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Viewpoint Tale of two towns and one athletic family

December 5, 2018

This is a story of three generations of one athletic family, a story that stretches from Meriden to Madison and from size S to XL. In a week when Maloney will face Daniel Hand for the Class L state football championship, it is a story that wears especially well.

Bob Billings never played in the Stoddard Bowl, the storied Thanksgiving rivalry game played since 1958 between Maloney and Platt. There was no Stoddard Bowl when he played. There was only Meriden High.

Bob played end in football and he played basketball and he loved sports. When he and the love of his life, Patricia, started selling sporting goods from their home a half-century ago, who would have known they would grow a business that would dress thousands of athletes around Connecticut, Rhode Island and Western Massachusetts?

Billings Sports supplies uniforms for Southern Connecticut, Central Connecticut, New Haven and as many as 75 high schools and colleges around our state. Almost 30 high schools, including Maloney, are through the Nike brand. Billings supplied uniforms for UConn men’s basketball before an agreement with Starter and more elaborate direct deals with Nike edged it out.

Size dimensions for Donyell Marshall’s No. 42? Bob Billings still has the paperwork.

Yet here’s the thing about Saturday. The family business that dresses much of New England will not be dressing the Billings that has the family so excited. Phoenix, son of Jeff, grandson of Bob, is the star junior quarterback for Hand and Billings Sports doesn’t have a deal with the defending Class L champions.

“I didn’t push it,” Jeff said, breaking into a chuckle. “Since my son goes there, it’s probably a good thing not to do. When he graduates, maybe I’ll hit them up.”

It’s what under the uniforms that uniformly unites the family, of course. It’s the flesh. It’s the blood.

“My mom said my dad has dreamed about Hand playing a Meriden school,” Jeff said. “He’s in heaven.”

“My grandfather loves everything about Meriden,” Phoenix said. “Everything about sports.”

And everything about Phoenix, who has committed to play baseball at UConn.

“This is one thing I really wanted, I’ve been waiting for it,” Bob, 80, said. “I can have a bit of a reunion, especially I can walk in front of the stands in front of all the people I know from Meriden. I’m sure there will be a lot going back to my time.

“I’m so proud of Phoenix.”

How proud?

“I haven’t missed a football game in three years, no matter what the weather,” Bob said. “My wife has been to 98 percent of them. I don’t think I’ve missed a baseball game. Phoenix doubled first pitch, first at-bat (against Jonathan Law-Milford) as a freshman. How great is that?”

Bob graduated from Meriden High in 1956 before the school split and the start of the game named in honor of Dr. John E. Stoddard, who served three decades without pay for Meriden athletics and delivered a reported 3,645 of Meriden’s babies.

“I was delivered by my grandmother, a midwife,” Bob said. “She delivered more than 2,000 babies.”

He and Pat started in the gymnastics supply business in the 1960s, a link dating to his high school days.

“I was involved with the Polish Falcons,” Bob said. “There was football and basketball and then I’d work out in gymnastics in the evening at Falcon Hall.”

Bob and Pat would diversify into all sports, move into the retail store on East Main Street. Business grew. Billings would buy the building across East Main. Sons Jeff and Mike, whose daughter Anna golfed on the boys team at Maloney and plays at Worcester State, became part of the family business. Eventually, they would close the retail end of the store a decade ago.

“I’m still there every day,” Bob said. “We supply everything from tee-ball to colleges.”

And now Bob’s grandson, one of Connecticut’s most gifted high school athletes, has committed to UConn. Virginia promised him a baseball roster spot. Maryland, BC and UConn made him offers. In a summer that Jeff called “stressful yet fun,” Phoenix, a shortstop, verbally committed to UConn before his junior year.

“I made my decision to go to UConn and play baseball, never closing completely anything off, keeping all avenues open,” Phoenix said. “Right now, I love playing baseball. I have a great relationship with Coach (Jim) Penders and the whole staff. I’m excited for the opportunity to play for a program like that.

“I love playing football, too. There’s nothing like playing on Friday night. For some reason, ever since I was a kid I felt like I was a baseball player and wanted to see where I could go with my talent. I always had that special connection with baseball.”

Phoenix began working out at The Clubhouse training center in Fairfield at age 13. It was there he was identified as a potential Division I player. He also has thrown for more than 1,600 yards and 20 touchdowns during Hand’s perfect season. As his football play has taken off, Phoenix said Syracuse and BC have kept in touch, nothing serious. Jeff Billings said Randy Edsall has been respectful of his baseball commitment to UConn.

“If you ask him during football season, his favorite sport is football,” said Jeff, who played basketball at Xavier High. “If you ask him during baseball season, it’s baseball.”

At one point, Jeff said, he thought the allure of the ACC or Big Ten might get to Phoenix. Penders, a top program, and in-state World Series champions like George Springer and Matt Barnes proved UConn baseball had allure, too.

“Phoenix just wants to win,” Jim said.

Hand was 22-2 in baseball last spring and is 12-0 this fall. Phoenix is good at winning.

“I think 100 percent I’ve improved this year as a quarterback,” Phoenix said. “Last year I did have every situation possible playing in all the playoff games. I had a lot of ups and downs. This year nothing really fazed me. I am a more prepared player.”

Prepared enough to give diplomatic answers about whether Hand deserves to be No. 1 in the state polls. If No. 1 Greenwich beats New Canaan in Class LL, the Cardinals essentially are assured of finishing on top. Instead, Phoenix talks about the honor of putting on the Hand jersey and playing the schedule the Tigers were given.

“We think we have the caliber of team to be the best in the state,” Phoenix said. “We keep that in our minds and let everyone else figure the other things out. We’re focused on Maloney.

“I grew up in North Branford (until the fifth grade). Never played Meriden teams in anything there either. This is the first time. This is a real cool situation for our family. My grandfather and grandmother, it’s awesome knowing they’re there supporting me.”

Even if Billings Sports isn’t dressing Phoenix for the big game, it’s all Billings underneath.

jeff.jacobs@hearstmediact.com; @jeffjacobs123

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