Veterans Field is a mud pit about to get muddier. Hours of intransigent rain have left its grass blades drunk and its soil sloshed two weeks after a Pop Warner Football jamboree kicked off another autumn of abuse.
It’s Sept. 12, 2008. Naugatuck is hosting Wilby in the season opener for both teams. Throughout the Greyhounds’ preseason, fan and media attention have been on sophomore Tyler Conklin, the heir-apparent to all-Naugatuck Valley League quarterback Adam Katrenya, who graduated the preceding spring. Conklin is 6-4, athletically gifted and won the starting job by outplaying classmate Erich Broadrick in the annual Garnet and Grey Game three months earlier.
“Tyler proved he was the man,” head coach Rob Plasky said at the time. “He put his team on his shoulders.”
Conklin and the receiving corps attended a four-week summer passing camp in Southington. He looked solid, if not spectacular, during the Hounds’ first three scrimmages. But in the final preseason game, at Notre Dame of West Haven, a brutal hit left Conklin concussed. Broadrick stepped in and was, in Plasky’s words, “phenomenal.”
Still, almost everyone—including the coaching staff—expected that when the first-string offense trotted onto Naugy’s sludgy home gridiron, it would be Conklin’s No. 1 under center.
“I almost fainted when he told me that [Broadrick would start] on the phone,” volunteer coach Chuck Rek said after the wet night was over.
It’s opening night for the defending Naugatuck Valley League Copper Division champion Woodland Hawks—a dreary, drizzly evening on the turf of Wolcott High—and junior quarterback Steve Petracca finds himself somewhere he doesn’t want to be—the sideline. That’s because classmate Brandon Fowler beat out the 5-11, 165-pounder for the starting job during the team’s preseason workouts.
“It was tough for me [to lose the competition],” Petracca explains. “Since Pop Warner, it was always a one-two punch with me at quarterback and him at wide receiver. When he got moved [to quarterback], I was kind of shell-shocked. But I knew I had to keep working hard.”
The Hawks trail, 17-8, as the first half winds down. With less than a minute to play, Fowler rolls out to his left, trying to find a receiver downfield, but is tracked down from behind and sprains his ankle. The hopes of the Woodland offense now rest with Petracca.
“I was a little bit upset [watching] as the game was going on,” Petracca recalls. “My friends were out there, and I wanted to be there too. Once halftime came around, the coaches told me to step up and be a leader, and that’s what I did.”
Petracca’s first drive is encouraging: He engineers a 77-yard scoring drive to pull his club within three points and later tosses a 56-yard bomb to wideout Zak Favoccia, though Woodland loses, 29-21.
But Fowler’s injury is not as bad as first thought—he returns to practice to prepare for week two’s matchup with Watertown. All of a sudden, the competition between the two friends reopens.
“We were both fighting for the position, and I wanted to be the starter,” Petracca says. “I just kept working as hard as I could. He’s a good athlete and I had a lot to work up to.”
At least he won. That’s about all the good that could be said about Erich Broadrick’s debut. Naugatuck defeated Wilby, which finished 0-11 last season, 14-0. Broadrick scored his team’s second touchdown (that was the other good part), a 1-yard plunge after a long gallop by burly running back Brett Kwaak. But the rest of his stat line was pretty discouraging: 3-for-5 passing for 63 yards, eight carries for -19 yards, and so many fumbled snaps that folks in the press box stopped keeping track at halftime.
“I was throwing the ball like this,” Broadrick says now, high-fiving the air with his right hand. “Like a shot put, basically.”
As the season progressed, so did Broadrick. Conklin, whom Plasky says is better suited to play wide receiver anyway, emerged as one of the QB’s favorite targets. Twice, Broadrick threw for more than 100 yards in a game, but the team’s struggles gnawed at what limited confidence those performances built.
After a 3-2 start, the Garnet and Grey lost six straight games to close the season, capped by a third consecutive shutout against Ansonia on Thanksgiving Day. The Naugy offense mustered just 54 points in those six defeats, never scoring more than 18.
For Broadrick, the 2008 campaign was a bad memory he couldn’t wait to put behind him.
“This season—I’ve been looking forward to it since the end of last year,” he says.
Woodland head coach Tim Shea decided the two juniors, Petracca and Fowler, would split time as signal-caller in Watertown. Each quarterback’s performance was less than stellar—the football was taken care of about as well as Donald Trump’s hair—and the two combined for four turnovers in a 20-0 loss.
The following week, Shea decided to move Fowler to wingback and hand the reins to Petracca in an effort to develop more offensive continuity and exploit Fowler’s running ability. The move worked, as Petracca led his team to its first win, over Sacred Heart.
Three weeks later, in a Saturday afternoon game at Wilby, Petracca was in the process of leading the Hawks to their second-straight win and a .500 record when his fortunes turned south. On a pass play, Petracca rolled out to his right but found every one of his wideouts blanketed by a Wildcat defender. As he scrambled across the line of scrimmage, he made a break for the first-down marker, but was caught from behind and driven into the ground, cracking his collarbone.
“The injury hurt a lot, not just for me but for the team,” Petracca explains. “We were just starting to get into a groove, and we were finally pretty healthy—it was our second win in a row. As soon as [trainer Ray] Donaghy told me it was broken, I kind of went into shock. I had to realize my season was over.”
