Former Wilton football coach Fujitani dies

Tom Fujitani, who was head coach of the Wilton High School football team for more than three decades, died on Saturday morning, according to several sources close to Fujitani.

Although exact details were not yet known, the 73-year-old Fujitani reportedly suffered a heart attack while helping a friend put a boat in the water at Candlewood Lake. Fujitani was an avid fisherman, who often took trips to the Pacific Northwest to fish for salmon.

"It's a big loss to the Wilton sports community," said Kevin Wall, a Wilton resident and 1988 Wilton High graduate who played football under Fujitani."There have been only four head coaches in the history of Wilton football — Nick Zeoli, Tom, Tim Eagen and now Bruce Cunningham. "Tom was a pillar."

Fujitani joined the Wilton football program in 1966 as an assistant coach for Nick Zeoli, the first head coach in program history. When Zeoli stepped down to focus on his duties as athletic director, Fujitani took over as head coach ahead of the 1969 season.

Fujitani remained in that role for 32 seasons, leaving after the 2000 campaign with a 163-147-0 career record. Fujitani, who was also a physical education teacher at Wilton High, guided the Warriors to two state championships and one FCIAC title (the only one in program history) in 1988. During Fujitani's tenure, Wilton made the state finals four times and the conference finals six times.

Following Fujitani's departure, Wilton's home field at Memorial Stadium was officially named Tom Fujitani Field.

"Tom and I worked together for I guess 40 years," said Zeoli on Sunday from his home in Vermont. "Tom was a great quarterback at Greenwich High and then he played with John Corr (a 1962 Wilton grad who was killed in 1967 while serving in Vietnam) at the University of Bridgeport. He came to see me after he graduated from college about being an assistant and I hired him on the spot. He was a great assistant, and then he was a great head coach.

"Tom was a regular guy," added Zeoli, who retired as Wilton's athletic director in 1994. "There were no airs about him; his philosophy was to work hard, be faithful, and do the job."

After leaving Wilton, Fujitani returned to coaching as an assistant with the Bethel High football team, a role he was planning to return to this fall.

Fujitani stayed involved with the Wilton sports community by serving as an original member on the committee for the annual Lt. John G. Corr Memorial Award, which goes to a Wilton senior male athlete who embodies the quality of the late Corr, a three-sport standout at the high school.

"He certainly impacted a lot of us," said Wall, who worked with Fujitani on the Corr committee. "He was tough, tough but fair, as a coach. He pushed us; he knew how to get the best out of what he had."

"When I was a young coach in the FCIAC, Tom Fujitani was a role model that I absolutely had the highest respect for," said Darien football coach, Rob Trifone, who was the head coach at Brien McMahon from 1987 to 2004. "He was a gentleman and a tremendous coach who got the most out of his athletes. In particular I remember the 1994 FCIAC championship overtime victory over Wilton when everyone was celebrating on the field. Tom was waiting patiently to shake my hand and I ran over and told him what a great game they played and said that he deserved to win that game just as much as we did. He simply smiled graciously and said congratulations."

"Tom gave me my first coaching job," said Bruce Cunningham, Wilton's current head football coach, who was an assistant on Fujitani's staff for three seasons in the late 1980s. "I was 21 years old and still in college, and I went to meet with him and Nick Zeoli. After we finished talking, Tom hired me as an assistant line coach. He got me started and I learned a great deal from him. He was a mentor."

Cunningham is reminded of Fujitani and his own link to Wilton football each day he goes to his office at Wilton High School, where he is also a physical education teacher.

"I have a photo on my desk of the four of us, Tom, Nick Zeoli, Tim Eagen and myself, that was taken after one of the John Corr award ceremonies," said Cunningham. "I had to stop at the office earlier today to do something for work and when I saw the photo I broke down. It's hard to believe one of us is gone."