For years, I have been asking the question to all of my Berlin friends who have lived here their entire lives (which is most of them); “Why don’t people leave this place?”
There are so many Berliners who grew up here that ended up planting their roots here, and of those, most of their parents have remained here as well.
Full disclosure, my wife was born and raised here in Berlin as well. With us, it was never intentional. When we built our house almost 18 years ago, we looked all over the central Connecticut area. We ended up finding a great lot of land. The price was right, and the rest is history.
Is there some sort of cosmic pull that brings people back to this place? I mean, we don’t have a fancy “dining district” like so many surrounding towns. There is not really any shopping to speak of. Hell, up until a few years ago, our high school was crumbling.
Like so many others here in town, my wife and I had kids and got them involved in various activities around town, mainly sports. I have been coaching football, baseball and basketball for the last nine years, and it is through sports that we have met some of our closest friends here in town.
This month, for the first time, I watched my boys’ football games through a much different lens; not as “coach,” but as “dad.” No walk-throughs, no game plans, no weigh-ins. It was through this lens that I began to understand some things about the town we live in.
On this Friday night, under the bright lights of Sage Park, we attended Berlin High School’s opening football game of the season. The place was packed, as it usually is. You see, Berlin is a great sports town. Our fans show up wherever we are playing. Not every community can make the same claim.
Before the game began, the varsity captains dedicated their season to one of their classmates who was taken from us far too soon. As they ran onto the field, every player was sure to touch the monument with a bronzed helmet honoring another former player also taken from us.
Our entire youth program was in attendance to support the team. I ran into parents of kids who graduated long ago that were there to watch the team. I spoke to one mom, whose son had become homesick while at college, but felt a whole lot better when some juniors at the same college, who were also graduates of BHS, stopped to see if he needed anything.
That is just who we are. We stick together and we take care of our own.
The Redcoats ended up winning the game by a healthy margin against Bulkeley/Weaver.
The next morning, bright and early, I drove my youngest son to Sage Park to prepare for his C-Team game on Sunday.
When you pull up to Sage Park early on a Saturday morning, you might expect the place to be empty. But that’s not the case.
Our varsity boys, fresh off their opening night win, were back at work. First, a film session, then some conditioning, and finishing up with some yoga to stretch out their achy muscles.
All of our youth teams are also there sharing one field, walking through their game plans for the next day. You will also see our youngest athletes learning the finer points of the game with our flag program.
It is like one unit working together, helping each other to become better people and better players.
As varsity finishes up, you might think the boys would have gone home to enjoy the rest of their Saturday, but that’s not the case here in Berlin. Our boys, just as they have been doing for the last 10 years, all stick around to run our flag football practice. The smiles on the faces of the young boys and girls – likely at the game the night before – being coached by the high school guys is truly something to behold.
And here in Berlin, you can see this every weekend.
I couldn’t help but think back to what seems like yesterday, when those same boys were being coached by varsity teams of yesteryear.
Here in Berlin, we pay it forward.
Immediately following flag football, the Redcoat JV team was set to play Bulkeley. The varsity team, now four hours into its morning, was still there, on the sideline, cheering on their “little brothers.” This, by the way, was my son’s first game at BHS. He played quarterback.
The JV kids did not disappoint. They dismantled Bulkeley’s defense and scored a touchdown every time they got the ball.
In the end, I would have hoped for a better game, but I realized how lucky we are here in Berlin. Lucky that our boys have been taught well; not just the game, but all that goes along with the game – integrity, sportsmanship, the understanding that they are not only out there for themselves, but for each other.
With Sunday, came more football, much more. Now it was our youth teams’ turn.
Over the years, I have been to so many opening season games, but nobody does it like Berlin. The Berlin Fire Department came and hoisted a massive American flag above the south end zone. There was a ceremony honoring our local heroes; our police, fire and other first responders. A little girl with the voice of an angel sang a beautiful rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.” There was also a ceremony honoring the memory of one of our young players, while his family stood on the 50 yard line.
Just as the high school boys had done the day before, our high school cheerleaders displayed their character by helping our youth cheer squads perfect their routines. As the PA system blared “Cotton Eye Joe,” all of the girls, and coaches, broke into a spontaneous line dance.
Just as I had witnessed a day earlier, the smiles that were on those kids’ faces was contagious.
On the field, we were perfect. All of the games at Sage Park that day ended in victory for Berlin.
As my weekend closed, I thought to myself, what an extraordinary weekend. Or was it? Not really. You see, this happens every week in Berlin. While we don’t always experience a clean sweep by all of our teams, we do always see the best of people here in town.
We see our young men and young women acting as positive role models for our children. We see sportsmanship. We see patriotism, We see a sense of community that you will be hard pressed to find anywhere else.
My question was finally answered. There is nothing mysterious about it. It’s not about having a beautiful downtown area or local boutiques that many of our surrounding towns have; it’s our people, our traditions, our history.
Even our high school mascot pays homage to those who built our town. The Redcoat is not a reference to the Revolutionary War, but to the brick manufacturers who wore heavy coats to protect themselves from the hazards of the job during the early days of Berlin.
Even in our town’s darkest hours, our town comes together like no other place. Over the past few years, we have lost far too many of our children.
Thanks to the goodness and generosity of so many, their memories will forever be in the hearts and minds of Berlin: Through dedicated benches at our sports fields, through a monument every player feels compelled to give an enthusiastic tap to as they enter the field, through trees planted in memorial, through the retired jersey numbers posted at every game, we honor them and what they stood for.
One need not be involved in the youth sports programs here in Berlin for too long before they begin to hear the rumblings of some of our detractors from other towns. To them I simply say “You hate us ’cause you ain’t us.”
The fact is, we are good. We are good because we have a long standing history of working hard, and doing things the right way. We begin developing our players at a young age and we keep them together. We teach them to respect the game, respect their coaches, respect each other, and most of all, respect themselves.