EASTHAM — Nat Santoro, who moved here from Connecticut 22 years ago, was born in Floridia, a small town in the Italian province of Sicily, in 1945. It’s where he learned to play soccer.
Almost every family was poor. “Nobody had a ball in my town,” he says, “and the only one who could afford a car was the doctor.”
Floridia’s children would take old newspapers and tie rubber bands around them to create a makeshift soccer ball. One year, Santoro received an actual rubber ball for his birthday — a major gift. The kids played with that rubber ball until Santoro visited his cousins in Palermo and brought the ball there. It got caught on a fence and broke.
The Santoros immigrated to the U.S. in 1956, when Nat was 11. They settled in New Britain, Conn., and later moved to Hartford. Nat was amazed to see all the soccer balls.
“When I got here, every kid on the street had a real soccer ball,” he says.
Santoro played on the street before being introduced to the Italian American Stars, an amateur team that competed all around New England. Most of the teams, he said, were made up of immigrant kids from Italy, Portugal, Poland, and a few other countries.
The Stars had three divisions: A, B, and C. Santoro started on the C team as a defender, but quickly moved up to the B team.
“At the end of one of the games, one of the big shots for the Stars asked if I could play another game with the A team,” Santoro says. “I started on the A team and was on it from then on.”
Santoro was 15 when he started playing for the Stars, and he stayed with the team until he was 23. During that time, the Stars were increasingly dominant, winning multiple league championships, Saturday night tournaments, and six-on-six tournaments.
The biggest accomplishment, though, came in Santoro’s last year with the team, in 1967. The Stars had their best squad ever and made it all the way to the National Amateur Cup finals, to play a team from St. Louis that had won multiple national championships.
The Stars won the game 2-0 — the team’s first National Cup title. The match included a couple of goal-saving defensive plays by Santoro.
The occupation of most of the guys on that championship team? “Bricklayers,” Santoro says.
Santoro also played four years of Division 1 soccer at the University of Connecticut, from 1963 to 1967, and was named to the All-Yankee Conference team. He helped win the conference title.
After college graduation, Santoro worked as a teacher and soccer coach at St. Thomas More, a prep school in Oakdale, Conn., and at Windsor Locks High School. “When you have the right attitude, you can change kids’ lives,” he says. His Windsor Locks team went undefeated for three or four years.
But a teacher’s pay wasn’t enough to support a family, so Santoro eventually got into real estate. He kept coaching, first in a women’s league, and then in a youth league, before tearing both of his ACLs. Then it was time to leave the game entirely.
In 2004, his 1967 Stars title team was inducted into the Connecticut Soccer Hall of Fame. The Stars operated as a club until the early 2000s, but players began looking to get paid, which the amateur team declined to do. Communities took more pride in their local teams in the 1950s and ’60s, says Santoro, who is now 76, and still works as a certified commercial investment adviser for Kinlin Grover in Orleans.
“Back then, it was a big deal,” he says. “Especially when we won the title.”
There’s an Italian American Stars page on Facebook that says it’s an Italian social club now. The most recent posts show photos of people celebrating in the streets of Hartford after Italy won the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) championship for the first time this year since 1968.