A highly successful youth soccer camp with four decades worth of rich history can trace its roots back to the town of New Canaan.
“Packer Soccer Camps” is celebrating its 40th anniversary this week with the first of two one-week sessions at Rowayton Elementary School. But when the popular camp was first launched in 1978, it called New Canaan Country Day home.
In fact, the camp remained at NCCD for five summers, through 1982, before moving to Saxe Middle School and then New Canaan High from 1983-95.
That’s 18 years in all, if you’re keeping score at home.
“The town of New Canaan was a great place for us all those years,” Dick Packer, one of the camp’s co-founders and still, at age 82, its energetic director. “We had a lot of good years there and a lot of New Canaan boys and girls attended the camp.”
Quite a few of them went on to play at New Canaan High, such as Lauren Kaufman, who earned All-FCIAC honors for the Rams in 1997 and ’98.
Another former All-FCIAC player who attended the camp when it was in New Canaan was Wilton’s Kristine Lilly, who would become one of the best and most decorated soccer players, male or female, in the world.
“She stood out even then,” Packer recalled.
Perhaps there are some future all-stars attending this year’s camp, maybe even among the three and four year-olds in the Grasshoppers Program that meets an hour a day. The 5-to-11 year-olds and the Premier Program for 12-to-14 year-olds go at it for three hours each day.
But regardless of what age group the campers fall into, the mission is the same.
“Our motto is ‘Kicks for the Fun of It,’ ” Packer says. “We always emphasize the word fun. The whole premise is to make sure kids are having a happy and fun experience.
“If you create an atmosphere where the kids are happy and doing a sport they love, they want to come back the next year. We’ve had many kids who came back every year.”
The camp was the brainstorm of Packer, who lived in Rowayton, and Darien resident Pete Gogolak, the former New York Giant placekicker. Packer was an All-American soccer player at Penn State in the 1950s and later played for the U.S. Olympic team before turning professional. Gogolak played soccer in his native Hungary and is credited for introducing soccer-style placekicking to college and pro football in the States.
Sharing the same passion, the two decided to start Packer-Gogolak Soccer Camps. The timing was perfect as the sport was growing in the U.S. thanks to the invasion of Pele and other international stars in the North American Soccer League.
“There was suddenly this great interest in soccer in this country and we felt we needed something to get kids interested,” Packer, who led Penn State to back-to-back undefeated national championships while scoring a school-record 53 goals in only 24 games, said. “So we said let’s start a summer soccer camp to train kids who can then feed the high schools and colleges and even the pros.”
“By the second year we had 300 kids at New Canaan Country Day,” the 76-year-old Gogolak, who’s still the Giants’ all-time leading scorer, said.
A few years later, they had four camps in New Canaan, New York, Philadelphia, and Morristown, N.J.
Gogolak stepped away from the camp in 1992 due to the demands of his job in New York, but Packer has continued the camp ever since, including the last 19 years in Rowayton.
The town of New Canaan, however, will always represent a memorable chapter in the camp’s successful story.
“It’s where it all began,” Packer said. “Those were good years.”