‘We felt totally safe:’ In Meriden, full-contact high school football is being played, despite state, DPH recommendations
Despite rising COVID-19 numbers in Connecticut and recommendations from the state Department of Public Health and Gov. Ned Lamont to postpone all high-risk, full-contact football to the spring, some high school football teams across the state have opted to play independently from their high schools, including players from Platt and Maloney in Meriden.
On Saturday, the two teams played in a full-contact, 11-on-11 game at Falcon Field in Meriden. The two compete in the newly formed Independent Club Football League, which arose after the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference canceled the fall season upon recommendations from the DPH.
Teams from New Britain, Southington, Berlin and Ellington, among others, are also participating in the league.
“A lot of the DPH’s stuff was recommendations,” said Kevin Frederick, Maloney’s head coach. “We took the recommendation, and we thought we could find a way to play successfully, and we have been. ... If the parents didn’t want their kids to play, they wouldn’t have played.”
Both teams operate independently from their schools. Platt played as the Westsiders, and Maloney played as the Eastsiders. The city of Meriden approved the play of club or private football in September, and each school allowed the teams to use school equipment to play. Each team raised funds to pay for referees, insurance and for proper medical staff on site.
The Eastsiders beat the Westsiders 27-7 in front of a limited crowd. The Eastsiders played their first game of the club season last week against Amity High in Woodbridge. Platt coach Jason Bruenn, who coaches the Westsiders, said the team has five more games on its schedule this fall, and will have its season completed on Nov. 21, the tentative start day for the winter CIAC sport season.
“The DPH is a parent,” said Bruenn. “And you’re the kid. You’re about to put your hand on a hot stove, but you don’t know if the stove is really hot. The DPH is always going to give you the safest answer they can possibly give you, which is ‘Don’t touch it.’
“That’s what they did with football. Why do they fear football? I don’t know. Is there an underlying thing going on here? I don’t know. I’m looking at [CIAC sanctioned] sports played with no masks where kids are side by side, breathing on each other. I don’t know why football was targeted. ... I don’t know. We don’t know. Nobody knows, because nobody has been told a metric that you can play by.”
Gov. Ned Lamont’s spokesperson Max Reiss declined to comment on the rise in 11-on-11 football being played across the state. In Fairfield County on Saturday, three full-contact games were held without fans. Football teams in the Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference are playing private football this fall as part of the Fairfield County Football League.
The game went on despite the state reporting 802 new COVID-19 cases Friday, the highest single-day total since May 1. The state has now recorded a positivity rate of 1.7% over the past week, higher than any previous seven-day stretch since mid-June.
Bruenn credited the school board and the city for making Saturday’s game possible, as well as parents of his players who helped in fundraising. He said a local business owner donated $1,000 to help fund Saturday’s game.
“The community has come full throttle at this, between donations and support,” Bruenn said. “I think the majority of people in Meriden were happy we played.”
A crowd of 150 fans was allowed into Falcon Field for Saturday’s game, while others stood on the outskirts of the property and watched from behind the fencing. All in attendance had their temperature checked before entering, and masks were required to be worn. While in the stands, fans were advised to adhere to social-distancing policies.
“[The players] didn’t want to go out with no senior season, so whatever it took,” said Ed Lanoue, a parent of a Platt player. “I’m not a paranoid guy about all this stuff. I go to work every day. I’m around people every day. We all wear our masks, do what we’re supposed to, and everything works out OK. ... It shouldn’t be down to one person making the decision whether it’s OK to play or not.”
On Sept. 24, the city of Meriden announced it would allow high school football game play this fall, with COVID-19 mitigation strategies in place. Lamont said that local jurisdictions and school districts would have the final say as to whether their schools could still play football, though the state would be strict in shutting things down if there was a COVID-19 spike or outbreak.
“The national high school associations have said football this fall is a high risk activity. Our Department of Public Health has said it’s a high risk activity,” Lamont said on Sept. 24. “But look, I’m being consistent in the sense that at the end of the day, we’re going to leave that decision up to the local jurisdiction, the superintendents and the coaches.”
Said Frederick, “We’ve got a town who supports it; the board of education, the mayor, the city manager, the superintendents. They’re exceptional people. They listened, and we figured out a way to play it safely. I’m proud of that. Meriden is the leader.”
A day after Meriden’s decision, the DPH released guidelines which advised all youth and amateur high risk sports to be paused until the spring, though leagues such as the ICFL and the Fairfield County Football League pressed on with their seasons.
In September, the city of Meriden suspended the city’s youth football league season after two members of the program tested positive for COVID-19. The city’s decision came the same week that a player on Maloney’s football team tested positive for COVID-19.
Frederick said the player who tested positive in September did not spread the virus to any teammates or family members.
“It didn’t spread anywhere,” Frederick said. “I think that’s a really important piece when you’re looking to collect data. This is so brand new, and we did that.”
“We felt totally safe,” said Maloney senior James Tarver, who scored three touchdowns for the Eastsiders on Saturday. “We did our mask procedures when our helmets were off. It felt good, good team win.”
Shawn McFarland can be reached at email@example.com.
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