Many Connecticut high school student-athletes gathered in West Hartford to make their objective clear: they want to play full-contact, 11-on-11 football this year.
"Let us play”: Players, parents and coaches chanted that refrain loudly as the group marched from Blue Back Square to Town Hall in West Hartford.
“They’ve been putting us through this emotional roller coaster but we’ve been staying diligent and I think it’s fair to say we deserve a chance,” said St. Joseph High School senior wide receiver Brady Hutchison.
"These kids are starving for stimulation, motivation, hope. We've done everything that we've been asked to do as far as social distancing, quarantining, wearing masks. We've had conditioning on-again, off-again, on-again, off-again and it's time to give these kids a chance and send them back to school with some hope," parent Stacey Pellegrino, of Norwalk, said.
Stacey's son John is a football player who is very close to his teammates.
"We're family. They're the number one thing on my mind right now besides my actual family," John said.
Stacey said that while she would be worried about her son returning to football during COVID-19, she wants to support him and his teammates. And John wants to get out on that field as much as possible.
"I'm a parent of a child with special needs who suits up and looks to that team as a family member. That's his family and in the end, it's all for one, one for all and it's imperative that they get out there and they get a sense of that. That's community," Stacey said.
Athletes and coaches took turns speaking at Town Hall, expressing support for a full-contact football season. Rivals on the field became teammates, all with the goal of having their message reach state leaders.
“It grew from five or six schools to 30 or 40 schools,” said Avon senior Owen Folkwein. “It shows that this sport is more than just a sport and it’s all about being a big family and having a big bond with each other.”
“It was really powerful seeing how many people actually care about not only football but other sports too,” said Naugatuck senior cheerleader Melody Makowski.
Other student-athletes at Sunday's rally shared similar sentiments about the impact football has had on them.
“It’s more than just a season,” said Xavier senior linebacker Matthew Battipaglia. “They’re taking away my family.”
"It's more than a sport to all these people here and they're just really coming out to show their support and it just means a lot to me and everyone else here," senior Bailey Miceli said.
Miceli is a football captain at Lewis Mills High School in Burlington. He and teammate Sean Polinski said they will do what it takes to finish out their last year of high school playing football.
"We just want the chance to play. We'd wear masks under our helmets. If uniform changes had to be made, fine, we're willing to do whatever to get the chance to play 11-on-11 football again," Polinski said.
"If you look at Connecticut's numbers alone and its metrics, it's much better then the 36 other states right now that are in their third week of playing games. And in all those states, their numbers are continuing to go down even with the playing of high school football. And I think that should have a really big impact," Miceli said.
While the CIAC's decision to cancel football was a tough one for all ages, seniors have been hit especially hard with the news.
"When we first heard it as players from our coach, it just took us down so much because we've been preparing with each other since our eighth-grade year going into freshman year. The hours that we sunk into it to get better and just to be alongside those people that we know have put in the time and who care so much about the family environment, it was a lot to take," Miceli said.
"Mostly, I felt bad for the seniors because it was their final year and them not being able to play football that they worked so hard to play for was just, you know, rough," sophomore football player William Leonard, of Wallingford, said.
Confusion and frustration remain as the athletes, who say they have been following all state and local safety guidelines, plead for the Department of Public Health and the CIAC to amend their plan.
Parent Nick Leonard said that there are ways to play so that athletes don't get sick. He suggested spit guards, keeping up with sanitizing equipment, and spreading players out into groups.
"There are several other states that are playing that are in worse shape than us," Nick said.
"Listen to our kids. Our numbers are down and now is the time to get out on that field," Stacey said.
The athletes have planned another protest for Wednesday at the state capitol building in Hartford.