Editor’s note: With no 11-on-11 high school football in Connecticut in the fall, Hearst Connecticut Media sent 1983 Alvirne High School graduate Jim Fuller to take in the home opener for the Hudson, N.H., school. New Hampshire is the only New England state with full-contact, 11-on-11 high school football in the fall.
HUDSON, N.H. — Spectators proudly wearing Alvirne High School’s maroon and gold colors began arriving in the parking lot shortly after 6 p.m., then headed to Stadium Field for the 2020 home football opener. Alvirne graduate Jillian Houle was on hand to sing the national anthem; senior football players and cheerleaders were honored before the game. Even in these chaotic times, New Hampshire has found a way to continue its own version of Friday night lights.
The crowd was smaller than normal due to COVID-19 restrictions, the visiting sideline was engulfed in constantly thickening fog as the night wore on and Goffstown ripped off the first 35 points en route to a 35-6 win, but at least in a year of uncertainty, there was a sense of normalcy in the southern New Hampshire town with a Friday night high school football game being played.
New Hampshire is the lone state in New England to be playing full-contact, 11-vs.-11 football this fall.
There were some subtle differences at the game:
Each Alvirne player was given vouchers for a maximum of four people who could attend the game. Each of them needed to bring the paper with them and had to fill out a form indicating whether they are showing any COVID-19 symptoms. There are no fans from the visiting teams at the games in the fall.
All coaches, as well as players not in the game, need to wear masks.
The old interception turns into offensive fumble recovery on final play of 1st half as Goffstown leads Alvirne 21-0 pic.twitter.com/XqErbqBvpm
— Jim Fuller (@NHRJimFuller) October 3, 2020
There is no locker room access before or during the game for either team or the officials.
The area where players can stand on the sideline was extended from each 30-yard line to the 10-yard line so players can spread out.
No shared water; each timeout had 11 small water bottles and when the timeout was over, the unused water was discarded. Timeouts were extended if necessary so teams were able to get water to the players
Officials had an orange beanbag to mark the spot of the ball and did not touch the football throughout the game
There were multiple footballs used during the game. Footballs were removed after each series and were sanitized before being used again.
When the game ended, both teams walked out to the hash marks and waved at the other team rather than the normal postgame handshake lines.
Only pre-packaged food is available for purchase at the concession stand.
Those seemed like small sacrifices to have a football season.
“I hold my breath every day that we can continue to do well,” Alvirne Athletic Director Karen Bonney said. “We are fortunate to not, at this point, to have cases and it has allowed our kids to play. The other thing we did, our senior night is usually our last home game, and this year it’s our first game because we don’t know when we’re going to shut down. I’m going to feel pretty good that all of our seniors have had their moment because that’s something that didn’t happen in the spring.”
The first points came on a 10-yard run by bruising 6-foot-3, 215-pound Goffstown quarterback Jarrett Henault. The first roar from the home crowd came courtesy of a huge hit by Brendan Graham midway through the first quarter.
Graham’s story is similar to those of many athletes in Connecticut and across the nation. He plays basketball in the winter. Alvirne beat Bedford 67-57 and was set to play No. 2 seed Portsmouth in the Division I quarterfinals. Then the New Hampshire state tournament was canceled due to the pandemic. That disappointment makes him appreciate the opportunity to play this fall that much more.
“The fact that we’re playing and we get to have some people here, I feel like it’s a big thing for not only the town, but the state as a whole and I’m really proud to have the opportunity to play,” said Graham, a junior tight end/defensive end.
It has hardly been an easy process to get to this point.
“Sometimes it feels like we’re flying the plane as we’re building it, but I think we’re doing a great job of adapting,” fourth-year Alvirne coach Tarek Rothe said.
“It’s helping them out to not necessarily take a mental break here or there, but to be able to digest everything that’s being thrown at them. The mental aspect, to be able to have an outlet for some of the nervousness that might be going on in the world around them, I think it’s great for them.”
Some of the players on the field say their winter seasons came to an abrupt end and the spring season was called off. In June and July, there were hopes of having a fall season, but the same could be said for the other New England states, including Connecticut.
When Rothe was asked whether he was always confident this season would take place, “no way” was his immediate response.
“We have a great staff,” Rothe said. “We put together a ‘How are we going to do this?’ process in late May. Some of the coaches in Division 1 met and we tried to come up with scenarios of what’s going to happen, what are we going to do. We tried to come up with a proposal but what I told myself, if I prepare for what’s going to come, I’ll think less of the possibility that it’s not going to happen so that’s what I kept telling myself, let’s work towards it and if we get told no, we get told no, but if we get told yes, we’ll be prepared.”
Some teams were given the OK to begin the first phase of workouts in mid-June. In Hudson, it didn’t happen until early July. Rothe said it wasn’t until late July when his players touched a football during state-sanctioned drills for the first time.
“When I first heard about it, I was really excited, ‘Oh great, football,’” Alvirne junior lineman Alex Lawson said. “Finally we can play, finally we can practice.”
The process began with the approval for a return to school from Gov. Chris Sununu. The New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association announced a return to sports plan on Aug. 6. Bass fishing and golf began competitions on Sept. 10, followed by cross country, field hockey, soccer and volleyball on Sept. 18 and finally football on Sept. 25.
“Football has really been growing in popularity over the years, we really want to see it happen,” Graham said.
Really wanting to see it happen means curtailing certain types of behavior. Reports surfaced of nearby Windham High School having a party that is reported to have led to a COVID-19 outbreak, delaying the school’s return to some on-site classes and temporarily suspending sports activities last month.
“To this school’s credit, we followed every single protocol that was given to us,” Rothe said. “The kids can’t share a ride, they either get here on their own or get driven on their own because you couldn’t car-share. We don’t have anything going on in the school in terms of positive tests, I think it speaks volumes about how the whole thing got handled by the Hudson school district.”
Rothe reminds his players regularly about the need to stay vigilant. One party attended by most of the football team could result in all of those coming to a screeching halt. A five-game schedule with just two home dates may not be ideal, but it is better than the rest of New England.
“That’s kind of what happened with Windham, especially with the youth, everybody thinks they’re invincible but we preached that to them from Day 1,” Rothe said. “We talk to them about not being selfish, about being part of the program. If we have any remote chance of getting this done, this is what it’s going to take, it’s going to take sacrifice and that’s what makes football special. So that’s why we’re really going to celebrate (Friday) with these seniors, the fact that they worked their tails off to have a season.”
Refraining from gathering with friends is not as easy as it sounds for 16-, 17- and 18-year-old kids.
“It’s hard sometimes,” Lawson said. “You hear that there’s a party or a gathering, you’re like, ‘I want to go’ but you can’t risk it, you want to have a season.”
Alvirne Touchdown Club President Mari Keegan’s son Tommy was an all-state lineman a season ago and a member of the 2018 team that reached the NHIAA Division II title game. She has another son, Geoffrey, who is a sophomore on the 2020 squad. She has no doubt that the players won’t do anything to jeopardize having a season that many high school football players across the nation can’t have.
“They so desperately wanted to play the game and have something that’s normal, even if it was abnormal, because it’s not just about winning or losing the game, it’s about participating and having a goal,” Keegan said. “With all the uncertainty that’s going on, this is normal, so we’re just thrilled that our kids are able to do this and we’re all following the rules. I think a lot of the people who have the problems —‘You have to wear a mask, you have to stay 6 feet apart’ — are the adults. The kids, the athletes, the boys, they’ll do whatever they have to in order to follow the rules and be able to participate in a team sport.”
Goffstown, ranked in the top three in multiple state polls, used a dominating effort to improve to 2-0.
“It was great for the guys to be able to be out here doing what they love to do after six months of really uncertain times,” first-year Goffstown coach Nick Hammond said. “Initially when they first got out there on July 13 when we started our conditioning, they were very intense, very focused and ready to go. That really continued with them understanding that this was going to happen. I think they’re doing a great job. It’s an unbelievable show of maturity and I think for us, they understand how important it is to be able to do this.”
Scheduling hasn’t been easy. Alvirne and Goffstown are part of a bubble with games scheduled regionally. Alvirne plays one school in each sport during a week and barring any setbacks will continue that practice through the shortened season.