NEW CANAAN — A handful of seniors lingered awhile Saturday night. On the other side of the netting at Water Tower Field, next door to the high school, was an uncertain winter without tackle football, and a bunch of New Canaan players weren’t quite ready for that.
“We don’t want to let go,” said Hayden Shin, one of the last three seniors to carry their helmet and pads across the threshold.
“We’re just taking all the time to be out on this field. Our real stadium’s over there,” classmate Harry Appelt said, pointing across the parking lot, “but we practiced on this field since we were in third grade. This is where we played, more than on that field. We’re taking all the time to be out here with each other.”
The Fairfield County Football League’s high school division played its fourth and last weekend on Saturday, told by the state that the season was over. Darien’s 26-10 win over New Canaan — both teams of high school players, but both officially independent of the school — wrapped up, perhaps finally, 11-on-11’s interminable saga. But then it seems nothing has ever been final in this pandemic autumn.
Gov. Ned Lamont announced Thursday that state rules will not allow play to go on in youth sports deemed higher risk for spreading the novel coronavirus, like tackle football, as of Monday. Players and officials knew, then, that this was it, and for Darien and New Canaan, Thanksgiving came early.
The highest moment of this roller-coaster autumn, said Darien senior Teddy Christensen: “Probably right now after beating New Canaan.”
Darien beat New Canaan 26-10 tonight as 11-on-11 wraps up this weekend by state rule. Asked Darien's Teddy Christensen what the biggest difference was between an FCFL game during a pandemic and a normal #cthsfb game. pic.twitter.com/5WCZQuscCE
— Michael Fornabaio (@fornabaioctp) November 8, 2020
The Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference first said in August it was going ahead with fall sports, even though the football committee urged postponing the sport to the spring. Then the CIAC went back and forth with the state Department of Public Health, delaying the start of the fall season.
The CIAC never won DPH recommendation to play football in the fall. It canceled the football season on Sept. 4. Even as players rallied to try to save a season, the CIAC reaffirmed the decision two weeks later while opening the door, metrics permitting, to playing in March and April along with any abbreviated winter sports.
“Our lowest was probably during practices, not knowing if we were going to have a game, have a season,” Christensen said.
Schools and leagues prepared for 7-on-7 contest, but others looked to play tackle football independently, since the state’s reopening rules had allowed youth football since July even as the DPH recommended against it. Two leagues sprang up, keeping details quiet out of fears that towns would shut them down.
One was the nine-team FCFL.
“We really did it for the kids. It was a team effort,” said one of the organizers, Denis LaPolice, calling it an extension of the youth league to let the players finish what they’d started as early as third grade in these towns. League officials, officials and politicians in each town helped make it happen, he said.
LaPolice said film from the games had helped players on Stamford and Danbury get offers to play in college.
“Every community came together,” LaPolice said. “A number of teams took the lead in helping Stamford and Danbury financially.”
And he said the league played 140 youth games without incident, and those games helped lay the groundwork for keeping the high school division safe.
“We all felt safe,” Christensen said. “We all took different vehicles, got here at different times, got on the field and played.”
New Canaan’s Maddox Underwood agreed. “I’d do it all over again,” he said.
Left to right, New Canaan's Harry Appelt, Hayden Shin and Maddox Underwood were the last ones out and got stuck answering whether they had any confidence that a spring #cthsfb season will happen. pic.twitter.com/N6yYoCNr9j
— Michael Fornabaio (@fornabaioctp) November 8, 2020
Aside from the small crowd, limited by the pandemic — mostly just parents — it looked pretty normal. Christensen said the biggest difference was missing out on fans.
The organizers of the other league, the Connecticut High School Independent Football League, have discussed keeping independent football alive even after, presumably, the CIAC resumes play.
“In a normal year? I don’t think that would ever happen without COVID, but I don’t think that’s needed (in a normal season),” Appelt said.
“It’s more fun to play with the kids you grew up with,” added Shin. “We’ve been playing since third grade.”
Christensen, though, wasn’t dismissing the idea.
“I’m always interested to play football,” he said. “That’s what it comes down to. If I can play football, I’ll play. No matter what.”
The hope is that high schools will get in that short season come springtime, with lower infection numbers and maybe a vaccine and better treatments for COVID-19.
Whether it’ll happen is another question as the state’s infection rates, hospitalizations and deaths rise.
“No one has any confidence in anything right now,” Appelt said. “I’m not going to think about (a spring season). I’m going to roll with the punches. Hopefully we get one.”
Quipped Underwood, “we’ll just protest, hopefully, until we can get one.”