Football players are used to settling differences on the field.
But because of the recent decision by the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) and Connecticut Department of Public Health (DPH), the local high school players were forced to take their game to streets, or better yet the steps of the state Capitol in Hartford.
Players, coaches, parents, and supporters across the state gathered on September 5 and again September the 9 to protest the recent ruling to shut down the high school football season after the 11-on-11 sport was labeled “high risk” by the DPH.
One of the most well-represented schools was Wethersfield High, who brought over 40 players, coaches, and team managers to the latest rally, which packed downtown Hartford with an estimated 1200 people.
Wethersfield head coach Matt McKinnon was glad to see the support from the entire state, “It’s awesome seeing everybody from all the different teams come together at the rallies. [The players] want to get out on the field. They don’t care who it’s against, they just want to play this game. To see the whole entire state come out and form one big bond for football, it’s just tremendous to see. I applaud all the administrators across the state, all coaches, all players, all communities because we all came together for the common goal and that’s to play this year.”
Senior Rory Stickley echoed his coach’s sentiments, “It’s been cool to see. We saw teams that play in our conference and we’re all standing together for the thing we want, and that’s to play football.”
News of the latest cancellation stung all the football players, particularly Stickley and the other seniors.
Nick Thompson, who made all-conference as a junior, said the players are willing to do whatever it takes to play this season, “I’ve been playing the game for 10 years and I don’t want to have my senior season taken away from me. Honestly, I don’t think it should be just football, we can’t be just singled out. This is our last year to prove something to college coaches to go to the next level to play. They should just be straight up with us, if we’re not going to have a season just tell us. They get our hopes up for nothing and then just tear it right down. It doesn’t make any sense.”
One of the considerations has been to play 7-on-7, which transforms the contact game into a non-contact passing league and eliminates linemen from the game.
This idea has been met with a resounding “NO!” from the football community.
Wethersfield senior Zak Zurzola, who plays receiver and defensive back, knows the importance of having all 11 guys on the field, “We’re not for playing 7v7 because we win and lose with the guys up front. It’s not football without the big guys up front. We win in the trenches.”
“We’re totally against it,” added McKinnon, “You can’t leave your linemen out. The game is won and lost at the line of scrimmage, that hasn’t changed since the 20’s. It’s disrespectful to the kids that it was even brought up. We’re not strapping up to play flag football. We’re strapping up to play real football and hit people. If you say 11 on 11 can’t happen, there’s no other option.”
For many, football is more than just a game. It’s a way of life.
Lineman Samuele Marchio moved to Wethersfield from Italy five years ago.
“Football has changed my life. It’s taught me so much stuff,” said the European transplant, “We became family. As a senior it’s hard for all of us and it’s not the right decision to cancel it like this. At least give us a week and try it out and see if spikes go up or just bring back the decision to play spring football. I don’t understand why we can go back to school but not play football.”
Player’s frustrations stem from the handful of starts, stop, and mix signal they’ve received from the CIAC and DPH.
Admittedly, it’s taken and emotional toll on McKinnon and his staff, “I’m not going to lie it’s been difficult. We made all of our decisions as coaches and players based on August 17th starting football. Emotionally being told three times and then pulled four times, in my eyes that’s ridiculous. As coaches we’re picking up the pieces for the indecisiveness that’s going on. It’s not fair to coaches, it’s not fair for players, and it’s an emotional rollercoaster.”
All other high school fall sports in Connecticut have been given permission to proceed with the season, including volleyball, which was categorized as moderate risk but was given the green light if masks are worn.
Options remain on the table for football, including additional safety precautions, changing formats, or postponing the season to the spring.
Eagles all-conference middle linebacker Marcus Nieves is willing to do whatever it takes to get him and his teammates back on the field, “We’ll do anything. Test before and after, wear the visors, wear the facemasks just to be able to get a chance to play.”
2020 was supposed to be the season that Nieves and his teammates would build off last season’s playoff appearance, and possibly take the next step, “We wanted to get back to where we were last year and get better, and have all the juniors and sophomores from last year step up to fill out those rolls we need. Not having it means that all the younger guys don’t get a chance to show and help the team and they have to wait an extra year to make that happen.”
With each passing day the likelihood of playing this fall get reduced. Football is unique and requires additional preparation to protect against the player’s physical safety.
“It’s at the point now where the guidelines need to be lifted and let us play football,” stated McKinnon, “There’s a whole other side to the safety of football. You’ve got to know how to hit, it’s a violent game. Kids have to get out there and get used to hitting, getting tackled and getting back up.”
“Hopefully this decision gets reverse and we can start playing football. We’ve followed everything since July 6. That’s two month of cohorts, two months of daily forms, two months of different waves, that’s two months of the team being separated. If we’re going to go out there and compete, we need to come back together and play ball.”
Following the latest protest, the CIAC presented additional safety precautions and options to the DPH in a meeting last Friday. The meeting convened after Governor Ned Lamont spoke about the issue at a press conference and urged the two sides to get back together.
The hope is that the COVID-related risk level of football can be lowered to allow the season to proceed.
As on Monday, no changes have been made, meaning Wethersfield and the rest of the football community remain in a state of uncertainty.
“Give us a chance. We understand if the number spike during the season, but all we want is a chance,” pleaded Zurzola.
Stickley added, “Let us play week one and see how it does. Look at the numbers, if it’s safe let’s continue playing. If it’s not, move it to the spring. They didn’t even have a plan to move it to the spring in the first place. They just said no football.”
McKinnon continues to navigate his players and coaching staff through a difficult situation and remains hopeful that a resolution can be reached
“One of the main things we talk to [the players] about is that when adversity hits you, you’re either going to fold or take it head on. We teach our kids to take it head on. For them to put this together and to still come out here hungry and practice shows a lot with this group. This senior class is a very special class. There’s a lot of collegiate athletes that I can see in this class and they need that chance to play.”
“Football teaches people life lessons, it teaches people how to handle adversity, and it’s just a different breed to people. We’re at the point where we feel frustrated, we felt disrespected as football programs across the state. The message we want to say is that we’re ready to play tomorrow. Just give us that green light. If it’s not this fall, we have four months to figure it out for the spring. My main message would be let us play and see what happens.”
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin