than 200.
“Both [Buccilli and Bourdon] are very well known and we could exceed last year’s numbers,” Papandrea said. “This is the highlight of our year. It’s a three-month project before the dinner and we are very pleased with the candidates.”
“I’m thrilled,” Bourdon said. “I was raised in the Meriden sports culture, so this honor means a great deal to me.”
Bourdon noted that he and his grandfather Ben Zajac, the first athletic director at Platt, are the first grandfather/grandson combination to be named Sportsmen of Distinction.
“Growing up, my father and I met all of the guys at the dinners and they took on legendary status for me, and it’s a big deal for me to be considered among that group.”
Bourdon said he will probably know every single person who will be at the Reunion in April.
“Living and working in Meriden my entire life, and playing youth and high school sports in Meriden, and now I’m running the men’s basketball league and coaching three sports, I know everyone spanning the generations,” he said. “I have a unique perspective on it.”
Bourdon was a football and basketball player at Platt. He continued playing football at the University of New Hampshire, initially as a tight end — the position he played along with linebacker at Platt — before shifting to right offensive tackle for his final three collegiate seasons.
He studied Political Science at UNH and was named an Academic All-American before returning to Meriden.
Bourdon has worked for the city for 25 years. The bulk of that time has been with the Parks and Rec Department, the last six as director.
Bourdon does a bit of coaching: baseball at South Meriden, basketball at the Meriden Boys & Girls Club and flag football with the YMCA. He’s been on the Sports Reunion committee for seven years.
Bourdon and his wife Sarah have three children: Gabriella, a freshman at Platt; Josiah, a student at Edison; and Benjamin, a student at Hanover.
Bourdon said he started going to the Sports Reunion when he was in college. He’d attend with his father Paul and grandfather Ben.
“For my grandfather, it was his favorite nights of the year,” Bourdon said. “It was there that I learned he was a captain on a 1935 New England basketball championship team. It was never about him. He was happy to see his former players doing well. He never wanted to talk about his individual accomplishments.
“You pay it forward with youth sports. My father did as well, and you are in debt to those individuals.”
Buccilli came to Meriden when he was 4. He and his younger brother Sergio, accompanied by their mother Terzina, emigrated from Italy in 1955 to join his father, Vincenzo, who had come just before them.
That first year was a struggle for survival, but ultimately a success, something for which Buccilli still lauds his father to this day. Buccilli’s parents lived with Terzina’s father on Pine Street for a few years before moving into the North Spring Street home where Rico and Sergio grew up.
Sports helped Buccilli adjust to his new surroundings. He started with the Boys Club and Little League. He later played baseball and basketball at Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
At Platt, Buccilli played three years of football and basketball. He was a senior captain for both squads.
“I enjoyed competitive sports and learned a lot; I learned that if you work hard and practice. you can be successful,” Buccilli said. “I wasn’t a superstar player, but I was able to hold my own.”
After high school, Buccilli played in the Meriden Adult Softball Association. He coached youth basketball and youth soccer and in the Ed Walsh Little League. He also had various coaching stints at Washington Middle School and at Platt in freshman and JV basketball, football and track.
Off the field, Buccilli spent 14 years teaching science at Washington Middle School and became the assistant principal in his last four years at the school before moving on to Wallingford’s Dag Hammarskjold Middle School, where he was principal for 18 years before retiring in 2010.
An avid golfer — he’s on the course three days a week — Buccilli serves on the city’s golf commission. He was also a member of the Meriden Planning Commission for 25 years.
In addition to being a Sportsman of Distinction, Buccilli has been inducted into the Meriden Boys & Girls Club Alumni Association Hall of Fame. He had stints as president of the Association.
Buccilli is married to high school sweetheart Andrea. The two met at Platt in 1966. Their first date was on Valentine’s Day.
The couple has a son Michael and a daughter Kristina. Their grandson Nolan Kiely plays football and basketball at Sheehan.
Both of Buccilli’s children followed their dad into education. Kristina Kiely is a principal at Stevens Elementary in Wallingford. Michael works for the State of Connecticut college system.
“It’s all due to my dad, who did a great job bringing us over from Italy and, within five years, he earned his citizenship, got a car license, a house and paid off all of his debt. Talk about the American Dream,” Buccilli said.
“I had some great role models like Patsy Papendrea, Tex Burt, Ben Zajac, Roy Gooding and Henry Zaleski,” Buccilli added. “They all had a tremendous inpact on me as a person.”
“The lessons you learn in sports are unbelievable and invaluable. They helped me in my career and my jobs. When you play a team sport, no matter what language you speak or the color of your skin, we were all on the team.”
Buccilli has been attending the Sports Reunion for more than 10 years and has been a part of the Sports Reunion committee.
“I love going every year,” Buccilli said. “You run into people you haven’t seen in a long time. It’s a night for the athletes; it’s a nice gathering. The social part of it is probably the best part of the night. It’s a really nice gathering.”