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FOOTBALL: Thanksgiving memories burrow deep, and they’ll resume next year

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MERIDEN — Jason Bruenn was asked about it Monday night. 

The 1991 Stoddard Bowl. His senior year at Platt. 

Final score? No hesitation: “21-14.”

“I know because I scored the game-winning touchdown,” Bruenn added. “In fact, I think I scored two touchdowns in that game.”

The next day, Bruenn, now head coach at his alma mater, pulled out the VHS tape. 

There it was: Nov. 28, 1991. A bright Thanksgiving morning in Meriden, and yet, of course, a muddy track down the middle of Ceppa Field.

Fans packed in the bleachers. Fans clumped behind the ropes off the east end zone. Fans pressed to the fence behind the west end zone.

And, indeed, Bruenn scored not once, but twice.

Both touchdowns came at the goal line out of the two-tight end, triple-back set that Platt, already a spread team years before Southington made the Air Raid famous, used in short-yardage situations.

“We had two plays out of it,” Bruenn recalled. “It was belly lead and it was either right or left. We just pounded the hell out of people with that set.”

That sort of stuff pounds football memory into the subconscious, especially memories from Thanksgiving Day.

There will be no football memories made this Thanksgiving becasuse the 2020 season was cancelled. And while an alternative season has been set up for late February into April, even if it does come to pass it will be devoid of the most tradition-rich day on Connecticut’s high school football calendar.

Some coaches, like Maloney’s Kevin Frederick, were able to retain some Thanksgiving tradition. The Spartans, who played independent ball this fall, did their “Burning of the Shoe” several weeks ago before their final game.

Over in Southington, Mike Drury is bringing his Blue Knights together at Fontana Field this morning just for that sense of football familias that’s most palpable on Thanksgiving, when a team gathers early and shares breakfast and then plays on a day and at an hour unlike any other on the schedule.

“It’s unfortunate they’re missing that this year,” Drury said. “Just the family aspect of being together.”

Area coaches knew about that aspect long before they started coaching. All played in high school. All, with the exception of New Jersey native Bill Weyrauch of Lyman Hall, played on Thanksgiving.

Drury, a 2002 Bristol Central grad, played in four Battles of the Bell at Muzzy Field. His Rams lost the first two, in 1998 and 1999, when Bristol Eastern featured running back Reinaldo Soto, then won in 2000 and 2001 when Drury was a linebacker and BC teammate Tim Washington was compiling his state-record 25 straight 100-yard games running out of the Wildcat formation.

These past eight years, Drury has vied with Cheshire head coach Don Drust on Thanksgiving morning in the Apple Classic, a series that saw its best game last year when the Blue Knights stopped the Rams on a two-point conversion in double overtime to win 21-20.

Drust, a Cheshire native, played in the second and third annual Apple Classics. He was in the defensive backfield for the 36-13 victory the Rams posted in 1997 en route to their sixth straight state championship. He was in the defensive backfield a year later, when a 27-17 victory in the rain and mud catapulted Southington to its first state title.

In Meriden, just about every coach on the staffs at Maloney and Platt played in the Stoddard Bowl.

Veteran Maloney assistant Mike Falis goes back to the mid-1960s. Bruenn had 1989-1991. His Maloney counterpart, Kevin Frederick, played for Platt from 2000-02.

The bridge between them, in more ways than one, is Brian Frederick, Bruenn’s assistant coach and Kevin Frederick’s older brother. Brian Frederick was Platt’s kicker from 1995-97 and, 25 years later, still wishes he’d had the chance to kick the game-winning field goal in the ’95 Stoddard Bowl.

That was one of the most dramatic games in the 62-year history of the series. It is the only one to have ended in a tie.

Platt, down 12-10 late, was in the red zone and opted to go for a touchdown. Maloney held on defense only to see star running back Rahshon Spikes get dropped in the end-zone for a game-tying safety a few snaps later.

It went into the history books a 12-12 draw but, in essence, was a loss for Maloney because it kept them out of the playoffs.

Brian Frederick, in his mind’s eye, sees a scoreboard that reads 13-12.

