BRISTOL — The past year has been unprecedented for every high school athlete across Connecticut and the country as the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in postponements, cancellations and gameplay adjustments for every high school sport across the board since March of 2020.
Football has been among the sports dealing with the most uncertainty, having been canceled in the fall after the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference and the Department of Public Health were unable to align on enough tweaks and mitigating strategies that would have reduced the risk of the sport.
But football was still given hope after the CIAC announced the framework for a second semester alternative season to take place just before spring sports, which would allow any sport that wasn’t able to be played in the fall (in this case, just football) to have an abbreviated season. This came after the CIAC initially decided that there would be no spring season, citing the covid rates in Connecticut would likely not be any more encouraging than they were back in September, when the organization was trying to put together a season while players and coaches peacefully protested the eventually canceled season.
For the coaches, keeping student-athletes optimistic and motivated has been the top objective through the twists and turns of the past nine months. Such a goal can be even more challenging for first-year head coaches, whose first time at the helm comes during a season that is still not guaranteed.
Those head coaches who are in their new roles this season have resorted to the lessons that they’ve witnessed as assistants or whatever their prior roles may have been before becoming head coaches, and have tried to maintain a consistent approach during a time that has seen anything but consistency in terms of the outlook for a season.
“We talk about how what one of the main things you get out of this sport is dealing with adversity to get you through life,” first-year St. Paul head coach Chris Kennedy said. “As a staff, we treated it like any other problem that may come up during a season. The lessons I was taught as an assistant were so valuable, to say that this is what we were dealing with out of the gate, and how can we overcome it?”
Kennedy, who took over as head coach in March, just days before high school sports shut down due to covid-19, is tasked with replacing Connecticut coaching legend Jude Kelly, who retired after a career that spanned nearly five decades. Fortunately for Kennedy, he won’t be navigating through these unprecedented times completely in the dark, as his 16 years as an assistant under Kelly give him plenty of familiarity with the program as a whole, and with his multiple family members on the team, including his son Brycen, Kennedy has been given a valuable head start in connecting with his team while they wait to finally play a season together.
“I did have an advantage in terms of understanding the environment and knowing the kids,” Kennedy said. “Not only am I personally invested in them, but their kids and group of friends they’re around all the time. The most difficult part is the human element, and the pain I saw in these kids when they felt it was taken from them. But from a coaching standpoint, we did basically what I was taught to do by Jude and what we try and do every day, which is deal with adversity.”
Kennedy enters his new role with another valuable bit of experience to deal with this kind of challenge, though one he wish he never had to develop. As the head coach for the Falcons’ boys lacrosse team, Kennedy went through a similar process in the spring of 2020, when optimism for a season went through numerous peaks and valleys before the CIAC became one of the final organizations in the country to cancel spring sports. After dealing with the disappointment of this past spring, Kennedy knew the value of keeping his players engaged and working towards a common goal.
He has carried over that mentality to the football program, setting up mock weight rooms outside and participating in passing league practices in the fall, and has already begun strength and conditioning work through virtual avenues almost immediately after school reopened following the holiday break.
“I dealt with this right when it stated and met with my kids almost every day,” Kennedy said. “I gave the kids homework and tried to keep them involved. I saw the difficulty it was causing the kids, so I kept them involved in any way I could. But over that period of time, there was so much change. As the season went on, it just got darker and darker. So there’s not much I’m telling the kids that they haven’t heard already.”
Kennedy isn’t alone, even in the local area. New Britain has a new first-year football coach in Isaiah Boddie, who took over after Tebucky Jones retired, but like Kennedy, he has been a part of the coaching staff before taking over as head coach, and finds himself in a similar situation as Kennedy. Both haven’t had to deal with the typical hurdles of getting to know the program and the players, which would have been even more difficult in today’s circumstances, but the challenges are still there, most notably keeping optimism and motivation at a high level, and believing that come late February, football will finally be back.
“As far as optimism, it has waned as information has waned,” Kennedy said. “But we’re going to keep working and keep doing everything we can so hopefully that when we do get the OK, we’ll be ready to go. That’s really all we can do. The kids are working hard and hopefully will be able to take the field in the spring.”
Ryan Chichester can be reached at (860) 801-5094 or firstname.lastname@example.org