Part of infamous Denver Mafia syndicate, Owned Gaetano's italian restaurant, Did many charitable acts for the needy on the side.,a former University of Denver football player
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Gene Smaldone, a former University of Denver football player, holds a game program from the 1949 season. He was a star halfback at Denver's North High School. (John Prieto, The Denver Post )
Gene Smaldone had to overcome more obstacles than most to make a name for himself on the athletic fields.
He put his name on the map in football, in which he was an all-city and all-state halfback in 1947 at Denver's North High School for coach Mike Willett. A couple of his teammates on the north side were Bill Noxon and Ronnie Bay.
Smaldone's next stop was the University of Denver, where he played for coach Johnny Baker and alongside quarterbacks Sam Etcheverry and Lou Rillos and halfback Fred Tesone.
"I don't think anybody got along with Coach Baker," Smaldone said, reflecting back to the early 1950s. "I know Fred Tesone left and came back after a couple of years in the military and DU won the Skyline Conference championship under coach Bob Blackman."
But none of his teammates at North or DU faced quite the name recognition off the playing field as Smaldone. Anyone living in Denver in those days knew of the notorious Smaldone family.
His father, Clyde Smaldone, and an uncle, Eugene "Checkers" Smaldone, were prominent names on the police blotter. To make matters worse, "Checkers" Smaldone had a son, Eugene, who kept up with the family tradition.
But Gene went in a different direction, away from the police, onto the athletic field.
"I was the one who never got in trouble," he said. "My family always was in the news, and there seldom was anything good said about them. When I was in high school and college, I was so busy with school and playing sports, it didn't bother me. I knew, but I didn't really know."
The name association stayed with him.
"I think it kept me from getting a coaching job sooner in the Denver Public Schools," Smaldone said. "I couldn't referee, and members of Denver's sports teams couldn't go in the family restaurant on the north side."
Smaldone remembered North High School as a melting pot of nationalities.
"We had Jewish kids from Colfax, Irish kids from above Federal, German and Polish kids from Globe- ville," Smaldone said. "Everybody got along. I grew up in a wonderful time."
And, of course, there were the Italian kids from the central part of north Denver.
Smaldone's coaching career began at Westminster High School, where he was an assistant in football for Hal Pfeifer. Smaldone left coaching after two years and entered law school but returned to teaching in elementary school in Denver. He was overlooked for a coaching job in 1960 when Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln high schools joined the Denver Prep League.
But when Pfeifer became Lincoln's football coach a few years after it opened, Smaldone joined the Lancers' coaching staff. His cohorts included Pat Haggerty and Ben Dreith, who would become prominent game officials in the NFL, as well as Joe Klune, Tom Bock and Glenn Leyden.
"Pat and Ben weren't supposed to associate with me very much," Smaldone said.
Before retiring in 1985, Smaldone was the head football coach for three seasons at Lincoln.
Each year Smaldone and his former DU teammates gather for a reunion in Las Vegas. Tesone, Rillos, Dave Skene, Mike Peterson and maybe even Etcheverry will be there. Smaldone carries on in his search to make a name for himself.
"I'm not ashamed of my name," Smaldone said. "No doubt, it had to have an effect on what happened to me. But I have no bitterness. Even today when I meet someone, they don't know quite what to say. They're kind of dumbfounded."
A book due out in June and written by former Denver Post columnist Dick Kreck tells the story of Gene Smaldone and his family.
"They tried to get my dad to tell his story in a book, but he wouldn't do it," Smaldone said. "He said, 'Do it after I die.' He died 10 years ago, so I thought it would be all right to do it."
Born: Oct. 11, 1930, in Denver
High school: Denver North
College: University of Denver
Family: Wife Linda; daughters Debi, Linda, Paula and Suzi
Hobby: Following sports
Lifestyle: Claims to be a workaholic, but also can excuse himself from mowing the lawn because "it's too windy."
Couple Profile Source
North High School in Denver
North Denver, Colorado
Debi ( daughter), Linda (daughter), Paula (daughter), Suzi (daugther)
Gaetano's italian restaurant
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