STAMFORD — Before the opening kickoff of the Class LL state championship, before Greenwich had asserted itself as the dominant high school football team in Connecticut, John Marinelli took off for the New Canaan sideline.
Marinelli had just heard the final stanza of the national anthem. He knew what he had to do. He needed to go hug his dad, Lou, and wish him good luck.
“Every time we play, whether he comes over to me or I go over to him, we’ve done that,” John Marinelli said. “Playing in the regular season is incredible enough, but to play here, the pinnacle of what football is, that’s got to be storybook.
“I learned everything I have from him. His blueprint is now my blueprint. The Greenwich football program is modeling after what they’re doing in all facets.”
Knowing how his son feels, Lou Marinelli would hug John back. And then he’d look over at the officials and tell them, hey, this guy isn’t supposed to be on the New Canaan sidelines.
“My dad is also a professional ball-buster,” John Marinelli said.
— Sean Patrick Bowley (@SPBowley) December 8, 2018
Lou Marinelli, a Connecticut coaching legend, has a record 12 state titles in 38 years and he would marshal a team that had lost two of its first five games into the Class LL finals. There wouldn’t be No. 13 on Saturday. Instead, there would be John’s first state championship in his fourth year with Greenwich. Final: 34-0.
This was the cold December morning when the sons would rise.
Amid the great mob of Greenwich players, coaches, parents, cheerleaders and fans spilling onto the field at Boyle Stadium, here was a familiar face. Tiki Barber, the former New York Giants star running back, leaned into his sophomore son, A.J., for a hug and said, “I’m proud of you.”
A.J. had been terrific. He caught three touchdown passes. One went for 60 yards. None were his best catch of the day. On a backward pass from quarterback Gavin Muir, Barber would make a spectacular, leaping left-handed stab to keep a second-quarter play alive.
“I need to look confused at the beginning of the play to throw off the defense, but by the time I looked up the ball was a little high,” A.J. said. “So I just stuck my hand up. I came down with it. Then I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I need to throw this ball.’ ”
So he did. He threw a 28-yard touchdown strike to a wide-open Hunter Clark. A.J. was more Odell Beckham Jr. than Tiki Barber on that highlight-reel play.
AJ Barber… going HAM today.
Let us count the ways:
ONE-handed catch on lateral, and then the halfback option TD pass to Hunter Clark.
Goodness. 19-0 Greenwich mid 2nd #cthsfb pic.twitter.com/LBlV79yBum
— Sean Patrick Bowley (@SPBowley) December 8, 2018
“He always has had great hands, but I think he was showing off a little,” Tiki said, breaking into a smile. “I never completed a pass in my career.
“It’s amazing the season he has had as a sophomore. I’m so proud of him. To have a great day like this today is a testament to their team. Their defense has been phenomenal all season.”
Greenwich was entirely too much for New Canaan. The unbeaten Cardinals had a 27-0 lead at halftime. A smothering defense, which allowed 54 points in 13 games, surrendered only 131 yards to New Canaan. Greenwich would generate 443, including 157 yards on 10 catches by Barber.
“We had no answers at all,” Lou Marinelli said. “If that’s not the best team in the state, I don’t know who is. No team has come within 28 points of them. Certainly, we didn’t give them a game today. They took away pretty much everything we tried to do.
“I thought we’d give them a better game.”
With 52 seconds remaining, the joyous Cardinals would do what any joyous champion would do. They gave their unsuspecting coach a Gatorade shower. And when the game and season had ended, here was the drenched son running to midfield to meet his dad.
This hug lasted four, five, nearly 10 seconds. Lou patted John on the back, a disappointed dad and a proud one.
“I told him I loved him.”
“He told me it was a helluva coaching job,” John said. “Coming from him, it’s emotional to say the least. I respect him. I told him I learned everything I have from him. Yeah, it’s emotional.”
The son composed himself.
“He’s the best man I know,” John said.
This would be the fifth time Lou and John have faced each other as head coaches. John is a child of New Canaan. As he loves to point out, Lou was already a fixture at the school by the time he was born. An all-state defensive back and quarterback, he went on to play college ball at Fordham and Trinity before returning to Lou’s staff. John lost to his dad their first two meetings, but including a 42-14 game Oct. 5, he now has won three in a row.
When they first started playing against each other, father and son wouldn’t talk leading up to the game. It drove Fran — Lou’s wife, John’s mom — nuts. She hated it, John said. This week was different.
“I decided to embrace it,” John said. “I used to hate it, but this week there’s something special about it, for a state championship. I embraced it. My kids embraced it. I don’t talk about the father-son thing with them. I didn’t overhear them talking about it. We let them play and not worry who the two coaches are.”
If the Cardinals felt any pressure, they did not show it. They played fast and tough. One of the senior players’ father died in recent days and A.J. Barber said it was a source of inspiration for the team. The Cardinals also had fun.
They also used that trick wide receiver option pass twice to grand success. The play is called “Arsenal,” John Marinelli said, because that’s what the senior-heavy receiving corps calls itself. Fitting. Those seniors have motivated Barber.
“I’ve never been more excited in my life,” A.J. said. “I owe it all to my seniors who helped me get to where I am. Every day in practice they pushed me to my limit.”
“He has an awful lot of talent and he gives credit to everyone else,” John Marinelli said. “The senior wide receivers treated him like a little brother, challenged him. He kept getting better and better.”
So did the Cardinals. And now John Marinelli was jacked. He was so proud of his team, having so much fun, he said, he wanted to keep playing. He wanted to play undefeated Class L champion Hand. Marinelli considered the success his team had across the board — offense, defense, special teams — and called it “historic.”
A father and son facing each other for the state football title in Connecticut certainly is historic. So far, we haven’t found it happening before nationally, either. And leave the man with the quick wit to find perspective.
“I let all the fathers of the world down,” Lou Marinelli said. “It’s not supposed to be that way. He’s a better coach than I am, for sure, as can be seen today.
“I think he has got a bright future.”
Yes, this was the cold December morning when the sons most definitely would rise.
And the dads would be proud of them.