In 1985, Tom Brown and his wife Pat were living in Stamford with three kids and one more on the way.
Needing a bigger house to accommodate the new arrival, the Browns began house hunting in North Stamford, Wilton, New Canaan and Darien where Pat was a teacher and the other three kids were in school.
Tom was a sergeant in the Connecticut State Police and also a high school football referee.
Officiating a freshmen football game at New Canaan one fall afternoon, Tom had an epiphany.
“Dave Campbell was the freshmen coach and (Lou) Marinelli was there watching. I threw a flag for a late hit and was waiting for the coach to start yelling at me. Instead, I heard the coach yell at number 53 to get out of the game,” Tom said. “Dave Campbell said to me ‘This is New Canaan football, we don’t play like that. It will never happen again.’ I was so shocked I went home and told Pat, ‘I don’t know what it’s going to take but we are going to live in New Canaan just in case (his sons) have an opportunity to play at the high school someday.’”
Tom had no idea that not only would his two sons, Mike and Kevin, get to play at New Canaan but his grandsons, Reid and Taylor would also don the red and black and play for Coach Marinelli.
“It’s 34 years later now that we moved into town,” Tom said. “Who would have ever known, one son played for a FCIAC Championship as a quarterback, one won the FCIAC and State championships and my grandson is a quarterback and the other is a left guard for New Canaan. I never could have imagined that it would develop like that.”
What has developed is a family bond running through three generations of Browns on the football fields of New Canaan.
The Browns are not alone in keeping the New Canaan traditions alive through generations.
This year Will Besgen, whose father Bill played for Marinelli in the 1990s and Cory Pickering, whose father Fred played in the 1980s, are also on the New Canaan team.
They are not the first or the last father-son combinations Marinelli has coached.
“We’ve had a few and what it means is I am getting old,” Marinelli said. “Very few people get a chance to be in a place long enough to see what football can do for kids and then for their kids. It’s a thrill to be able to see that. Whether it is the next generation of Browns or another family. I see the same qualities in the kids that I saw in their parents.”
And though Reid, a senior quarterback, never got his shot to play on Thanksgiving, the Brown family history of playing and refereeing on the holiday remains strong.
Tom has refereed a game on Thanksgiving every year since 1994 when rivalry games first appeared on the holiday menu. He said this year would be his first Thanksgiving not working a game as he would have attended the Turkey Bowl to watch Reid.
Mike has also been officiating high school football games on Thanksgiving for many years, following in his father’s footsteps.
Before there were rivalry games on Thanksgiving, the FCIAC Championship was annually held at Boyle Stadium in Stamford every Thanksgiving morning.
Both Brown brothers were lucky enough to get to play in championship games.
In 1991, an upstart New Canaan team knocked off an unbeaten and No. 2 ranked Darien team 28-21 in the regular season, winning the FCIAC East and earning a spot in the final against a powerful Greenwich squad.
“It is 28-21, late in the fourth quarter and Darien only needed a tie to makes FCIACs so we knew if they scored and tied it, they were going. Darien had the ball and they were coming down the field and they were knocking on the door almost every time they had it,” Tom said. “Right before (New Canaan sophomore safety) Tommy Hawes makes the interception, I was in the crowd and the place was packed. I was looking for Kevin because I was wondering what he was doing. And I spotted him and he and Mike were standing on the bench holding hands. I thought it was the coolest thing.”
Mike was the starting quarterback and got to take a knee as the celebration on Darien’s field began while Kevin was a sophomore who suited up for games but did not see the field.
The Rams would lose the FCIAC final to Greenwich 21-7 but the memories of the game and playing on Thanksgiving are still fresh in Mike’s mind all these years later.
“It was amazing with the huge crowd. We lost so most of my memories are of the bittersweet kind,” Mike said. “It was a cold day but really clear. There were so many turning points where it could have gone either way and those moments stick with me to today. That was my last high school football game. We all knew it was our last game because there was no state tournament for us because only the top two got to play in states. We went in knowing we were done. Losing the game was hard but it was more painful because the ride was over. Nobody thought we were going to be there and as the year went on we kept building it and when it was over we all felt that giant thud.”
With Mike focusing on the upcoming game, Tom had some words of advice for Kevin prior to kickoff.
“I told Kevin when he was suiting up for the FCIAC Championship game, ‘Take in the environment, look at the crowd because it’s such a special place to be. You aren’t going to get a chance to play today but this is your opportunity to be there,’” Tom said “He very calmly looked at me and said ‘Dad, we are coming back and winning this my senior year.’ Those were his last words as he went to get dressed and he was right.”
Kevin and his senior class would make good on that promise, winning the 1993 FCIAC Championship 26-0 over Danbury before going on to win the state championship 35-14 over Hand.
“We had a rematch with Danbury, we had beaten them 14-7 up there during the season. That was our closest game of the season,” Kevin said. “We knew it would be a fight. We came out and we were not going to let them stand in our way. We also knew we had a state championship game coming up. We wanted to finish off Danbury and bring home that FCIAC title. We were pretty confident going into that game and then a few plays early went our way.”
That FCIAC final would be the last one played on Thanksgiving as rivalry holiday games swept across the state the following year.
From that time forward, Darien would meet New Canaan every Thanksgiving, drawing larger crowds every year and eventually forcing the game to occasionally move to Boyle Stadium to accommodate the fans.
“I got to be on the field for two FCIAC championship games, I’ll sign up for that any day,” Kevin said. “However, the Darien-New Canaan Thanksgiving game is so special and watching it evolve into what it has become is amazing. It was always a huge rivalry but being able to play in front of huge crowds every Thanksgiving is pretty special.”
Playing in front of those huge crowds was Reid’s dream since he was a youngster playing two-hand touch behind the end zone at Boyle as the Rams and Blue Wave did battle over the years.
“I thought about my dad and my uncle, I mean we all played for the same coach. It’s really weird to think about and it probably makes coach Marinelli feel old,” Reid said. “They would talk about their games through the years. The highlights from (Mike’s) game is on YouTube and I have watched that a few times. It gets you thinking. Watching New Canaan-Darien games in person just builds that tension as you wait for your chance to play. Whenever we are throwing a ball in the back yard or anything, you are always talking about it.”
After playing behind Drew Pyne for two years and only making one varsity start, Reid, like his uncle, was named starting quarterback for the 2020 season and was ready to assume his place among New Canaan signal callers, hopefully leading his team to victory on Thanksgiving.
“I thought those games at Boyle were the coolest things,” Reid said. “We’d be playing in the back of the end zone and watching the game at the same time. Watching (Michael) Collins and (Nick) Cascione and those guys, those teams were fun to watch. And they were good. That year with Collins, they had talent everywhere. Zach Allen, Lucas Niang, (Alex) LaPolice, those teams were fun to watch growing up. Every year it just built and built and all I wanted was chance to play in that game. Sophomore year it came down to a field goal at the end and I was a part of that team but I couldn’t wait to be on the field.”
He never got the at opportunity as COVID-19 shut down the high school football season.
What he did get was a chance to play four games in the FCFL independent league which formed in the void of a high school season.
Kevin, the president of New Canaan Youth Football, was involved in helping get the league off the ground and allowing teams to play the limited season.
New Canaan went 3-1 in the FCFL with its one loss coming to Darien in the final game of the season.
“The worst part was not having a full season with my team. Those four games were fun. Once you get a taste of it you kind of really think about what could have been,” Reid said. “It’s sad that we never had a shot to play on Thanksgiving against Darien and we never got to compete for a state championship but those four games, I will never forget those. We got to play Darien but obviously it was very different. Little smaller crowd.”
The FCFCL games allowed Tom to watch every play as Connecticut officials did not referee any of the contests and his Saturday afternoons were free. Though Tom said he would have been at all of Reid’s games anyway had there been a regular season.
The four games also allowed Kevin to watch his son play one last time.
“They got to play four pretty meaningful games and they got way more than most of the kids in the state got,” Kevin said. “It was heartbreaking that they didn’t get to play a full season and play on Thanksgiving but we gave them something and they were able to get on the field.”
Also in attendance for that game was Reid’s younger brother Taylor, himself a sophomore on the team just as his father was for his uncle.
Taylor just hopes that everything returns to normal and he gets his shot to play on Thanksgiving since he saw how much it pained his brother missing out as a senior.
“I want to play in that game now for my brother and the seniors,” Taylor said. “They worked so hard for 10 years and they have this bond where they are brothers. To watch them lose that game, hurt me and know it hurt (Reid). We will play Darien wherever. Here, Darien, Boyle, the Water Tower. Just pick a place.”
For Kevin, as it was for Tom before him, having sons play football in New Canaan is about way more than the results of games.
“The winning and losing is great but it is what they are learning,” Kevin said. “It’s about the grit and the teamwork and sacrifice. That’s the most important part of the sport is your teammates. It’s not about you, it’s about the team. Getting those lessons is way more important than wins and losses. It helps to win but it is lessons learned from playing this sport that you don’t get from the other sports. I am so glad I have gotten to watch both my sons play this great game.”