DANBURY >> For most of the past 23 years, Mark Ecke balanced his duties as a Cheshire police officer with those of being head coach of the town’s wildly successful high school football team.
He’d typically work the midnight shift as a cop, get home for a few hours of sleep, then head to Cheshire High at 2 p.m. each day to begin his coaching duties.
“It was a lot of work,” Ecke recalled. “I was basically working two full-time jobs. I would spend 35-40 hours a week on football, and 40 hours a week — or more — on my job. It was quite a challenge.”
During conditioning week over the past summer, however, a pleasant thought would pop into Ecke’s head: “I don’t have to go to work tonight.”
Ecke is no longer Cheshire’s head coach. He resigned under pressure in June of 2012 after an incident in which he yelled at referees over a call involving his son, Tucker, in a junior varsity lacrosse game at Glastonbury. He’s now the head coach at Danbury High, taking over for Dan Donovan, who resigned last year after five seasons on the job.
And Ecke is no longer a police officer, either. He retired on June 30, after 23 years on the force, the last 3½ as a sergeant.
“I worked with some great people,” Ecke said, “but I can’t say I miss it.”
He’s now working as a tutor for special education students at Danbury High. As different as that job may be from his prior occupation, Ecke’s new head coaching gig is perhaps an even more radical departure.
Ecke won 118 games and four state titles in his 17 years after taking over for the head coaching reins at Cheshire from current Boston College head coach Steve Addazio in 1995. Danbury, meanwhile, hasn’t had a winning season in a decade and hasn’t made the state playoffs since 2003.
“When I took over for Steve, we were at the top, riding a 33-game winning streak,” Ecke recalled. “Now, I’m taking over a team that hasn’t had a winning season in 10 years. It’s bringing some challenges, getting the kids to buy into the things we’re trying to teach. It’s different. But they’re a great group of kids. We’re trying to instill some discipline in the way things are done. We’re getting there.”
Ecke, who spent the past two seasons as an assistant coach at Trinity College, inherits a program that may not be rich in history, but certainly has great potential. Danbury is the largest high school in Connecticut, with nearly 3,000 students. It is also the “ultimate melting pot,” according to Ecke, with a diverse mix of whites, Hispanics, Asians and African-Americans.
In the spring, it was “like the thing to do” to try out for football, Ecke said, and over 90 kids reported. He knew that was an unrealistic number to expect come the fall, and sure enough, this season the Hatters’ roster is in the mid-40s.
“That’s definitely something we can work on, as I become a little more familiar with the school,” Ecke said. “Obviously, it’s a massive school. There are athletes walking the halls, we’ve just got to get them to come out for football. Culturally, there are more soccer-oriented families and kids in the city. I think they were pushing 150 kids going out for soccer.”
One kid Ecke won’t be able to coach — or even watch — this season is Tucker, who was in the mix to be Cheshire’s starting quarterback this season before dislocating his shoulder on his very first carry in last year’s spring game.
“He put his shoulder back in and stayed in the game,” Ecke reported. “I was getting frustrated with him, the way he was running the ball after that. After the game he told me, ‘My shoulder popped out, I put it back in.’”
Tucker had surgery and will be out most — if not all — of his senior season. However, Ecke will get a chance to watch another son play. Travis Ecke is a sophomore tight end/defensive end at Cheshire Academy, and Mark will be able to get to most of the team’s Saturday night home games. He’ll be cheering on his son, but his mind will also be on turning around a different program.
“I’m a Danbury Hatter now,” he said. “I’ve got my hands full. I don’t have time to worry about too much else.”