HARTFORD — They’ve brought their message to the state Capitol building, and they didn’t go quietly into winter. And maybe the governor heard.
Players from at least 40 high school football teams around the state came to the Capitol on Wednesday evening, rallying to try to save a CIAC season amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was very empowering to see a whole bunch of different towns come together for a cause,” Danbury captain Nick Smith said. “We have our opponents here, rivals on the field, but we’re all friends now, all fighting for the season we want to have.”
After the state Department of Public Health declined to recommend playing 11-on-11, contact football, the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference announced on Friday that it would not hold football competition this fall. The governing body for high school sports in the state had earlier, during a summer in which it admitted its fall plan would be fluid, said that it would not play in the spring any sport that wasn’t held in the fall. Teams are still permitted to condition.
In an interview on News 12 CT on Wednesday night, Gov. Ned Lamont said he has asked DPH to meet with the CIAC again.
“I want to see football be played. I also want it to be played safely. The reason we have the lowest infection rate in the country is because we’ve erred on the side of caution,” Lamont said.
I'm calling for a meeting between @CTDPH and @ciacsports to be held on Friday regarding ways to safely hold school sports. We have an obligation to all of our students, faculty, staff, and administrators to keep them safe, and I expect that goal to be the focus of the discussion. pic.twitter.com/une30SlshO
— Governor Ned Lamont (@GovNedLamont) September 10, 2020
“But that said, I’ve asked Public Health to sit down with CIAC. They’re going to do that on Friday and get the league’s best ideas on how we can play safely. Everybody’s trying to be creative and allow these kids to play football, but do it in a way that keeps the risk down.”
In a statement, CIAC executive director Glenn Lungarini said the two sides had spoken and the informed the governor the CIAC was available to discuss the issue on Friday. “The CIAC appreciates Governor Lamont’s support in convening this meeting on short notice and looks forward to a productive student-centered discussion,” he said.
State representatives from both sides of the aisle released letters this week asking Lamont to get involved in the discussion. Senate Republicans on Tuesday asked DPH to clarify its guidance, and Senate Democrats on Wednesday asked the CIAC and DPH to work toward football in the fall or spring.
Today, members of the Senate Democratic Caucus wrote a letter to the @ciacsports Executive Director and the @CTDPH Commissioner requesting help to find a way for high school students to play football safely this school year. pic.twitter.com/H3ZpD8mbbn
— CT Senate Democrats (@CTSenateDems) September 9, 2020
As the news came down Friday morning, Haddam-Killingworth senior Daniel LaRosa was sitting in a personal finance class. Teammate Kevin Cavrell texted him that they needed to start a petition.
“We expected maybe 500, 1,000 signatures if we were lucky,” LaRosa said. “It blows up: We got 33,000.”
They helped organize Wednesday’s rally, which packed hundreds of players onto the steps of the Capitol, most appearing to be wearing masks. An estimated 1,200 people attended in all.
“By Sunday night, it was huge. We had 30 schools in on it. It was everywhere,” LaRosa said. “We probably haven’t slept in two days.”
More than 40 teams were represented, all around the state, Greenwich to Killingly, New London to Quinebaug Valley.
“Today was an exciting chance to show what everyone around the state of Connecticut wants to happen, a football season in the fall,” Smith said.
“It really shows how we can come together and make our voices heard, and what we want to happen in the fall.”
Even a little way into the crowd on Wednesday, it wasn’t easy to hear the speakers. Chants of “let us play” radiated effectively, though.
“Everything said was just reinforcement of what we all hold deep in our hearts,” Smith said.
One heckler was escorted away by police.
The afternoon ended with a march around the building, and then the crowd dispersed. Some returned to the steps for photos, and at least one returned to the lectern to give his speech for his family.
People held up signs of all sorts: “Flag on the Call: Let Them Play Ball,” “Don’t Bench Our Season,” “11 Players, 1 Heart.” Another referred to the low death rate of COVID-19 among people under 20. DPH’s objection is more related to community spread.
Players argue, though, that the state’s COVID-19 metrics are excellent at the start.
“Basically today we want to get our season back. We want to play, the fall, the spring, whenever we can play, we want to get out there,” East Haven senior Trey Garea said. “It’s our senior season. COVID, we’ve got some of the lowest rates in the country.
“I think we deserve it. We’re following the guidelines. The CIAC’s got a great plan set forth for us.”
Wednesday, groups began arriving around 3:30 p.m. for the 5 p.m. rally, many decked out in team jerseys.
“This isn’t a bunch of football coaches that just want to get the game on. This is all about the kids. I think that’s been a unique perspective,” Rockville coach Erick Knickerbocker said.
“There’ll be friendships made through all this, which is just crazy, through these crazy times.”
Knickerbocker said his team was excited to try to get something done, but the back-and-forth has taken a toll over the past couple of months.
“The uncertainty is really starting to get to them. The kids who work, the kids who can play other sports: What do they do? How long can you continue to go down this road?” Knickerbocker said. “I think they just need answers. If it’s really going to be a cancellation, just come out and say it. Seven-on-seven is really a cancellation.”
Pete Paguaga contributed to this report.