It happened a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. And the odds of it happening again today – a high school kid winning Delaware Athlete of the Year – are microscopic.
But in 1949, professional football and basketball were basically minor-league sports, and Delaware simply didn’t produce many big-time stars in sports that were popular back then. So that same year, when the fledgling Wilmington Sportswriters Association (now the Delaware Sportswriters and Broadcasters Association) met to vote for the very first Delaware Athlete of the Year, it selected Nick Bucci, a standout athlete at Claymont High.
Bucci died last week at the age of 86 after a long and fruitful life that was not defined by his athletic exploits, which were impressive, but brief, because high school was where he made his mark. He won a school-record 13 letters in football, basketball, track and baseball and was the first two-time, first-team All-Stater in Delaware history.
He also won the 1949 Delaware state title in the 100-yard dash in what was then a state record time of 10.4 seconds. And, in ’49, Bucci averaged 18.6 points a game as he led Claymont to a perfect season. Not surprisingly, he was also the team’s punter, and if Gatorade had been invented back then, he probably would have ladled that out, too.
This was long before there were state tournaments in various sports and back then, teams from north of the Chesapeake-Delaware canal never played teams from south of it. Many current high schools, like Brandywine, Mount Pleasant and Concord, didn’t exist. And downstate, before consolidation struck, schools like Rehoboth High and Lewes High and Bridgeville High and Lord Baltimore High competed against each other.
Bucci competed in the same era as another Delaware Hall-of-Famer who passed away recently – Ron Waller. In 1949, Bucci won the state scoring championship with 149 points, which were 25 more points than the runner-up – Ron Waller of Laurel High.
But whereas Waller went on to fame as a collegiate star at Maryland and a professional star and coach in the NFL, Bucci took a different path – he got married and joined the U.S. Navy, serving from 1953-55, even though he had college football scholarship offers from Florida, Yale, North Carolina, Cornell and Delaware.
Then Bucci did what millions of other men were doing – he got a job and started raising a family. According to Bucci’s obituary, he and his wife, Tina, had two daughters and a son and he got a job at the nearby Phoenix Steel plant, where he would work for the next 36 years until the plant closed. After that, Bucci worked at Sears and as a security guard for the Philadelphia Phillies, and up till about seven years ago, he was a school crossing guard in his hometown.
Nick Bucci never left Claymont, and Claymont never left him.
Bucci was the first, but not the last, high schooler to be named Athlete of the Year. In fact, six of the first 10 recipients of the prestigious award were high school stars – Bucci (1949), Waller (1950), multi-sport star Bernie Blaney of Newark High (1951), football player Gerry Blackway of Conrad (1956) and swimmer John Thropp of Salesianum (1958).
But after that, only one high school athlete has ever won it – Ursuline basketball ace Elena Delle Donne in 2008.
But Nick Bucci was the first, and there can only be one first.
By the way — the 2018 Delaware Athlete of the Year will be revealed next week, and even though we can’t tell you who it is, we can tell you this – it’s not a high school kid.