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The Big Play

Rivals Darien High School and New Canaan High School prep for the big Turkey Bowl showdown with the new breed of student-athlete

Gus Cantavero

Rob Trifone, coach of the Darien High School football team, stops in his tracks on the high balcony overlooking the football stadium and ponders the question. Is the annual Thanksgiving Day donnybrook with New Canaan High actually fun?

In his earlier years of coaching in Fairfield and Norwalk, he was mixed up in noisy crosstown rivalries. But this Turkey Bowl thing with New Canaan is way bigger. There is something in these communities that “thrive on rivalry and tradition,” he offers with a smile. He doesn’t have to use the term “brutal competitiveness” because, for these two towns, that is just understood.

But…fun? “It’s fun for the fans,” he cracks. “For us poor slaves behind the scenes, it’s about 100 hours of work for 48 minutes of football.”

One hundred hours does not begin to describe what the players are putting themselves through now just to make the cut on the football field, and Trifone knows it. He watched his New Canaan rival, Head Coach Lou Marinelli, build a state football powerhouse on the back of increased player athleticism. The New Canaan players had been going further than others in their training, and signing up for speed training and the like at two places in Stamford—the Parisi Speed School and the Blue Streak Sports Training. The results? How about going 13–0 in 2008, 11–1 in 2009, and winning four straight state championships?

One hundred hours? As if.

A new breed of student-athlete is upon us. They go to the Web, they know that players in Texas and Florida are training year-round. Here in Connecticut they’re not only gathering a ton of information off the Web, they are also broadcasting themselves and creating videos for college scouts. They have studied what it takes.

In the old days, notes Tom O’Neil, assistant coach at Darien, football players simply hit the weight room. “It used to be how much you could bench-press. Now it’s more about how fast, how quick, how explosive you are. It’s more about building an athlete.”

What’s missing? Plenty, according to Coach Lou Marinelli, now in his thirtieth year of coaching.

“Kids are more aware,” Marinelli says, “but I think they’re being pushed toward specialization, which I’m really against. You’ve got parents who are pushing kids more. Before, I think kids played just to play. Now they’re playing for, ‘What can this get me?’ They think it’s going to help them get into college or something.

“And it’s really sad. The parents are saying, ‘This is your ticket,’ you know. Instead of playing it just to play the sport because you’re with your friends that you grew up with, and the love of the sport.

“I try to preach to the kids, I want you out for other sports. Be a wrestler or a baseball player. At least go out for track and improve your running.”

Marinelli brings out studies of famed Division 1 athletes and NFL stars and tells his players that most of them played other sports as well. But it doesn’t seem to make a dent with today’s narrowly focused athletes.

“Where does it stop?” Marinelli asks, exasperated. “You could say, ‘I don’t need to play these sports because I need to specialize in baseball.’ And then, ‘I don’t need to play these other positions because I’m a catcher.’ And then, ‘I don’t need to worry about being a catcher because I’m going to be a designated hitter.’

“I mean, it’s kind of crazy. Believe me, I’ve been guilty of it, too. I’ve had three children of my own and I’ve been on travel hockey teams. You’ve got to step back and realize that of your high-school athletes, only six percent go on to play in college at any level, and less than one percent of those go on to the pros.

“My dad was a plumber in New York, and he came to my games, but deep down he thought I was kind of crazy. He said, ‘You’re wasting your time, you could be making a lot of money.’

“I come from a time when one of the things you wanted out of sports was sportsmanship, teamwork, and the things that are going to help you out in the real world. Now that’s been taken out of it. I guess when you’re a parent trying to keep up with the Joneses, you get so caught up, you forget about what it is they’re getting."

Mad Men

It’s such a 1960s term, “Keeping up with the Joneses.” It’s like something you’d hear from miffed suburbanites on Mad Men. But that very phrase was echoed by Rob Trifone, who is trying to push his Darien Blue Wave team to the same level as the New Canaan Rams. Trifone knew that his old buddy Marinelli was putting his players through winter passing leagues, and he saw the results, so he began putting his players through that too.

More than that, Trifone jumped in. He took on the added job of running the football training program at Sono Field House, a gleaming new operation in South Norwalk. The armory holds a field that’s just shy of the size of a football field, and it’s all layered with fresh ’n’ cushiony artificial turf. After school, on weekends, and all through the winter the Field House is jammed with tots and teenagers looking for skills and an extra edge in all sports. Even corporate clients book the place, for team-building seminars and a chance to crawl through the rope maze criss-crossing the ceiling.

Another sharp arrow in Trifone’s quiver is Idris Price, a longtime ally who as linebacker and fullback on Brien McMahon “Hit ’94 Squad” helped the Norwalk team win the state title in 1994. Price went on to play with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Now thirty-three, Price is prowling the lines as Darien’s defensive coordinator. “It’s almost like my second childhood right now,” says Price. His other home is the Sono Field House, where he teaches sports conditioning.

Trifone’s winter football instruction comes after teaching a full load of biology classes at DHS. During the summer he also manages the swimming pool at Woodway Country Club. His wife, Marj, manages the DHS swim team and teaches health. Together they go home at night and take care of their five kids.

As a high school student in Fairfield, Trifone was one of those relics from the age of antiquity, a “three-letter man.” His sports were football, baseball, and wrestling.

Now, he worries about the new specialization. “If all they experience is football,” Trifone says matter-of-factly, “shame on them. They should try track, baseball, or wrestling. If you’re an athlete, you’re an athlete.

“But here’s what I’ve seen in my thirty-two years. The specialization in sports like hockey and lacrosse has heightened to the point where kids feel pressured to do a year-round thing; and, at the same time, football puts their irons in the fire, so to speak, because we try to run winter passing leagues to keep up with the Joneses and the New Canaans.”

What might really be haunting Trifone and Marinelli is the specter of another sport rising above theirs in status and importance—lacrosse. “The way it’s explained to me,” Marinelli says, laughing, “is you can’t go to college unless you play lacrosse. I don’t even know if academics is a part of it anymore.”

The exalted status of the sport at Darien High, where the Blue Wave lacrosse team has won eight of the last eleven FCIAC championships, is not lost on Trifone. As much as he wants kids to be multisport athletes, there are limits.

“We put so much on the kids’ plates that many of them don’t know if they’re coming or going, or what they should choose,” Trifone says. “I try to alleviate it as much as possible. When they play lacrosse, they play lacrosse.

“In winter they predominantly train for lacrosse. The struggle I always have is summer, because I tell my athletes, ‘You can’t spend all winter getting ready for lacrosse season and then all summer getting ready for lacrosse. Just give me the summer!”