NEW CANAAN — Jack Stewart, Jack Conley and Garrett Braden have been side-by-side ever since their days playing football in the New Canaan youth leagues.
So it was perfectly fitting that when they began the next chapter of their lives, they did so together.
It was a banner day for New Canaan football, as the three New Canaan co-captains signed their National Letters of Intent to play football at the Division I level during a ceremony in the high school’s Wagner Room on Wednesday.
Stewart will head to Ann Arbor to play for the Michigan Wolverines, Conley will become the next Ram to play for the Boston College Eagles, and Braden will travel to Houston to play for the Rice Owls.
Though New Canaan football has had Division I signees in the past, having three from the same class is a new accomplishment for the program.
“We’ve never had three scholarship guys going to Division I like this,” said head coach Lou Marinelli, who has led the Rams since 1981. “They worked very hard to get where they are and this is a great opportunity for them to go to those schools and get a great education. They did tremendous for us and now they’re going to three of the best schools in the country, athletically and academically.”
“I don’t think this has ever been seen at New Canaan High School,” Stewart said. “I couldn’t be more proud of Jack Conley and Garrett Braden and I’m going to miss playing with them. I’ve had a great four years here with them and played with them in youth, so for sure I’m going to miss them.”
All three players were integral to the Rams’ success over the past four years, including this season, when New Canaan rallied from a 3-2 start to finish 10-3. They defeated rival Darien in the Turkey Bowl and knocked off Shelton and Fairfield Prep before finishing as the runner-up in the Class LL tournament.
Conley, a 6-foot-7, 315-pound offensive tackle, will be joining head coach Steve Addazio’s Boston College team, which is 7-5 this year and will play Boise State in the SERVEPRO First Responder Bowl on Dec. 26.
“BC is the perfect spot for me for football and academic-wise, and I think I can succeed both on the field and in the classroom,” Conley said. “They play in the toughest conference in college football (ACC) — between that and the Big Ten is the big debate — and I’m excited. I fell in love with the school as soon as I stepped on campus.”
Zach Allen, a 2015 graduate of NCHS, is a senior defensive end for the Eagles and helped give Conley some pointers while he made his decision.
“We were in constant contact during the recruiting process,” Conley said. “He reassured me that everyone there loved me and wanted me there. He gave me all the help that I needed and I appreciated that.”
Braden, a 6-foot-2, 225-pound defensive end, will join a Rice team which went 2-11 during Mike Bloomgren’s first season as head coach this fall. The Ram senior said he’s ready for the challenge on and off the field.
“Rice has everything I was looking for,” Braden said. “Academically and athletically, it was really everything I wanted. Academically, they’re top 15 in the country and athletically, there’s a whole new coaching staff and coach Bloomgren is on track to do amazing things. It was the perfect match for me and I’m excited to get down there and contribute.”
Stewart, a 6-foot-5, 275-pound defensive lineman, will play for head coach Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan squad, which is 10-2 this year and will face Florida in the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl on Dec. 29.
“I visited Michigan and immediately fell in love with the place,” Stewart said. “It has three great attributes — it has the academics, it has the football and it has the alumni. It’s a massive school and there’s a lot of options for me academically and athletically. The coaches are great; it’s a family there; and it’s just a great environment.”
As they gathered to take photos with family, friends and teammates on Wednesday, the players reflected on the moment and their time at NCHS.
“This is a really proud day,” Braden said. “A lot of people helped me get to this point and this is a monumental moment in the sense that I’m moving on in life and moving to the next step. It’s exciting but there’s definitely some relief that the recruiting process is over and now I can focus on my last few months of being a high schooler and also getting ready to be a Rice athlete.”
“It’s definitely relieving to be done with recruiting and to be able to focus on the rest of my senior year, working out and getting ready for next year,” Conley said. “I’m really hoping to start and if I don’t start, get a good amount of playing time and do what I can in my role for the team.”
“There’s a lot of potential for me there,” Stewart said. “I’m just excited to go there, and I’m not sure what they’ll turn me into, but I see myself taking advantage of everything they have there — the weight room, the football and the academics.”
For Marinelli, who has seen many of his football players go on to play at a high level in college, the event was about the future.
“They’ll play some of the best competition in the country and travel and see so many different places,” Marinelli said. “So it’s so exciting for them. They’ve worked very hard in the offseason and they’re blessed with size or athletic ability or a combination of both, and they have the right attitude. Now, they’re going to take the next step.”