When someone says there are two Connecticuts, people nod in understanding. Those who don’t regularly follow the sport might not realize how far it extends to high school football.

Bridgeport (148,654), Stamford (135,470), New Haven (134,023), Hartford (121,054), Waterbury (114,403), Norwalk (91,184), Danbury (86,518) and New Britain (74,135) are the eight most populous places in Connecticut. They represent 15 public schools with football programs – not counting the technology, the magnet or the cooperation.

By Friday, 14 of 15 had amassed a 16-60 record. Some of the proudest and most legendary programs with multiple crown titles are among those 14. Only Norwalk, at 5-1, had a winning rating.

The state’s top high school player and one of the nation’s most recruited, Tyler Booker of New Haven, will travel to Alabama. He attended IMG Academy in Florida. There are exceptional athletes. Yet you also see Bridgeport Bassick defeating the winless LL Class Bridgeport Central, 24-18, for their only win, only to lose to S Class Griswold, 42-8. Griswold lost to S-class schools Stonington and Ledyard by a combined score of 110-8.

Every city’s school district and every program is different. Some teams are competitive. Some are not. They all have challenges. We asked Harry Bellucci of Hartford Public, who is retiring after four decades of training, Eddie Santiago of Bridgeport Harding and John Acquavita of New Haven Wilbur Cross to discuss these challenges. Their remarks are edited into a conversation.

Acquavita: “The gap between the haves and have-nots has always been there. Athletically, especially in football, this gap is so much bigger than before. The sabbatical from football, out of school for almost a full year, the pandemic triggered it five more years into the future. This gap between Fairfield County and everyone else is monumental. It was going in that direction. Not just the city. The Guilfords and all those are further away, but the schools in town? We are in another dimension.

Bellucci: “The COVID disaster kind of blew it up. “

Santiago: “I understand COVID was bad for everyone, but losing a year hurt us a lot. Children need discipline, love, support. Without consistency, you lose them. We are trying to rebuild and relearn.

Bellucci: “We have a lot of single-parent families. As soon as the school closes – and this is more than a few children – they go to primary school, pick up their brother, bring them home. He is a surrogate parent. We have children who want to play, but their responsibilities to their families and their survival come before football. “

Acquavita: “We never had the whole team in training this year. Not once. I’m not talking about a guy. I’m talking about three, four. I work around child care and a ton have their own job. You cannot punish someone whose mother works double.

Santiago: “Not just training, matches. We had a situation where a brother got shot and our athlete must have missed the game.

Acquavita: “Around 2008, the economy reversed and your 30s took on additional jobs to make ends meet. They took the children’s jobs. None of my players have worked (in season). Now it’s the other way around. The other group stays at home. These children find jobs. It’s good for them, but athletically it’s a struggle.

Santiago: “Football is just the outstretched hand that will hopefully engage them in studies. We have a child on our team who was embarrassed to come to school because he couldn’t wash his clothes. He had no socks or underwear to put on. We have parents who abuse drugs and alcohol. Our children would prefer to be in school with us. This is the refuge. Several times we had to anonymously call the DCF, we are commissioned reporters. We therefore miss a child for a few days because of a situation at home.

“We have drugs and gun violence. In the early 1990s, drug dealers were more concerned with making money. It’s very different now in Bridgeport. It’s a bunch of cliques, not necessarily gangs, targeting each other. Our children have the choice not to be in a bad situation. “

Bellucci: “When it comes to football, Hartford has started to struggle with the addition of more football teams: SMSA, which is in cooperation with Bulkeley, Capital Prep, Prince Tech, CREC with the majority of the Hartford children. . There are also only two midget programs and both are located in North Hartford and one has a lot of kids from the suburb Windsor. Ninety percent of our children come to Hartford Public without any experience. The children of Newington, Wethersfield have been playing since the age of 5 or 6.

