For the state football community, the news came swiftly last Wednesday. A day earlier than they had originally scheduled to meet, the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference Board of Control came together and decided for the second time to cancel 11-on-11 high school football this fall.
“My son texted me that he saw the news on Twitter,” said Platt coach Jason Bruenn. “It is frustrating. You can probably run the whole gamut of emotions at this point.”
The decision ended an extensive back-and-forth process between the CIAC and state agencies. In July, the CIAC came up with a gradual plan of playing football amid the coronavirus pandemic, but the Connecticut Department of Public Health and Governor Ned Lamont both recommended that the sport be moved to next year when more medical information would be available.
The CIAC originally canceled tackle football on Sept. 3, but after players staged a statewide rally on Sept. 9 in Hartford, Lamont asked the organization to meet with DPH and state officials two days later at the state capitol.
The CIAC presented mitigating strategies like different equipment and rule changes to try to lower the risk, but DPH, state officials, and the National Federation of High Schools still classified football as a high-risk sport. In choosing to align with DPH and cancel the season this week, the CIAC didn’t want superintendents to have to decide which organization’s instructions to follow.
While football won’t be played in 2020, the CIAC did say it would consider moving a sport to a different time in the school year, as long as it doesn’t interfere with spring sports. Back on Aug 23, CIAC officials said they wouldn’t move sports because they didn’t know what the health situation would be early next year.
“I feel for our players, especially our seniors, to not get to play this fall,” said Sheehan coach John Ferrazzi. “I wish that CIAC could guarantee a spring option or that they had gone with that plan earlier.”
On Aug. 10, the CIAC Football Committee actually voted 9-1 to move the sport to spring 2021, but just two days later, the Board of Control went with the advice of its medical professionals to move forward with all fall sports. That plan didn’t last long. Just the next day, DPH sent a letter recommending that football be canceled or moved to next year.
Despite CIAC trying to find a way to play over the last few weeks, Lyman Hall Coach Bill Weyrauch didn’t get his hopes up that football would be played this fall.
“I think CIAC did everything they could, but until they got the backing of DPH and the Governor, I didn’t think it was going to happen,” said Weyrauch.
While Wednesday’s announcement served as a final decision from CIAC, local coaches feel that their work is just beginning to find ways for their players to compete, practice or be recognized.
“I think all options are open right now. We want to give our kids as best of an experience as we can,” stated Cheshire coach Don Drust. “Until we can exhaust every opportunity, we are going to continue to purse everything.”
Despite not playing games, local teams have the opportunity to practice with their full team starting Monday, as CIAC moves from cohorts into Phase 2 of its fall sports plan. While unable to engage in contact, teams can use equipment such as bags and sleds.
“We are going to continue to develop our team and explore opportunities for our guys,” said Southington coach Mike Drury. “Our kids are competitors and they want to compete.”
“Throughout all of the uncertainty, we have said that we wouldn’t let this (situation) break us,” added Ferrazzi. "We will use this as an opportunity to get better.”
CIAC has raised the idea of running activities like 7-on-7, linemen challenges and and weightlifting competitions this fall. After meeting with its football committee, the CIAC hoped to announce some things by the end of the week, but nothing has been released yet.
Bruenn said he has no interest in football activities. Weyrauch said he would leave the decision up to his players.
“I think I owe it to them to move forward with whatever they want to do,” said Weyrauch. “I think our kids have been really unbelievable. They still come to practice everyday ready to work.”
Since CIAC is not sanctioning 11-on-11 football, schools have an opportunity to play as non-sanctioned club sport, but that decision would need approval from local public health departments. Independent leagues, some of which are pay-to-play, are also being set up.
“Private leagues offer up a whole new can of worms,” stated Ferrazzi. “I’m weary of that for the safety of our sport going forward.”
At Maloney, Coach Kevin Frederick is looking at club and private options for his players.
“Our kids are tremendous,” said Frederick. “They have been torn every which way by the CIAC. We understand that other factors have been involved, but we have done everything the right way and figured that they would have let us play. Right now, we are looking for brighter days for the kids.”
For many coaches and players, the decision to cancel football is made tougher when other states are playing this fall with less favorable COVID metrics.
“It is frustrating when Connecticut has the best numbers and we can’t play,” stated Bruenn. “I’ve never in my life seen such mismanagement.”
If incoming freshmen are unable to get playing experience in the spring, Bruenn feels that canceling football could have a negative impact far beyond this season.
“Youth football and high school are two different monsters,” stated Bruenn. “If we don’t play, everyone in the state will have a class who hasn’t played before going into next year."
He added that not competing also hurts college recruiting.
“You are ruining opportunities for kids. These college coaches can’t watch games in Connecticut now, so they are going to go to different states,” explained Bruenn, whose son is a senior captain. “How are we supposed to have guys compete in college when we don’t have the same resources as other states? I don’t think they (state officials) understand the long-term ramifications of what is going on here.”
Over the last month, teams worked in and out of practice to try to show that they could play safely. At Cheshire, the coaching staff came up with an idea after reading a DPH letter that recommended options like close-fitting face coverings over the nose and mouth to reduce the risk of transmitting the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.
As an experiment on Sept. 14, six CHS players wore masks during practice.
“We are trying to find solutions,” said Drust. “From my perspective, I said, ‘Let’s try to see how this works.’ We practiced for an hour and I asked the guys to be honest with me. Afterwards, they all said that they could play with a mask on.”
Like a lot of coaches, Drust credits his players for how they’ve handled a tough situation.
“Their maturity and ability to focus on the positive things is amazing,” stated Drust, who is coaching 20 seniors. “Their attitude shows everything that is right about football and student-athletes. It speaks to who they are as people.”
Drury added that his heart hurts for his seniors, but knows that they will continue to work hard.
“The kids have stared down adversity in the face and have come back every day,” explained Drury. “It has been an emotional ride for players, coaches, and families.”