Football: Berritto's return an emotional rollercoaster

Shelton High junior wide receiver/defensive back Brian Berritto has scored a few touchdowns in his varsity career and seems destined to score several more before his scholastic career ends.

But none will have the same meaning as Thursday’s 9-yard touchdown catch in Shelton’s 49-8 victory over Derby in the 107th meeting between the longtime Valley foes.

The story began a couple years ago.

A talented grade school running back/linebacker, Berritto’s high school career seemed to end before it ever started when the then freshman suffered a season-ending injury in the preseason.

Berritto chose to focus on basketball his sophomore year, and that went very well. He established himself on the hardwood with a breakout season, which saw him average 13.2 points per game.

His fast-break, buzzer-beating layup helped Shelton knock off FCIAC champion Ridgefield in the first round of last year’s Class LL state tournament, the Gaels first tourney win in 16 years.

Football should have been an afterthought for Berritto by that point.

“I just saw me on the basketball court,” he admitted, when asked if he saw himself playing football this time last year.

But two people changed that.

One was Ken Roberts, a Shelton High assistant football coach who also coached Berritto throughout grade school.

The other was his Uncle Ronald “Ronny” Russell, a former Gael football and baseball standout in the 1980s, who had re-planted his roots in Derby several years ago and become a Red Raider supporter.

Unknowingly, Russell and Roberts formed a tag team of sorts.

“Coach Ken always used to text me and used to say I’d love to have you back, so I thought about it,” Berritto said. “And my uncle used to text me after my basketball games and tell me how proud he was of me.”

But Russell wouldn’t stop there — “I wish I could see you on the football field,” he would also tell his nephew.

Before the end of basketball season, Berritto decided that he would heed the pleas of Roberts and Russell and return to football.

Fast forward to this season.

Berritto’s return to football has gone better than anyone could have expected after a two-year lay-off. He’s become a two-way starter for the No. 7-ranked Gaels at wide receiver and cornerback.

“Brian is a great kid and an excellent athlete,” said Shelton head coach Jeff Roy of Berritto, who leads the team in touchdown catches, receiving yards and interceptions.

“He has had a tremendous impact on our team as a two-way starter and a special teams’ player. It means a lot to the program to get a kid like him back.”

Roberts echoed Roy’s comments.

“He’s had an amazing year. Brian’s playing great and the experience has been great for him and for me coaching him,” said Roberts.

“He’s such an athlete, and he’s a better kid than he is an athlete, if that’s even possible.”

Berritto is just as happy.

“I love football and I’m glad I came back,” said Berritto, whose team has won nine straight games and plays West Haven in a Class LL quarterfinal playoff game on Tuesday.

Ideally, the story would end here.

But sadly, Russell never got to see his nephew's return to high school football.

After playing such a crucial role in helping convince him to return to the gridiron, Russell passed away unexpectedly shortly before the season started.

It was a tremendous loss for Berritto, who wears a special shirt under his game jersey to honor his uncle.

Thursday’s game against Derby was especially difficult given that Russell not only lived there, but had been the PA announcer for Derby home games in recent years.

So, it was only fitting that Berritto scored the game’s first points on a 9-yard touchdown pass from Jake Roberts Thanksgiving morning, a tribute from Berritto to his uncle who helped get him back onto the field.

“It meant everything to me,” said Berritto of the TD catch. “I wanted to get one for him. It felt really good. Probably the best feeling I’ve had in awhile.”