VERNON – When Erick Knickerbocker took over the Rockville football program two years ago, he wanted to bring it back to its glory days.
Or, to put it his way: “Restore the Rock.”
In the eight years before Knickerbocker took over, the program was 12-70. In the 1980s and the 1990s, however, the Rams regularly competed for state championships. They went to two state finals and won the Class L title in 1990.
Despite growing up and living in Ellington, the next town over, Knickerbocker admitted he didn’t know much about the Rockville program. At the time of his application and hire, Knickerbocker looked through old newspapers and was surprised at what he found.
“It was almost like uncovering treasure,” he said. “I didn’t even realize what was here. I knew they were good. I knew (former NFL star) Bill Romanowski played here. That’s about it.
“Once we started uncovering it, then it became what we are trying to identifying with.”
None of his players knew about the program’s storied past, either. His new kids told him they weren’t proud to be Rockville Rams.
So, Knickerbocker coined the phrase he hoped would change the perception and the program.
“It’s not about the amount of wins and losses,” Knickerbocker said. “It’s about consistently being competitive and going back to what made us competitive.
“It was the way that they played. They mostly had teams of 35 or 40 guys and they were like the lunch pail team. Nobody wanted to play them and everyone knew when you showed up it was going to be war. No matter if they were 1-9 or they were 10-0. It didn’t matter.”
At first, the players weren’t too sure what to make of “Restoring the Rock.” But once Knickerbocker properly educated them about the history, they began to buy in.
“I liked it because, as I think he said, we used to tell him that we weren’t proud to be a Rockville Ram,” senior quarterback Jon O’Coin said. “Then when he brought that idea and showed us what it was like before we were here – all the history and all the success we had back in the day – it was nice to hear that he wanted to restore that.”
Paired with a newfound belief and big group of seniors, the Rams took off immediately last year. They won five of their first six games and finished 7-3 in the regular season. Their record was good enough to qualify for the Class M playoffs, the first postseason berth for Rockville since 1995.
“I was here for the 1-9, when we did not do that well,” senior lineman Jacey Riveria said. “Once we went 7-3, I was like, OK, maybe we can get somewhere. This year we seem really good.”
In just one calendar year, the Rams have gone from underdogs and a cute success story, to having a target on their backs as one of the favorites to win the Pequot Conference.
“They saw what happened last year and they said: Listen, it is our responsibility to take the next step,” Knickbocker said. “Guys like Jonathan (O’Coin) and Jaquan (Dufour) — that were right in the middle of it last year at different positions — they feel it is their responsibility.”
The Rams are 2-0 and have outscored opponents 75-3.
Leading the way is O’Coin, who stepped into the vacant quarterback role with ease. The senior has thrown for seven touchdowns and rushed for two.
“If we have a target on our back this year then we have to work a lot harder,” O’Coin said. “We don’t take anything for granted — whether we’re an underdog or supposedly supposed to win (a game). We see a team and it’s we want to win. That’s it.”
In what the players believe might be the biggest regular season game in their careers, the Rams travel to Canton to face Granby/Canton, a new co-op program which is also expected to contend in the Pequot. The Bears are also 2-0.
“If we go out and play our game and win it’s a statement that Rockville is on the verge of restoring the rock,” senior wide receiver Jaquan Dufour said.
Despite their successful season and hot start, The Rock is nowhere close to being being restored, Knickerbocker said.
“It’s about establishing that culture of championship level culture, that’s what we are trying to do here,” he said. “Until we do that, The Rock is not restored. One or two good seasons doesn’t really change that in my mind and the players as well.”
Ring My Bell
The Rockville booster club has also adopted Knickerbocker’s motto.
Led by co-president Eric Bundy, the booster club repainted the goal posts; they tore down the old locker room, repainted and adorned it with logos and graphics to reflect the program’s new mission.
The club saved its best for the last, however.
While Knickerbocker was sifting through the history of the Rockville program, he stumbled upon an old tradition. From 1967 to 1982 the Rams would ring a bell behind the school gymnasium after victories.
Opposing teams, however, began ringing it after beating Rockville. So the school decided to get rid of the bell.
Knickerbocker suggested bringing back the bell to the booster club.
“We wanted something that we could do after every win,” he said. “Something that meant something to the kids.”
Bundy made it his mission to find the original bell.
“My vision was bring that back,” Bundy said. “I want the whole town to hear when we ring that bell I want them to know that something good is happening in Rockville.”
Bundy first asked the Historical Society in Vernon. They had it, but declined to return it since the original bell had an irreparable crack.
So Bundy found an antique locomotive bell on Craigslist.com and acquired it just two weeks before the 2018 season began. It was refurbished in time for the season opener.
“It’s one more piece that makes our program feel different and (more) special than everybody else’s,” Bundy said.
The bell is now in the Rockville locker room and is wheeled out after games to be rung by the top players from that night’s victory.
“You’re working for something,” O’Coin said of having the bell back. “(It means) you’re working to restore this rock.”