Many football teams and fans around the country claim to rely on a figurative “12th man” to help the team to victory by being so loud and boisterous that the team gains an advantage.
The Morgan football team literally used a 12th man against Hand in 1975 on a play that would eventually end the Thanksgiving rivalry and go down as a legendary football moment along the shoreline of Connecticut.
Set to face its rival, the Hand football team closely studied Morgan’s game film and was ready to expose a weakness: kickoff coverage.
Hand practiced kickoffs more that week than it ever had, figuring out ways to gain an advantage for a game so big it had to be moved from Thursday to Saturday so it could be played at Palmer Field in Middletown.
When it came time for the opening kickoff of the season finale, Hand’s John Snyder caught the kick and the blocks fell into place as he started his return. Hand was poised for an early lead with nothing but the end zone in sight.
“All week long we worked on kickoff returns,” then-Hand coach Larry Ciotti said, remembering Snyder running untouched as he split the Morgan return team. “We spent more time on it than we ever had.”
Snyder never reached the end zone. He was stopped near the 20-yard line by Morgan’s Mike Spotts, who came flying in to tackle Snyder. In the moment, it was just another play. But it would be the downfall of the rivalry, which was only played one more time as the traditional end-of-season game.
No one noticed. No flags were thrown. Morgan went on to win the game, 28-6, and the Shoreline League title.
When Ciotti looked at the film the next day, he noticed Spotts wasn’t supposed to be on the field. The safety and wide receiver wasn’t part of the kickoff coverage team, but ran on the field from the sideline as a 12th man after the play started.
Spotts said he did a second time in the game, though someone else made the tackle. Officials did not notice his attempt the second time either.
“No one told me (to run on),” Spotts said. “I was just excited. I was pumped up. I didn’t want them to score.
“In my own mind I was just preventing a touchdown.”
The play wouldn’t go without being addressed, however.
Four days after the game, when the 12th man play was brought to light, Ciotti claimed the play changed the complexion of the game and demanded Morgan declare the game a no contest, according to an Associated Press report.
“It was emotional at the time,” Ciotti said. “I was like 30 (years old). So you have some emotion then.”
Then-Morgan coach Bob Brigockas, who died in 2010 countered: “At this point I don’t see how you can change anything. If they (Hand) want eight points they can have eight points.”
Thirteen days after the game, principals in the Shoreline League voted 6-2 to strip Morgan of the Shoreline League title but not the win, according to the Associated Press.
The statement from the league at the time said their decision was based on “belief in honesty and good sportsmanship as principles vital to the integrity of Shoreline athletics.”
Spotts contends it was something he did on his own.
“It’s something I had in the back of my mind for a while,” said Spotts, who is now an assistant coach with the Old Saybrook/Westbrook football team. “I would line up on the end of the bench in that area and I knew it could be done without the refs seeing, because they have enough to worry about.”
The short-lived Thanksgiving rivalry, which began in 1971, ended the following year. Hand had won the first three meetings. Morgan won the final two.
“It was a hard-fought rivalry. The crowds had 3,000 to 6,000 people in the stands. A lot of people on the sidelines,” Ciotti said. “I always remember how exciting that was every Thanksgiving.”
Neighboring Guilford had expressed interest in playing Hand on Thanksgiving and the Madison school took them up on the offer, starting in 1977. They remain Thanksgiving week rivals today, though the series has been dominated by Hand.
“I would have loved to keep (the Morgan) rivalry,” Ciotti said. “Back then it was much more competitive.”
As for Spotts, he looks back on the play with humor and some regret.
“I know it didn’t change the outcome of the game, it just changed the score,” he said. “We dominated the rest of the game.
“I am just sorry it tainted the game.”
Spotts is still stopped regularly by people who want to talk about it.
“Poor Mike, he is such a great kid,” Ciotti said. “It wasn’t something he did. He was coached into it. It was a play they did back in the day.”
Whenever Spotts runs into former teammates or classmates nowadays, he says they always say the same thing:
“Here comes the 12th guy.”