Players rally to save football season

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By Ken Morse, Citizen’s News

The CIAC, on the recommendation of the Department of Public Health, tackled 11-on-11 high school football well short of the end zone, but players, parents and coaches made sure to make their voices heard about the decision.

More than 1,200 people congregated on the steps of the state Capitol Sept. 9 for a rally to save the football season.

“Hopefully this rally swayed some minds,” said Naugatuck senior lineman Tim Northrop, who felt state officials acted irresponsibly by saying football is going forward, then shutting it down before full-team practices could begin Sept. 21 and without considering current health metrics.

“They didn’t even give us to that date before they shut us down,” he added.

Playing football has bipartisan support. Democratic and Republican legislators have pushed for the CIAC and DPH to find a safe way to play football this fall.

State Rep. Rosa Rebimbas, R-Naugatuck, spoke at the rally. She said she is hopeful Senate Democrats will call the legislature into special session to address the issue.

“We have asked them to open the (Capitol) building up, call us into special session and let the legislators then debate it in the appropriate committee,” Rebimbas said. “That’s as it should be, not just one or two people making the decisions for the state of Connecticut.”

Gov. Ned Lamont called for the DPH and the CIAC to meet Sept. 11.

Naugatuck High senior Aaron Smith, who attended the rally, said the meeting gave him some hope.

“We don’t always agree on everything as human beings and this is just a great coming together to show we all want the same thing,” he said. “We want to play the sport we love.”

All sides involved in the meeting called it productive, but there is still no decision on whether football will be played.

“At this time, we have presented additional mitigating strategies and new things that the (DPH) is going to consider,” CIAC executive director Lungarini said following the meeting. “When we get the feedback from them, it will give the CIAC, again, more information in terms of recommendations for the decision that we have to make on whether or not we can move forward.”

Among the strategies presented include face shields and possible modifications to kickoffs and punts.

Dr. Deidre Gifford, the acting commissioner of the DPH, reiterated her department’s position that football and other high-risk sports shouldn’t be played this fall.

Paul Mounds, chief of staff to Gov. Ned Lamont, said the governor still has concerns about how 11-on-11 football can be played safely. Mounds said Lamont is not inclined to use his emergency powers to suspend high school football this fall.

In July, the CIAC gave the go-ahead for teams to begin conditioning for the fall season. After a brief hiatus, football teams were allowed to begin integrating noncontact skill practice Aug. 28.

On Sept. 4, the CIAC announced that it determined that high-risk, full-contact football is no longer a viable option based on guidance from the DPH.

The decision came as high school football started up in some other states across the country.

“My son coaches football in Georgia and they are playing football,” Naugatuck interim head football coach Ollie Gray said. “I know there are other states playing football. So I just don’t understand this. The metrics just don’t add up to cancel the season.”

“I look at this as an opportunity to talk to the kids about being born in the greatest country in the world where if you don’t agree with the decisions being made by the government, even at the state level, you can peacefully protest,” he added.

Not only has the CIAC’s decision dashed the hopes of football players across the state, it also hampered the chances of seniors who have aspirations of playing in college.

“It’s a really bad feeling, especially for the seniors,” Naugatuck senior quarterback Mike Hill said. “I’m looking forward to go on and play football in college, so this is a very important season for me to show what I can do.”

There has been talk about 7-on-7 football, which is played without linemen and tackling, as an alternative to traditional 11-on-11 football. The thought of leaving linemen on the sidelines has not been met with open arms.

“No one wants to do 7-on-7,” Hill said. “If my guys are not in the trenches with me and my whole team doesn’t participate then I don’t want to be part of that. It’s all of us or none of us.”

The reality that football was canceled after a lot of hard work was already put into the season hit the players hard, but the seniors a lot harder. Many seniors will not play in college and the season was their last opportunity to play competitively.

“My heart just breaks for these kids,” Woodland head coach Chris Moffo said. “It’s been a roller coaster ride for them after working so hard this summer to get ready for the season.”

Moffo said some Woodland players attended last week’s rally.

“It gave them a chance for their voices to be heard in a respectful manner,” he said. “I know they are disappointed that it has come to this.”

The Hawks are coming off back-to-back appearances in the state quarterfinals and were looking to take the next step.

“We were really excited about this season,” Woodland junior running back Jason Palmieri said. “We went 9-1 the past two seasons, and with what we had coming back we were looking to build on that success.”

“Coach Moffo has been great keeping us all focused,” he added. “I don’t think this stalls our momentum. Actually, it will light a fire in us if they do change their decision. I think everyone is going to come out fired up.”

The Republican-American contributed to this report.