One was a freshman superstar, who arrived as a physical specimen and lit the state aflame only to become so humbled by injuries that he nearly gave up the sport.
The other was an unassuming kid, whose silent work ethic has transformed him into one best players in the state.
Not only do Bunnell football receivers Zhyaire Fernandes and Brett Bogdwicz embody opposite and extreme paths of a high school football player’s career, they’re also worlds apart in personalities.
“They are so different,” Bunnell coach Sean Mignone said. “I teach here so I see them in the hallways. Z can be a rockstar, if he wanted to because, look at him, he’s got the look. He walks the halls and everyone knows him.
“Brett, on the other hand, so unassuming and quiet. He’s got the backpack, the long hair, you wouldn’t even know he’s an athlete. You’re like, ‘Hey, Brett,’ and he’s just like, ‘Hey,’ and doesn’t say much when he walks by.”
But opposites do attract. They have been best friends and teammates since their Stratford Pop Warners days and have developed a symbiotic relationship over the course of their high school careers.
Bogdwicz says he wouldn’t be where he is without Fernandes pushing him to be great.
Fernandes says he might not even be playing had Bogdwicz, as well as his coach, not offered him encouragement when he was sidelined for more than half of his sophomore season with a laundry list of injuries.
“He’s my brother,” said Fernandes, a 6-foot-1, 205-pound senior.
“We’re with each other, like 24-7,” said Bogdwicz, who stands at 5-11, 185.
Get the two four-year starters on the field and they work as one. Their careers might have taken different paths, but they’ve reached the same destination and maintain the same goal.
As seniors they have a singular objective of producing Bunnell’s first state playoff appearance since the state championships days of 2006 and 2007.
“We just want to win,” Bogdwicz said. “That’s it.”
“As long as we’re winning,” Fernandes said. “If I have 200 yards for the season and we’re winning I don’t care.”
Stats aren’t a problem. Heading into this week’s season-defining game vs. No. 7-ranked Newtown, the pair are 1-2 in total offense. Fernandes averages 136 all-purpose yards per game. Bogdwicz averages 98. Fernandes leads Bunnell with 13 touchdowns (he scored four last week vs. Weston). Bogdwicz is second with five.
And they are among the team leaders in defense. Bogdwicz is second on the team with 7.8 tackles a game and leads it with three interceptions — including last week’s game-winning, end-zone pick in a 35-33 victory over Weston. Fernandes averages three tackles a game and has an interception.
Having such a veteran, talented tandem has been nothing but a godsend for coach Sean Mignone, a Bunnell teacher who’s coached for the program since 2013, their freshman season. Mignone took over when the school ousted former coach Doug Cotto in the middle of the 2014 season.
“They’ve been doing it for so long, they know the system, they know all the drills. And they take it really really serious too,” Mignone said. “It’s come to the point where, if we’re doing a drill, you just say, ‘Watch those two. If you have questions, watch what they do.'”
Fernandes and Bogdwicz’s presence was critical as the team weathered several weeks without starting quarterback Mike Castelot, who fractured his foot during a Week 2 victory over New Fairfield. Castelot remains questionable for Friday.
In addition to their usual spots at receiver, the pair have taken turns at tailback and even quarterback while helping freshman Tyler Phommachanh learn on the job. Bunnell has managed to win three of its last four games without Castelot.
“They’re leaders. They’re stepping up,” Mignone said. “They’ll do anything we need to win.”
Both players come from established Stratford High School athletic stock. Fernandes’ father, Gene, ran track and has his name hanging in the Stratford high gymnasium. Bogdwicz’s mother, Deb Santos Bogdwicz, was a three-sport start at Stratford and is a member of the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame.
The two arrived at Bunnell after starring for the town’s Junior Pee Wee Pop Warner team, which they once led to the National Championships in Florida
Fernandes was the sensation when he arrived at Bunnell as a freshman. He played very briefly in one junior varsity game before being bumped to varsity, where he instantly lit up the stat sheet with 41 catches for 812 yards and three touchdowns while also rushing for 191 yards and another touchdown. He seemed destined to be the next great Bunnell receiver, following in the footsteps of players like Michael Easley, Mark Harrison and Jawad Chisholm.
