HARTFORD — They arrived from different pockets of the state wearing different team jerseys. They shared one purpose.
They carried homemade signs. They amplified their message with megaphones. They marched.
Wednesday’s rally at the State Capitol to protest the cancellation of the 2020 high school football season drew about 1,200 people and stretched for nearly 90 minutes, and it could be distilled into the three words that echoed the most down the steps of the state house and along Capitol Avenue:
“Let us play!”
That chant was taken up as players arrived. It punctuated the rhetoric of the politicians, coaches and players who spoke. It was the exclamation point as attendees circled the building and then departed for home.
“Let us play!”
Now Connecticut’s high school football players are hoping their plea will move state officials to reverse the decision made last Friday by the CIAC, in the face of an impasse with the state Department of Public Health, to cancel traditional 11-on-11 tackle football for the 2020 fall season due to the coronavirus.
“I truly hope that the facts, emotions and initiative laid out by this family today will open the eyes of Governor Ned Lamont, the Department of Public Health and the CIAC,” said Sheehan senior Jason Villano, his voice rising in pitch. “On behalf of the entire football community, give us a chance! Give us our lives back!”
Turns out, the players got instant movement. Several hours after the rally end, Gov. Lamont announced the CIAC and Department of Public Health would be meeting on Friday.
On Wednesday, Villano was one of three area players who spoke during the rally. Christian Salaman of Lyman Hall and Brady Lafferty of Southington also took their turn on the megaphone. All area teams had players in attendance.
“We are all here to speak as a football community as one,” Salaman said. “We all strongly recommend the CIAC, the DPH take another look at the facts … Not only are you taking away some of our last opportunities to play high school football again, but you’re taking away a lot of our motivation. We didn’t put in countless hours of hard work and dedication to have our last season ripped away from us.”
There have been a number of wrinkles and arguments to the Connecticut football story as it’s played out over the past several months. The core case made Wednesday was twofold:
■Connecticut’s COVID-19 numbers, among the lowest in the nation, are far more favorable than states in which high school football is being played;■The decision to cancel Connecticut football will have ramifications far beyond the current season.
“For the players who are here today, football is more than a sport that we practice after school and play on Friday nights,” said Southington’s Lafferty. “It is the sport that is going to have an impact on us for the rest of our lives.”
“Football players across Connecticut are being denied the opportunity to obtain the goals we have set out for our future,” said Villano, citing players who hope to go on to play in college.
“Without a true season, the doors that symbolize opportunity and hope are being slammed in our faces without remorse. The lack of a true football season and its repercussions is something that will be felt by myself and my fellow football players across the state for the rest of our lives.”
Lafferty, the Southington quarterback, organized the first rally back in August when it was clear football, due to the disagreements between the CIAC and Department of Public Health, was in jeopardy. He and his Southington teammates, joined by a couple dozen players from some other schools, took their appeal to the CIAC office in Cheshire.
Since Friday’s decision to cancel the fall season, the groundswell of protest has grown. Their was a rally Sunday at West Hartford Town Hall that drew a couple hundred players, parents and coaches. Wednesday’s gathering in Hartford dwarfed that.
The Connecticut story has gone national, too. Four Connecticut players who helped organize the Hartford rally were featured on “Fox & Friends” on Wednesday morning.
“This is a government building. They cannot ignore this. It’s going to be all over the media,” Platt senior lineman Clayton Bruenn remarked. “It’s going to get a lot of coverage. They’ve got to respond.”
“They” meaning Gov. Lamont and state legislators.
To a large degree, “they” already have, and in a bipartisan way. Both sides of the aisle in both the House and Senate have written letters on the topic, either asking Lamont to mediate between the CIAC and health department or, in the case of Senate Republicans, asking DPH Acting Commissioner Dr. Deidre Gifford to supply more information on her department’s recommendation that 11-on-11 football not be played this fall.
State Sen. Len Fasano of North Haven, the leader of the GOP Caucus, and State Rep. Joe Aresimowicz of Berlin, the Democratic Speaker of the House, spoke at Wednesday’s rally.
“This fight is not over,” Fasano told the players. “You have great legislators up here who are fighting hard for you, who are going to work hard for you.”
“We will not go down without a fight,” said Aresimowicz, who is head coach of the Berlin football team. “We will play football this fall.”
The Department of Public Health has recommended the 7-on-7 “passing league” version of the game be played this fall. That’s a tact Vermont has taken.
Connecticut players and coaches are not in favor of 7-of-7. They’d rather see a traditional 11-on-11 season, either this fall or some time in late winter or early spring. The latter course has been taken by several other states, including New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
A late winter/early spring plan was recommended by the CIAC’s Football Committee only to be rejected by the CIAC’s Board of Control, which argued the state’s low COVID-19 warranted playing football in the fall and might not be any better come February or March.
Senate Democrats, in a letter this week to the CIAC and health department, suggested the idea of postponed season be revisited.
“Other states have found ways to delay football until the spring, avoiding canceling the season altogether,” the letter read.
In the end Wednesday, football players came away feeling a spirit of solidarity from their common cause. There was still that sense of uncertainty, though, over decision that is out of their hands.
“We’re hoping our voices got heard here today. It’s an injustice to not let our kids play football,” said Maloney coach Kevin Frederick, flanked by some of his players.
“We’re tired of watching every other state around the United States play with metrics that are higher than ours in Connecticut. Our metrics are low in Connecticut. If we can’t play now, when are they ever going to let us play football in Connecticut again? I’m hoping the guys who have the higher power make the right decision for us.”
“This is a fight for our future, basically,” said Seth Morris, a senior lineman at Platt. “A lot of us need this last season; a lot of us need this season to develop. We need this. Football is a sanctuary. It’s a place where you can get your emotions out, learn a lot, learn discipline. This sets you up for the rest of your life.”