“Before, there were midget programs in almost every part of town. You would see children walking all the time with shoulder pads. In 2004, 2005, 2006, I had set up three programs with 70, 80 children. Now I have maybe 40. My pool has been cut in half. We no longer have a choice of school except magnetic schools, so we welcome more children from the neighborhood. I have a big second year group.

Santiago: “There are three youth organizations in Bridgeport, I think they’re pretty good. The problem is, we may not be landing a lot of these kids. You have other coaches who influence these kids to play for their school. It’s a problem that Harding, Bassick, and Central all have. I see a lot of our children playing for the nearby preparatory schools. “

Bellucci: “Twenty years ago, no one spoke of preparatory schools. Now look.

Acquavita: “New Haven has always had a good Pop Warner program (Reggie Lytle of Hillhouse is an integral part of that.) Limits could play, but when we went to K-8 it kind of destroyed it.

“The children in Magnet schools are distributed according to their neighborhood and they can play Hillhouse or Cross. The problem is, it can be on the other side of town, you have to take a bus, it’s raining on the side; it takes a commitment. After building it, the most I had at Cross, I dressed in 112 in early September 2012, 2103. We stayed high 80s-low 90s until 2017. We dove in the middle of the 70s. Now we have 68 in the whole program.

Santiago: “The first week we started (this summer), we were watching 18, 19 guys. You are at CSC. You are going to get pushed around. At the start of the school year the children started to generate interest and we saw their numbers increase. It’s not like in the past where we had up to 60. It’s 40, 45 on any given day.

Acquavita: “With the CIAC eliminating spring football, it crushed the downtown programs. What happens in North Haven, mom or dad brings their child to a trial run. They come in droves. They have flyers all over town. We are so fleeting. We may have 15 new freshmen joining us in October.

“I used to find kids in January and February and tell them to be ready before Memorial Day. I would have a list of 45 returning, 25 more in the spring, keep maybe 15 in the summer and five of them would start against Hand at the Surf Club.

“Almost 20 years ago, I was part of the CIAC football committee. As a downtown coach, I talked about my play. They flashed on Lou Marinelli. He said, ‘Go ahead. Get rid of spring football. It will not affect New Canaan. We will go to full camps in British Columbia and Syracuse. But you are going to destroy the schools in the city. He understood. It fell on deaf ears. “

Santiago: “You have to understand that we are on the horn all year round, constantly harassing the kids, about lifting, to stick with it. This is what we have to do. For many of our children, it’s self-esteem and self-confidence. When you wake up in the morning and the first thing you see is poverty, whistling bullets after sirens all night long, the daily trauma is real.

Acquavita: “This is why the suppression of the fifth grade was the second blow to the schools in the city (the four-year stopwatch of the CIAC continues uninterrupted from the ninth grade). A kid is a complete idiot for a year, fail, if you can reach him and he changes his life, he should play four more years. I’m not talking about the All-State running back. It has to happen in the first year.

“I saved the lives of five, six children with this rule from 1998 to 2008. From 0.5 GPA to four of them playing in college. The top five, six players in a region are reclassifying to play an extra year in prep school now anyway. “

Bellucci: “You will end up with more and more cooperative teams. It’s definitely the wave of the future. We just got a new grass pitch, it made a huge difference. A prep school went bankrupt when it came to football and we were able to get every piece of equipment. So it’s not like our ship is sinking. When I leave Hartford Public I want to try to make a difference with midget football in all parts of the city. This is critical. If we can do it, we certainly have a chance. “

Santiago: “There are two main priorities for us. We are constantly teaching these children. We use community mentors to make an impact. We try to tell them to be loyal to your teammates. This is where you can thrive, not just in football or in school, but in life, to become good men in the community. Be the change. Become a police officer or a lawyer. Be someone who inspired you. We also try to make sure they have just enough to eat. I’m lucky. I have a great bunch of coaches and staff pouring out of our pockets for peanut butter and pasta dinners to try to make things fun for the kids.

jeff.jacobs@hearstmediact.com; @ jeffjacobs123


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