“Chip shot in sloppy conditions, maybe 25 or 30 yards at the most,” Frederick remarked Wednesday. “I would like to believe I would have made the kick to win the game, at least that is how I envision it to this day. Could have been the first non-position player to win the MVP!”

His younger brother has a similar “what if” memory. Kevin Frederick, like Brian, was a kicker for Platt. He was also a wide receiver.

Frederick was a junior in the 2001 Stoddard Bowl. It was a 35-11 Platt victory and it proved to be the final game for Rob Szymaszek, the Hall of Fame Maloney coach whom, after the tenures of Wayne Flis, Bob Zito and Pierce Brennan, Kevin Frederick would eventually succeed.

During practice the week leading into the 2001 game, while repping a rollout pass play with quarterback Ben Schmitt, Frederick was frequently checked by Platt head coach Tom Ryan for running the route too fast.

“So in the game I’m slowing down a little bit, remembering what Coach Ryan said to me,” Frederick recounted this week. “All of a sudden I see Ben throw a rocket and now I’ve got to turn on the burners to try to go catch up to this thing.”

Frederick sprinted into the end zone. The Maloney defensive back covering him had fallen. The rocket was whistling earthward, the gap between field and fans fast closing.

“I lay out for it in the end zone and it goes off my fingertips and I miss it,” Frederick said. “It was just out of my reach.”

A pause.

“I won’t tell Coach Ryan this, though I think we’ve maybe had a conversation about this once or twice. I remember him saying to slow down my route. If I hadn’t slowed down my route, I would have caught it.”

Second guessing, second guessing …

Bruenn remembers second guessing Coach Ryan in the 1991 Stoddard Bowl. The Panthers were 8-3 that year. They had Jesse Showerda, who was on his way to the University of New Haven, at quarterback. They had thrown the ball at will that year.

Except they weren’t throwing the ball against Maloney, a young team and a decided underdog that Thanksgiving morning. Effectively running the very same freeze option Bristol Eastern had just used to beat Platt, Maloney led 14-0 at halftime.

“Everybody’s like, ‘THROW THE BALL!’ I remember halftime. I was ticked,” said Bruenn, who was a senior captain that season. “Showerda came in and threw his helmet on the ground.”

Defensively, Platt shut Maloney down in the second half. Bruenn, a linebacker, tipped a pass that teammate Tito Abrahante intercepted.

Offensively, the Panthers started airing it out. Showerda cut the gap to 14-8 in the third quarter, hitting Rasheen Felton with a touchdown pass and Dave Levenduski for the two-point conversion.

In the fourth quarter, Bruenn put Platt ahead with the pair of goal-line jaunts out of that jumbo set, running behind Desmond Cooper, Matt Crispino, Greg Kerelejza, Mike Remillard and his brother, Dean Bruenn.

“I don’t know if I went right or left, but it was short yardage. I just had to run two yards. I had a pretty clear path. I’m sure I didn’t bowl over 10 people, but I’m sure I hit somebody.”

Oh, there was some contact, not as much as you’d think, though, in a goal-line set. Bruenn pinballed on the go-ahead score, then ran a straighter line for the insurance.

It’s there on the VHS in perpetuity: Bruenn knifing through the scrum, the crowd behind the rope of the east end zone erupting in a roar.

The dark jerseys of the Panthers look brown. Maybe that’s just 29-year-old videotape. Maybe it was the mud of Ceppa.

Say what you want about Falcon Field — and we will testify to the fine facility that it is — but there was something about the cozy confines of old Ceppa, with the fans so loud and close to the field, that made Thanksgiving seem that much more vivid.

“For me, it still has that Platt-Maloney feel,” Kevin Frederick says of the Meriden’s series that has played at Falcon since 2008. “But when you’ve played at Ceppa, the memories hit you differently.

“You think about the amount of fans who were at that game every year. I can smell the French fries cooking in the concession stand, the locker rooms, it’s just a throw-back kind of field.”

The smells, the sounds, they burrow deep. They’ll always be there. And they’ll be back again next year.


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