WALLINGFORD — The lights were on.
It might not have looked like it usually does, but the lights shone down on a crowded football field on a fall Friday. In 2020, that’s considered a win.
The fact that the Lyman Hall football team actually took the field for a 7-on-7 game against Guilford Friday night was all that mattered to everyone in blue and orange.
There were no fans. Only one sportswriter and one photographer, along school staff, cheerleaders and video technicians were there to witness the strangest type of organized football: a passing-only version with no lineman and no contact.
But it was still football, in spirit, and the Trojans were playing.
“It’s better than nothing,” Lyman Hall coach Bill Weyrauch said. “The main thing it does is keep us together as a football team. I was excited — not as excited as a football game, I’m not gonna lie, but I was excited to come out here and watch our kids compete.”
That almost didn’t happen at all. Despite protests at the State Capitol, football this fall was DOA after the CIAC couldn’t get approval from the Department of Public Health, which declared it a “high-risk” sport in relation to the spread of COVID-19.
After 11-on-11 football was officially canceled on September 16, the Southern Connecticut Conference approved a five-week, 7-on-7 season on October 2. (The Central Connecticut Conference is also offering 7-on-7; Southington hosted Bristol Central on Saturday morning.)
The plan is to move 11-on-11 football to a late winter/early season that will run from late February through mid-April). For now, to steal a line from the Rolling Stones, the Trojans and other teams playing 7-on-7 are getting what they need.
“It felt great to be able to play something,” LH senior running back Christian Salaman said. “I missed being on the field. I haven’t been on the field in a year and it felt great.”
Added senior lineman Brendan Mitchell, “I loved being out here with my teammates. It was perfect.”
Consider Mitchell’s words with this in mind: 7-on-7 is far from perfect for the senior and other guys who play up front because lineman don’t play in 7-on-7. They participate in “lineman challenges” like tug-of-war and sled pushing.
“I love my lineman,” Salaman said. “Playing without them is weird, but they still got to do something and they’re having fun.”
Salaman is right. Football without lineman is strange.
Here’s how it works. Each team has a QB, a center (he’s not eligible to catch passes) and five receivers. There is no blocking and a ballcarrier is “down” with a one-hand touch.
Each team starts at the opponent’s 40-yard line. The quarterback has four seconds to pass, otherwise it’s a sack. A team gets three downs to make a “first down,” which comes in 15-yard increments. (Markers are at the 25 and 10-yard lines.)
The defense gets three points for an interception.
All of that might seem like a foreign concept to the uninitiated. Seven-on-seven? What is that? That’s not football! This hypothetical conversation would probably end with some variation of the quip, “That’s 2020 for ya!”
Except it’s not new to 2020. Seven-on-seven football has seen a meteoric rise in popularity in the past few years. There are All-Star camps in the summer with teams sponsored by Nike, Adidas and Under Armour and tons of college coaches paying close attention.
It’s prevalent even in a state like Connecticut, which isn’t exactly a college football recruiting hotbed. Weyrauch said the Trojans play 7-on-7 “all the time” in the summer, but he’s old school and would much rather run the ball.
“We will definitely run the ball more than we pass when we put the pads on this year.”
That philosophy runs contrary to how football has evolved into an aerial game. Tom Brady won six Super Bowls by throwing passes that were mostly described as extensions of the running game.
The NFL and college are now both pass-happy. A running back hasn’t won NFL MVP and the Super Bowl in the same season since Terrell Davis in 1998. Of the last 10 Heisman winners, there is just one running back — Derrick Henry in 2015.
Some of the above is due to the trends in high school football, which is predominantly pass-heavy. Most area teams prepare for their seasons in 7-on-7 summer passing leagues. Sheehan hosts one at Riccitelli Field.
How big has 7-on-7 become? When Texas A&M made Jimbo Fisher the highest paid college coach in 2017, one of his first moves was to reach out to a 7-on-7 All-Star team coach. (Like everything else, 7-on-7 is bigger in Texas.)
What’s more, career trajectories can change with one good summer of 7-on-7. It has become similar to the AAU basketball circuit in that regard.
Look no further than Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Deon Cain. He was drafted in the 6th round by the Indianapolis Colts in 2018 after starring at Clemson, where he won a national championship catching passes from Deshaun Watson.
Cain thought he’d be the one throwing the passes. A star high school QB, Cain barely played receiver in his four years at Tampa Bay Tech (six catches). But he was moved to receiver by chance in a 7-on-7 All-Star camp in 2014 and dazzled.
Cain shot up to the No. 2-ranked receiver in the class of 2015 behind Calvin Ridley, who is now starring for the Atlanta Falcons and poised to be the heir apparent to Julio Jones.
Though it may not lead to a Deon Cain-like rise, Weyrauch acknowledged that 7-on-7 will help seniors stay on the radar of college coaches.
“It will give us something to put out there,” Weyrauch said. “That’s why I promised them we would film all our 7-on-7 competitions. We’ve had college coaches come down and watch some kids in practice.”
College coaches can’t watch the lineman practice or play, however. Yet if the Lyman Hall lineman were disappointed by the lack of action on Friday, they hardly showed it. They razzed each other when a sled veered off the field and onto the track during a drill. “Joe, you stink!”
They talked about their favorite NFL players. “Did you see what Khalil Mack did to (Tristan) Whirfs last night?”
Then, the Trojan lineman earned the roaring approval of their teammates and coaches as they won both in-game tug-of-war challenges at midfield. The second one was won in about 10 seconds.
As for the actual game, no score was kept. And no one cared.
As it turned out, the linemen stole the show during a 7-on-7 game. That’s 2020 for you.