DANBURY — The pitch didn’t have to be a strong one from Danbury football coach Augustine Tieri, but it was anyway.
Describing the future of the program to now sophomore Artez Taft was more than enough for the talented athlete to return to Danbury after a short hiatus, and both sides are reaping the benefits now.
With the team in flux prior to Tieri taking the job, Taft decided to head to Archbishop Stepinac in White Plains, N.Y. for his freshman season before quickly returning home after just a semester. A Wizard-of-Oz level transition from darkness into light over the past 18 months in the program has earned the respect of the coach from his players.
“He brings the dog out of us,” Taft said of Tieri. “He wants us to work hard and just get better every day. He just has something other coaches don’t have. He has the potential and he believes in us. He can help us take on anything in the league.”
The long trips to White Plains weren’t ideal, nor was missing what was taking place in his backyard. Taft and junior teammate Xavier Ross — who also made the same switch — are cousins.
“I wanted to go to Stepinac because I thought it would be an easier way to get to college and be a professional in life,” Taft said. “Everything doesn’t work out, and I knew coming back home would be successful.”
It’s nights like Friday where his decision is validated. The 4-1 Hatters will face their most anticipated game since 2014 — a year they finished 8-3 — when they travel to Newtown to take on the No. 5 Nighthawks. Unlike a 49-3 loss to Greenwich on opening weekend, there is legitimate hope of surprising the state and accelerating the rebuild in one three-hour stretch in the Hawks’ nest.
“Every game is a measuring stick for us, and Newtown is one of the best teams in the state of Connecticut,” Tieri said. “It’s going to be a good measuring stick to see where we line up with the best, and Newtown is certainly that.”
Taft is a touchdown waiting to happen. With nine on the season — six receiving, three rushing — Taft is one of the most explosive players in the league. All of those scores all come in the last four games as getting him in space usually leads to bad news for the opposition; most of his time has been spent at receiver with a logjam of talent at running back.
“He’s just such a spark plug in every single way on and off the field,” Tieri said. “He’s a special kid; he has unbelievable energy and charisma. He’s great kid to be around and brings great energy to the program. He’s obviously a difference maker on offense for us with a unique skillset you rarely see. He’s an explosive talent who can leap out of the building and make the big play.”
Taft is part of a standout sophomore class that will carry most of the weight of the program. It’s a group that’s been together from a very young age and has somehow stayed intact: There are 26 sophomores on the roster and the group torched most opponents at the youth level, reaching a state championship in middle school. Taft and quarterback Jackson Ciccone met when they were six at the first practice of that level.
Danbury’s Artez Taft catches a 19-yard TD reception with 11:55 left in 2nd quarter.
— Pete Paguaga (@PetePaguaga) October 19, 2019
“I remember where I was when I met him,” Taft said. “Our bond just grew stronger and stronger. Jackson is a tough dude, he’s friendly and works hard.”
The 5-foot-11, 175-pound Taft hopes to play for a Division I school, and his production at each level would seem to make it a realistic possibility. He’s probably not the only one among this stellar class of players with that chance thanks to natural talent and Tieri’s commitment to getting his players noticed.
“I think his ceiling God-willing is that we’re going to get him to a Division-I school,” Tieri said. “That’s his ceiling. I want him to go to college and have an amazing career. I want him to have great grades in school. And win a championship for his city.”
The culture that Tieri is setting is unavoidable, as is the excitement. Regardless of the result against the Nighthawks, the future is set to be a wild ride with Taft and company leading the way.
“I’m just going to keep working hard, I’ve had success but that proves nothing so far,” Taft said. “It took me a minute to get involved with the offense because (at Stepinac) it was different. I was confused at first but I got it.”
Future Hatters are likely to stick around and not make switches elsewhere, an issues that’s plagued many programs as prep schools attract local talent.
“I don’t think anybody is leaving anymore,” Tieri said. “I think people see what’s going on here and they’re excited about it. I think they’re a buzz around this city about our football program, and every young man who has aspirations about playing football can’t wait to get up to the high school and be a part of what we are.”