FAIRFIELD — Lou Marinelli had to like what he was seeing yesterday afternoon.
The legendary New Canaan football coach could have spent the day watching the NFL, or perhaps game-planning for his team’s annual Thanksgiving Day showdown with archrival Darien.
Instead, Marinelli was at Sacred Heart University, watching a trio of Fairfield County Football League championship games involving teams from New Canaan.
It is that type of commitment to his program that makes New Canaan so special.
The players appreciate it. The youth coaches appreciate it. And Marinelli, with his rich history of success, certainly appreciates the players he finally gets at the high school level.
“Knowing he is there adds that extra snap in their step,” said Scott Werneburg, head coach of New Canaan’s seventh grade team, which capped off championship Sunday with a 31-7 win over Wilton. “But it’s not just being here for the game. Coach Marinelli and his entire staff are there for us during the offseason, answering any questions we have. Their support is invaluable.”
Support is a two-way street, though, and the Fairfield County Football League, which is made up of 50 teams from third grade through eighth grade, representing 1,500 players in tackle football and another 1,000 playing flag football, has certainly proven to play a supporting role in the success of teams throughout the FCIAC.
From Darien to Wilton to Ridgefield, and definitely in New Canaan, having a feeder program like the FCFL is a recipe for success.
“For starters, there is nothing more important to the high school programs than our youth program,” said FCFL President Denis LaPolice, whose sons Alex, sidelined this season at Harvard with an injury, and Zach, a wide receiver for the Rams, both played in the New Canaan youth ranks. “We’re one football program from third grade to seniors in high school and Lou has always treated it as one program. It reflects in the quality of football players we have and the quality of results we have. Other towns have adopted that same philosophy.”
In Wilton, first-year coach EJ DiNunzio knows the importance his town’s FCFL league teams mean to his program.
“All my seniors came through the program, starting in fourth grade,” DiNunzio said. “This is our foundation. It’s a win-win for everybody. It’s great.”
Players taking the field yesterday certainly felt the presence of their future.
Wilton had 14 varsity players on hand to root on their youth programs while New Canaan names it offenses after players who have come through the program and moved on to college.
“They do take pride in that,” Werneburg said. “We run our TCU offense in homage to Lucas Niang and Michael Collins and BC for Zach Allen. They look up to the kids who came before them.”
Alex Benevento and Connor Lytle, each of whom scored two touchdowns in their team’s seventh grade win over Wilton, are fully aware of the players who came before them.
“I really look up to the people who came out of this program because they’re all really nice and work really hard,” Benevento said. “It’s great to come through the same program with the same training and to know I might be able to have the same kind of success, as well.”
New Canaan teams reached the championship in each age group, defeating Ridgefield in the fourth grade final, Wilton in the fifth and seventh grade finals and Stamford in the eight grade title game. Wilton defeated New Canaan for the sixth grade crown.
From the players to the coaches to the administrators, though, the goal of the FCFL is to promote the sport and prepare players for the future.
“We’re here because this program means a lot to us, and not just New Canaan but the FCFL and all the other towns we compete with,” said New Canaan Youth Football president Kevin Brown. “It’s in our mission statement that we want to keep kids playing.”
Many of Fairfield County’s youth football players are still playing today, through their years in high school and beyond.
“If you look around now, some of the kids you’re seeing on television, played in this youth league,” said LaPolice. “I think all the towns are represented in the college ranks somewhere.”
Proving perhaps that the FCFL is more than just a feeder system for high schools, but also a starting spot for players who go beyond.