John Marinelli believes he may have scored the first touchdown on Dunning Field. Marinelli was a tight end playing youth football in New Canaan, and his father Lou, the town’s high school coach, got permission to get his son’s team on the field.
“If I wasn’t the first as a Pop Warner player, I was one of the first,” Marinelli said Wednesday, during one of the many interviews this week that have been the impetus for reflection. “It is part of what encompasses all New Canaan did for me. Everything.”
Last weekend was homecoming for Marinelli’s Greenwich High School football team. This week is Marinelli’s personal homecoming, back to the field where he first grew up on the sideline, watching his father’s Rams while wearing the jersey of players he looked up to, like Chris Silvestri, the star running back. Later John Marinelli would be his father’s quarterback, then an assistant coach and finally the offensive coordinator, before leaving to take over the Cardinals last season.
On Friday night, John Marinelli returns to the field he helped inaugurate, in the town where his football life was born, reached puberty and adulthood. He has a feeling what to expect, but who knows what will happen when he takes the field, this time facing the landmark water tower, seeing his father and Silvestri, the Rams’ defensive coordinator, on what was once also his sideline.
“Seeing the NC on the helmet, the red helmet, with the uniforms I designed,” Marinelli said. “It is all going to be weird.”
The first Marinelli Bowl took place last year. It was different. The game was in Greenwich, where his team warms up on the practice field. There was little mingling before kickoff. John said he was unaware that his father had walked across the field for a hug and a handshake prior to kickoff.
John said he did not speak to his father for about three weeks leading up to the game. He admits, in retrospect, he could have handled the situation better.
After the Rams’ 24-14 win, John’s mother Fran offered her assessment of the buildup in just two words.
The backdrop is now different. John said he and his father speak about three times a day. “We talk all the time,” John said. “About football. About family.”
The cone of silence has been lifted this week, where the line of communications have remained open, even if the calls have been just once daily.
“Last year I just let everything get to me,” John said.
Last season there seemed to be an invisible clock counting down the days, hours, minutes and seconds leading up to the Marinelli Bowl. The coaches were the central attraction.
This year the focus is back where it should be: on the teams. Last year the Rams came into the game unbeaten, on their way to a third straight state title. The Cardinals were 2-2, still searching for an identity in a season that would end with a two-game losing streak and 4-5 mark.
New Canaan is again unbeaten, but Greenwich is 4-1, coming off a quality win at home against Trumbull. The season is just half over, but the Cardinals are in the hunt for a playoff berth in a very deep Class LL field. The final stretch of the schedule is difficult.
“My responsibility is as the head coach, worrying about my team,” said John, adding of his father, “I know we have the same last name, but it is not about us. He knows our kids and I know his. It’s a big game. Any time Greenwich and New Canaan play it is a big game. It was a rivalry for me when I played against Greenwich. Now I’m coaching against New Canaan. I’m excited.”
John said the opposing sideline is not usually an area of focus during games. Advantages are earned in practices, adjustments made during play. Still, John would occasionally steal glances a year ago and realize he now had card-carrying status in a pretty exclusive fraternity.
“I would look at my dad, Rob Trifone, Marce Petroccio, arguably the three best coaches in the state,” John said. “They are people I have always looked up to.”
John can prepare his team for Friday night but his emotions will be channeled on the fly. Because, really, how do you really mentally prepare for your own homecoming?
Only one thing is certain, John said. Fran Marinelli will greet her son after Friday’s with a hug, and offer either congratulations or sympathy, not a warning.
“This game may not be good for the Marinelli family,” John said. “But it is a good thing for high school football.”