Wednesday, January 9, 2013
Rich Diana, a sophomore football player at Hamden High in 1975, fielded a punt and gained a few yards before being brought to the turf hard. He writhed in pain, clutching his arm. It was a fracture.
As help arrived on the field, Diana had only one question.
"How long will I be out?" Diana asked.
It's a query Diana would become quite familiar with, one lobbed his way almost constantly. As one of the area's leading orthopedic surgeons, he's helped young athletes recover from injuries for the last 25 years.
Yet long before he became Dr. Diana, he operated on opposing defenses and pitchers, a superstar athlete who led Yale football to glory and saw action in the Super Bowl as a rookie with the Miami Dolphins. Then, he abruptly walked away to pursue medicine.
Named all-state in football and baseball at Hamden, he set school records in both sports at Yale. And though he played sparingly during his one season in Miami, he was in position to extend his NFL career. Reportedly the favorite to be named starting fullback in training camp, he decided it was time to switch gears. Diana walked into coach Don Shula's office to inform him he was leaving for medical school. His one-year salary and Super Bowl bonus money went toward his schooling.
Now a managing partner in the Connecticut Orthopedic Specialists group, Diana, who specialized in arthroscopic knee and shoulder surgery, has been on Dr. Stephen Sinatra's esteemed top 100 doctors in America list each year since 2006.
"God did not bestow me with all the athletic talent in the world," Diana once told the Register. "But I think I got the most out of my body."
At Hamden, Diana was faced with a choice between college football and professional baseball. Major league scouts had seen him and let him know there was a good chance he could be drafted. A mix of speed (he set a school record with 28 stolen bases as a sophomore) and power (he hit three home runs in a single game on multiple occasions), he was a part of the Green Dragons' undefeated Class LL championship team as a junior, batting a team-best .439 with 10 homers.
As a running back, he set Hamden records for career rushing yards (3,077), touchdowns (40) and points (242). The Green Dragons lost a 21-20 decision to Trumbull in the 1977 Class LL title game. Diana scored a touchdown with 1:14 left. But Hamden, going for the win, failed on the two-point conversion.
"Diana is the kind of kid every coach should have the privilege of having once in a lifetime," Hamden coach Ron Carbone said in 1976. "He's the epitome of what a student-athlete should be."
Ranked fourth in a class of 814 as a senior, he chose Yale over a list of 200 interested schools. The baseball scouts backed off, though it wasn't quite the end of his career.
Diana patrolled center field for three seasons while at Yale, belting a then-school-record 19 home runs, and played in the historic 1-0 loss to St. John's in the NCAA tournament, a game in which Ron Darling locked horns with St. John's ace Frank Viola. Darling and Diana, who'd first met at a Phillies amateur tryout while in high school, remained close friends, each serving in the other's wedding party.
Despite his status as a three-time All-Ivy League selection in baseball, Diana gave it up to focus on football. One of the greatest running backs to wear the Blue, his choice to play in a couple of senior all-star football games meant the end of his baseball career.
In four years under coach Carm Cozza, Diana never missed a game. He set school records for rushing yards in a game (222) and a season (1,442) as well as all-purpose yards in a season and career.
As a senior in 1981, Diana was one of the best backs in the country in leading the Bulldogs to a third straight Ivy League crown. A stunning win over Navy at the Yale Bowl was one of the greatest in Cozza's three-decade tenure. A four-point loss to Princeton was all that stood in the way of a perfect season.
A biophysics and molecular biochemistry major with a 3.6 grade-point average, Diana knew Yale Medical School was in his future. The Dolphins took him in the fifth round of the 1982 NFL Draft, briefly sidetracking his plan.
As a reserve that fall, opportunities were few and far between. It all could have changed in Super Bowl XVII, had Dolphins quarterback David Woodley not had his first option open.
Shula had inserted Diana as a backside receiver on a passing play. He ran a seam route and was uncovered.
"Woodley threw it to the primary receiver, but I was completely open. And I'm just thinking to myself, ‘I could have been somebody if he had only thrown it to me,'" Diana told the Register's Dave Solomon in 2010. "We were probably 60 yards away, but I would have taken it down that seam and put Hamden on the map that day."
No Super Bowl touchdowns were required. Diana has done more than his share to make his hometown proud.