Brady Lafferty organized the protest on Aug. 20 at CIAC headquarters in Cheshire. He took to Twitter, asked for state high school athletes to gather and have their voices heard.
“If they’re allowing summer leagues and AAU teams to play,” the Southington senior quarterback asked that late morning in August, “why can’t we have high school sports?”
Three weeks later, holding on to a shred of hope for a high school season, there was Lafferty holding a bullhorn on the steps of the state Capitol as one of the players addressing a much larger rally of more than 1,000 people.
“That was an amazing experience,” Lafferty said Friday night. “To be around everybody, to have a voice and be an influence was great. I definitely grew, 100 percent grew.”
Ultimately, there would be no fall high school football season. There would be an independent season, or more accurately three or four games for teams in two state independent leagues that were ground to a halt the other day by Gov. Ned Lamont. And now here was Lafferty standing at Falcon Field after throwing four touchdown passes in Southington’s 34-21 victory over Hartford during the final weekend of the Connecticut High School Independent Football League.
“One last ride with my brothers if we don’t have the spring season,” Lafferty said.
Meanwhile, Darien, dressed in blue and white, and New Canaan, in black, met in a final Fairfield County Football League game — 19 days earlier than they annually would have met as high school teams in front of as many as 10,000 at Boyle Stadium in the celebrated Turkey Bowl. There were a little more than 100 fans at New Canaan on Saturday night.
There was at once something uplifting and gloomy about the scene at Falcon Field. Something tight, organized and something of a loose AAU feel. Something extremely well-regulated on the field, given all the COVID protocols, yet with the occasional lapses in precautions. There were 15 young fans sitting in front of the press box with no face masks. And after the game the players stopped in front of each other to wave in appreciation before saying the heck with it and many hugging each other.
In all there were 70 people watching. Call it Friday Night Lite. Yet it was 11-on-11 tackle football, and it was solid.
And after a month of CHSIFL games, one could lodge a reasonable argument: Football — outdoors, face shields in place, all possible precautions taken on the field and on the sidelines — was no more dangerous than soccer or basketball, which have been OK’d as medium risk by the CIAC.
“I talked to a lot of people about this, and the model that was put together with us should be the model for all the sports,” Southington coach Mike Drury said. “We’re taking temperatures, all athletes, workers, coaches, fans when we have had them. Contact-traced everyone. We used the shields. The kids felt safe. The coaches felt safe. It was very successful.
“I think it also shows football — in what we believe and what we see — it’s an outdoor sport and there are ways to mitigate the spread. If our kids were sick with anything they stayed home. It wasn’t like you’re playing through the flu today, the way you used to do. We don’t think it’s any more contagious than any sport we play. From what I’ve seen, the spread has kind of been the outside pieces. We didn’t have things like team dinners inside. Some traditions were lost, but these kids wanted to play the game.”
Drury said no there was no COVID found transmitted among the teams, although one Meriden club was forced to quarantine after a player brought it in from the outside.
This is all something for the state and CIAC to seriously consider in the coming weeks. After youth and high school sports were separately handled this past summer, causing all the pain and confusion, the sports sector was placed under one umbrella Thursday in making the determination to shut down high-risk sports like football for the rest of the calendar year.
If the governor and the state lift the sector restrictions for high-risk sports and somehow the CIAC still determines that football isn’t safe, the independent league figures to re-open immediately. Or, if the ban remains and CIAC football planned for the spring is called off, an independent league could put together some middle-risk competition.
“If they’re going to cancel spring football, there’s no competition with CIAC sports,” said Mark Siems, co-founder of the CHSFIL. “If (the state) lifts the ban, we already have the equipment, the insurance policy for a year. We get a field, we’re playing again.”
It was impressive how quickly these clubs and leagues formed.
“One of the organizers said we’re moving a mountain,” Siems said.
In fact, they could continue playing. Siems, who runs a semi-pro team, has an eye toward keeping an independent model going all year long.
“If clubs decide to go the independent route, we’d do some form of 9-on-9 in the spring, where you actually have linemen,” Siems said. “And then a quasi-season into early summer and start warming up for 11-on-11 tackle, playing a season probably ending in early, mid-October. A strength and conditioning program over the winter and keeping it going year-round if we can get clubs to buy in.”
This wouldn’t make you popular with the high schools and the CIAC.
“I hate to say it, but that’s not my problem,” Siems said. “I don’t know about the inner workings of the CIAC, but I think they’ve been doing the high school kids a disservice. You look at states like Florida, they’re with their team all year round, yet the CIAC prohibits the amount of time coaches can spend with their players. Why? What’s the point? A kid has been playing since he was young, parents have spent all this money and then a coach is restricted to only so many months?”
Siems says passing and flag football leagues aren’t the same. The body has to be conditioned to take hits.
“If kids are trying to use football as a way to get into school or help pay for school, you have to compete with these bigger states,” Siems said. “So why can’t we?”
The teams in the CHSIFL came in all shapes and sizes. Southington is a well-oiled program and remained intact under Drury. Hartford was put together with players from six different high schools.
“That’s one of the best teams in the state and they’ve been together for a while,” volunteer coach Courtenay Jackson told his players after the game. “I’m really proud of you.”
Siems called Hartford the “Cinderella team” of this league. Coaches and players were pieced together. Sponsors helped. Some breaks were given on equipment. Parents and coaches dug into their pockets. Jackson said a ton of stuff was done over Zoom. He said they practiced fewer than a handful of times, all outside Hartford.
Malik Bennett, one of three players from East Hartford, is an outstanding talent. On this night, he took a short pass at the end of the first half and raced 80 yards for a touchdown. In the second half, he returned a kickoff 90 yards.
“I knew this might be the last time we play football,” Bennett said. “I’m surrounded by guys I’ve never played with, but I just had to come out here and give everything I got.”
Central Connecticut, Wagner, Bryant, Southern Connecticut, AIC have been recruiting Bennett. He’s hoping to build on offers.
“Bennett is a different kind of kid,” Jackson said. “That’s Division I speed. I’m glad we could put him on display.”
Give the seniors a final high school experience. Get video to send college scouts. Those are the two common themes from everyone. Hudl accounts were formed. Video was shared. In Hartford’s case, Jackson said 36 college coaches have been notified.
“The goal is to get guys into college with as close a zero sum as possible,” Jackson said. “If one kid gets some money from a school, I think we won.
“Knowing they didn’t have high school football, we wanted to make sure they had caring adults around them. With everything going on with COVID it’s important to have some structure they’re used to.”
Lafferty, who’s still considering prep school and colleges, looked at his equipment. He bought his shoulder pads last year, and the helmet as a freshman. Everybody kicked in money for the jerseys that read “Knights.” Donors, including the town’s Gridiron Club, helped out, and he said the players were all grateful.
He talked about working with the same guys, grinding, since he was a freshman, yet until 24 hours earlier Southington was game-planning for New Britain. Last minute, the opponent was changed to Hartford. His coach talked about how much Lafferty and his teammates had learned to adjust and had matured through all this.
Lafferty looked down at the familiar blue and white colors.
“It still hasn’t hit me,” he said. “This could be my last game in a Knights uniform.”
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