As disappointing as Naugatuck’s season was, its offseason looked like it would be even worse. In January, Superintendent of Schools Dr. John Tindall-Gibson mailed Plasky a letter of non-renewal, citing reasons ranging from his inability to manage team personnel to his lack of responsibility with expenses and finances.
Plasky appealed his dismissal in a three-part public hearing process that could have distracted and divided his players. But according to Broadrick, he and his teammates did their best to ignore the drama surrounding their coach and to focus on their preparations for 2009.
“We kind of looked the other way,” he says, “tried to get our stuff done.”
Plasky won his appeal, the Board of Education overturning the non-renewal by a 5-2 vote April 27.
In some ways, those four months of uncertainty may have helped Broadrick develop as a leader.
“I tried to throw the ball as much as I could [during the offseason],” he says. “I’ve been doing everything I could: Lifting, throwing the ball, getting guys together throwing routes.”
Broadrick, though still only 5-8, added size elsewhere: On the first day of practice, he wore a sleeveless, white undershirt, his arms and chest testifying to hours in the weight room.
He adds that he fine-tuned his throwing mechanics and says, “I’m a lot more confident now with my body.” But he insists that he devoted just as much time to becoming a smarter quarterback as he did to becoming a stronger one.
“It’s kind of half and half,” he says. “My body is more ready and my mentality. I mean I changed everything. I’m not making stupid mistakes like lofting the ball up when I shouldn’t. Instead of throwing the ball up, I’m tucking it and taking a sack. … Live for the next down. That’s what I’ve learned this offseason, and that’s what I’m gonna live by.”
During the offseason, Petracca had two items on his agenda—not only trying to improve his performances from the previous season (a 47 percent completion rate and five-to-two interception to touchdown ratio), but also rehabbing his broken collarbone and sore shoulder.
“After I got hurt, I kept on watching all my teammates and what they were doing out on the field,” Petracca remembers. “I did a little rehab with Mr. Donaghy at the time and went to a trainer. I kept on setting goals for myself, knowing that my senior year was coming up.
“I was taking it really seriously. I knew I had a big season coming up. I was focused on getting better and wasn’t trying to rush anything. I was doing anything I could, and doing it the right way. I saw a couple different doctors, and once they all gave me the go-ahead, I went back [to football and weightlifting], but I kept seeing Mr. Donaghy for more rehab.”
Petracca also realized there were many aspects of his game that needed improvement, especially his on-field leadership.
“It started off slow for me junior year,” Petracca notes. “I think I needed to focus more on being a leader at quarterback. I was quieter at the beginning of the season on the field rather than vocal because of the situation at the beginning of the year. I realized though that in order for us to be a team, I had to become a vocal leader.”
It’s first-and-goal at the 1-yard line, Naugatuck holding a battering ram against the door to Amity’s end zone. Broadrick takes the direct snap and plows over the goal line, becoming the bottom block of a human Jenga tower.
Ostensibly, the touchdown means far less than the one he scored in virtually identical fashion 11 months earlier. This is, after all, just a scrimmage.
Symbolically, however, the score means far more. It represents Broadrick’s new attitude.
“[Last season], I wasn’t going into the year as a starter, so I wasn’t confident—at all,” he says. “I’m coming in confident this year, and I know what’s going on. It’s not going to be anything like last year. I’ll tell you that right now.”
Broadrick has always known there’s pressure attached to quarterbacking the Greyhounds, a team that bears the seemingly oxymoronic but equally heavy burdens of both success (two state championships) and failure (2-20 versus Ansonia since 1987). But this year, he welcomes it.
“Pressure, but I’m gonna get the job done,” he says. “I’m not going to let anything happen to make it be like last year. We’re gonna win this year. I don’t care if I have to pick the team up, put it on my shoulders—I’m doing it.”
It’s not that the junior QB plans to win games by himself. In fact, he views his own arm as a complement to Naugy’s run-first-pass-second attack.
He’s just putting NVL defenses on notice: “I’m not going to make rookie mistakes anymore,” he says. “I know the game.”
Suddenly, this once insecure quarterback is borderline brash and ready to back it up.
“I’m looking for a title,” he says. “Naugatuck’s back.”
Leadership isn’t developed overnight, and Petracca knows that. That’s why he knew he needed to work extra hard over the summer and during preseason workouts to not only recondition himself for the season but also to earn the respect of his teammates and show he wants to be the Hawks’ on-field general this fall.
“In spring practice, I was just getting back into things with my shoulder,” Petracca says. “Once we started doing workouts, I was staying for 10 or 15 minutes after practice to do more conditioning because I wasn’t where I wanted to be. I wanted to let everybody on the team know I was going to be the leader.”
The coaching staff realizes Petracca not only needs to be a vocal leader for the Hawks, who have the potential to contend for the wide-open Copper, but he also needs to step up his play on the field.
“He has to run our offense and make smart decisions,” Shea says. “We simplified the offense for him as much as we could, so he has to take control and take care of the ball. In Woodland history, our best teams have always had a strong quarterback. And so far, he’s been doing well this year.”
“I definitely have to take care of the ball more,” Petracca agrees. “We have to keep the ball in our hands. … And this year, we want to make sure we focus on one game at a time. Last year, we were worrying about other games first. Right now, we’re just focused on our first game at Putnam.”
And in case there are any doubts about Petracca’s health, take this into consideration:
“I’m ready to go,” he says.