“He was phenomenal,” Mignone said. “His freshman season was off the charts. He probably should have been all-state.”
But Fernandes’ blooming career started to fade in his sophomore season when he partially tore his Achilles tendon and, later in the season, hyperextended his hip. He played in eight games, but only caught 17 passes. Migone, who had just taken over as coach, noticed a change in his star’s demeanor.
“He was struggling. When you’re used to being (told), from the time you were this big that you’re the man and everything, and then you physically can’t do it… it was tough on him,” Mignone said. “He would try to do cuts and he couldn’t do it. It wasn’t him. He was trying. It just wasn’t him.”
Meanwhile, Bogdwicz’ star was on the rise. He arrived looking like any other freshman kid, Mignone said. Yet he defied expectations — of which there were none — and earned a starting spot at defensive back as a sophomore and, not long after, as a receiver.
“He was a small, little kid,” Mignone said of Bogdwicz. “Nobody thought anything about him and he was definitely being overshadowed by Zhyaire. Nobody thought, ‘Brett’s going to be All-World,’ or anything. But when you watched him compete against the older kids, right away, you knew he was going to be something.”
Bogdwicz’s quiet drive to excel turned him into a stud within a year. He was the team’s MVP as a sophomore and, by his junior year, had become one of the state’s most productive receivers. He caught 47 passes for 876 yards and 11 touchdowns and was selected to the Class M All-State team.
“He was never the biggest kid, he was never the strongest kid or the fastest kid,” Mignone said. “It was more the work ethic he put in, just constant determination.”
Meanwhile, Fernandes was so despondent over his sophomore injuries, he considered giving it all up as he lay home icing his hip during the final weeks of the 2014 season. “I wanted to quit at one point,” he said.
But Fernandes credits Mignone and Bogdwicz from pulling him out of the doldrums.
“It was tough to watch,” Bogdwicz said. “Injuries are tough. I just tried to keep in his head saying, fight through it, ice up, get better, keep going and come back as soon as possible and don’t do anything like come on the field too early and just get better. Because we needed him.”
“I was so down because I felt like I let my team down,” Fernandes said. “Coach sat me down and he was like, you can’t keep feeling sorry for yourself. You’ve got to show up.
“He made me realize that not everything’s going to be given to you. So I felt personally I needed that to feed off of.”
Fernandes put his near-disatrous sophomore season behind by helping the school’s boys basketball team win the Class L state championship that winter.
As a junior, Fernandes was back in top form. He caught 42 passes for 715 yards and 8 touchdowns. His confidence continued to grow during an All-State year on last season’s basketball team.
Not only is Fernandes back, physically, Mignone says he’s also transformed into a leader on the field alongside Bogdwicz.
“He’s back,” Migone said. “He committed to it and he’s back. But the biggest improvement has been his maturity. The growth he’s had there has been phenomenal. He’s gone from I’m the superstar to a kid who now is more of I’m a leader. He gets our kids up. He leads by example and it’s great to see. He gets it now. He really does get it.”
Now that their careers have come full circle, they have realigned toward the same goal: winning.
The two spent all offseason working out together, anxiously waiting for their senior season — their last chance to achieve greatness together — to arrive.
Bunnell has muddled around .500 and has had just one winning season (6-5, in 2014) since Fernandes and Bogdwicz came up as freshman, something they desperately want to change.
“We keep saying, ‘Oh my God, I can’t wait, I can’t wait,'” Fernandes said. “Because we both felt we can do something big. So we got all the seniors together one day and got it through their heads that 4-6, 3-7 is boring. I don’t want to work my butt off every day and win three games.
“I guess they fed off that on the field because we’ve been playing really well.”
They’ll go into Friday’s game as huge underdogs against unbeaten and seventh-ranked Newtown. But, considering everything they’ve overcome so far, this challenge will be no different.
“We’ve been through some tough things: Coaching situations, injuries, tough losses, last-play losses,” Bogdwicz said. “We just learned we have to fight through that every time. Right now, we’ve been fighting adversity with Mikey out. But we can’t let that stop us. Nobody’s going to feel bad for us. We just have to keep going.”