Fitzpatrick Trophy finalists share an appreciation for what the award represents

Jan. 14—Kennedy Charles didn't start Portland High's 2022 football season expecting to be a finalist for the James J. Fitzpatrick Trophy, which will be presented Sunday for the 51st time.

But Charles is well aware of the significance of the "Fitzy," named for a long ago Portland football coach and often called Maine's high school Heisman.

"Obviously you're going to be nominated for what you do on the field, but it's also about what you do off the field," Charles said. "You need to be a complete, good person."

Charles' fellow Fitzpatrick Trophy finalists, Cape Elizabeth receiver Nick Laughlin and Oxford Hills quarterback Eli Soehren, agree. Being named the Fitzpatrick winner means more than just being an excellent football player.

"We've learned over the years it's not just the best football player in the state, it's the best person," said Laughlin, 17, whose former teammate, Caden McDuffie, was last year's winner. "It's a super-good teammate, a good person in the community, a leader. That's what I think."

The Fitzpatrick Trophy committee reviews nominations from across the state (each head coach can nominate one senior) that include validation of the player's academic record and community service.

Charles and Laughlin both have 3.7 grade-point averages.

While leading Oxford Hills to an undefeated 11-0 season in Class A and the first football championship in the school's 61-year history, Soehren maintained his 3.997 GPA by taking advanced placement classes in physics (taught by his dad and coach, Mark Soehren), literature and calculus, along with an engineering and architectural design class.

"My academics, they're tough this year. Real tough. And I'm glad this award shows that off-the-field aspect of the game," Soehren said.

Sunday's awards dinner begins at noon at the Holiday Inn by the Bay in Portland. Every year, the semifinalists, 10 this year, are invited to attend. Most accept the offer, bringing a table full of family, coaches and teammates.

Charles, Laughlin and Soehren will be seated at the head table, on a podium, because they received the most votes from Maine's varsity coaches and media members. Each voter is instructed to make a ranked choice selection for first, second and third. While the voting was completed by Dec. 20, the winner won't be known until a sealed envelope is broken and the winner's name is read aloud.

Prior to that, each finalist will have given a speech.

"I'm not the most talkative in a setting with a lot of people, but if it's what I've got to do, I'm going to do it," Charles said on Tuesday. "Actually, I have my speech almost finished."

Charles, who is 17, said he received some speech-writing tips from former winner Mike Rutherford, who was Portland's defensive coordinator.

"Obviously, it will include being grateful for the Fitzpatrick Committee nominating me and thanking a bunch of people that got me to this point," Charles said. "And it will include a recap of how our season went."

Charles was supposed to be a multi-purpose receiver/running back in his senior season. A key player and captain, for sure, but not likely to generate the sort of statistics common for a top Fitzy candidate.

Because of injuries and need, Charles took over at quarterback after Portland started 1-3 against a daunting schedule. He rushed for 1,809 yards while learning a brand new position, and led the Bulldogs to the Class B state championship game. He called Portland's season "kind of like something written in a movie."

"I was the one running the ball into the end zone, but it was everybody, everybody's willingness to finish plays regardless of whether they were getting their name in the paper," Charles said.

Charles is uncommitted to a college but wants to continue playing football. "I'm not ready to hang up the cleats," he said.

Laughlin, also 17, excelled all over the field for Cape Elizabeth, as a receiver (57 catches, 852 yards), a runner (1,087 yards, 17 TDs), an instinctive safety (84.5 tackles), and a kick returner. He signed a national letter of intent with the University of Maine.

"I think I just felt the most comfortable up there with all the coaches, they really cared and wanted me there, and it feels good to be wanted," Laughlin said.

Soehren, 18, committed to play at Colby College. Despite missing two full games and most of a third because of a high-ankle sprain, Soehren completed 110 of 167 passes for 1,776 yards and 24 touchdowns. He also rushed for 349 yards and six touchdowns while handling the team's punting and kicking duties and playing in the secondary.

"I've worked so hard with my teammates. I love them. And to win this award, it would be a big accomplishment in my life," Soehren said. "Football was everything to me and is everything to me and it will be everything to me for at least the next four years, and winning this award will just show how much I've worked and how much my teammates put trust in me."