Pride of Schenectady: Popolizio excelled on mat, but first love was football
When Severino Popolizio, a few years removed from his native Italy, found himself looking for a high school sport, nothing looked familiar.
“I came here from Italy at 11. I had always played soccer, but none of the inner city schools had soccer back then,” he said.
It turned out that Popolizio’s natural athletic ability was more than enough transfer to American high school sports.
Enough, in fact, to earn him a spot in the Schenectady City School District Athletic Hall of Fame. Popolizio is one of three former city high school athletes that make up the Class of 2012.
“It’s a great honor,” said Popolizio. “It’s not something I was expecting.”
With the futbal he grew up playing not an option at Linton High School, Popolizio opted for the American version.
“I decided to play football. I wasn’t very big, but I was fast and agile,” said Popolizio, a 1973 Linton graduate. “When the coaches asked me where I wanted to play, I told them I wanted to run with the ball.
‘Never came off the field’
“They also put me in on defense and I punted, kicked field goals, returned punts. I never came off the field.
“To be honest, football was my thing. I loved it, especially the games with Mont Pleasant. It was such a big thing. It seemed the entire city was involved.”
As good as he was at football, Popolizio really excelled on the wrestling mat, winning 95 percent of his matches in a high-school career that included unbeaten junior and senior seasons.
His second trip to the state tournament saw Popolizio place second at 132 pounds. Teammate Mike Chrys also reached the state finals that year, the only Blue Devils to place at the state tournament.
“It was nothing like it is today,” said Popolizio, who has watched his sons, nephews and cousins add to the family’s wrestling legacy. “Twenty matches was pretty much your season.
“Now, kids are wrestling year-round. I got to enjoy summer, play a sport each season and do the normal things that kids did.”
Popolizio had to give up one sport when he went to college.
“I wasn’t six-foot tall, and I wasn’t 170 pounds,” said Popolizio of his choice of wrestling over football.
His decision to continue wrestling worked out just fine, as he would become the first wrestler inducted into the Boston University Hall of Fame.
“It turned out OK. I had a lot of fun,” said the 57-year-old Popolizio.
Three trips to NCAAs
At Boston University, Popolizio compiled a 68-4-2 record in dual meets. He qualified for three NCAA Championships, missing out as a freshman when he lost an overtime decision in the qualifier.
On teams that included fellow Capital Region wrestlers Tom Kryzak, Mark Jones and Mark Nichols, Popolizio helped the Terriors to four Greater Boston, three Yankee Conference and a pair of New England titles.
Popolizio reached the NCAA quarterfinals as a junior.
“BU was not one of the strongest programs, and our schedule wasn’t like you’d see today,” he said. “I would try to beat people 21-0, just to get a workout to prepare for the NCAAs. There, I knew I had to be ready to go the full time, and the matches would be tough.”
“The NCAAs were exciting. I got to wrestle people completely new.”
While in college, he also got to know some fellow athletes who would become part of American sports lore.
“I got to know some of the guys, like Jim Craig, who played on the 1980 Olympic hockey team,” he said.
Popolizio now lives in Cobleskill, where he and his wife own a farm and raise Angus cattle.
“It keeps us busy,” said Popolizio. “I lived on a farm as a kid, and the area out here reminds me of Italy.”