NEW CANAAN — I knew there was something special about Drew Pyne the first time I saw him. That was three years ago, in early July, at New Canaan’s annual Grip It & Rip It Tournament. For months we had read about the 8th grader who already had big-time college offers. Most of us had a young Tom Brady in mind.
As I showed up to Dunning Field early that Friday afternoon, I didn’t know what to expect. A preternatural 6-5 golden boy slinging 80-yard passes downfield? Would he have an entourage? Would he be approachable?
What exactly does a football player three months away from taking freshman English with the chance to commit himself to Florida State look like?
Pyne was sitting under a tent, a less developed figure than he is today. Ryan O’Connell, the Rams’ highly respected senior captain, was next to Pyne with his arm around him.
Pyne had already won over the team leaders. No worries about arrogance or self-absorption.
Pyne was exceedingly polite, just as he was Monday when we sat in the bleachers to talk for this story. There is greater familiarity, outside interests we could discuss, but this latest interview in terms of tone was not much different than my first one with him.
As Pyne begins his senior season tomorrow at New London, it is a good time to offer up respect and appreciation for an athlete who outside of New Canaan has received too little. I can’t think of any high school athlete I’ve covered who has faced more pressure, been more overly scrutinized or put in a situation where it was impossible to succeed.
Think about it. The best Pyne could do was live up to the hype, especially after giving a verbal commitment to Notre Dame, his dream school. The bar was set so high that it was impossible to surpass expectations. So far most of what he has done has not been good enough for the skeptics that would rather give reasons why Pyne should not be playing football at Notre Dame than rooting for him — or any player from this area — to succeed.
It would be easier to explain if Pyne was a self-seeking publicity machine in it only for himself. It is most puzzling since you could not find a nicer, politer, more considerate teen. Pyne is the boy every mother and father wants to see show up as their daughter’s prom date. George and Helene Pyne did not just give their son strong athletic bloodlines, but more importantly a roadmap on how to be a good person. He has not deviated from that path.
“Anyone who is going to come in like that is going to have an ax on the back no matter what,” Pyne said. “If the whole world is against me and my team is for me, that’s good enough for me. Having the guys around me to make me a better person and player, that’s important to me.”
Asked if he is ever bewildered why others seem to want to see him fail, Pyne smiled. “Guys that are on my side, I’d rather prove them right than prove the doubters wrong or it gives them credibility,” Pyne said. “Being pissed off isn’t a plan.”
New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli is bewildered by the lack of warmth and admiration shown to his four-year starter, who will end up with his name atop the school record book in a few categories but would rather end his career the way it started, with a state title.
“If you read some of the posts that I’m told have been written, because I couldn’t find them even if I had to, but some of the things that have been said about him and his family, for him to handle that pressure and just let it roll off his back, which, for where he’s going, he’s going to have to do, he’s really done a great job,” Marinelli said. “He’s a wonderful kid, a great leader, kids in school really look up to him and like him. You see the youth kids, ‘There’s Drew Pyne, look at him.’ And he’s a great role model for our entire town.”
Humility has been Pyne’s calling card, from the highs to the lows, and everything in between.
“You can’t listen to the good and you can’t listen to the bad,” Pyne said. “When I throw a great touchdown pass they may say it’s the greatest throw I’ve ever seen, and other people may say it was a great catch or you threw it off the back foot, or this and that. By the same token you can’t listen to either one of them. I can’t let that affect me because if you worry about things that don’t matter it’s going to put you into the wrong direction. Throughout the years I think people have realized who I am, as a player and a person.”
Marinelli has coached many great players and almost all have had the same temperament as Pyne. It is easy to compare his personality to, say, Zach Allen, who made his NFL debut last Sunday with the Cardinals.
“A lot of it’s jealousy,” Marinelli said. “Some of the things that have been said are amazing. Instead of rooting for a guy, this is the kind of kid you want to root for. You’re not going to read in a newspaper about him being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He’s what you want him to be.”
Certainly he has been everything the Rams have wanted him to be. This preseason he has become a more vocal leader as well, his voice audible at the end of practices.
“I’ve had unbelievable leaders the past few years,” Pyne said. “I say it all the time, I’ve had 12 great captains in the past. This year we’ve been more team-led rather than captain- or person-led.”
Pyne sheds the spotlight this year for the first time. Of the four FCIAC teams that qualified for the state playoffs last season, New Canaan is the only one with a returning starting quarterback. Pyne’s college plans have long been settled. I don’t sense the public is trying to determine whether Pyne will one day start at Notre Dame any longer. This fall it is what it should be: Drew Pyne, New Canaan’s starting quarterback.
There were two questions I asked Pyne to close out the interview.
Is there anything he has yet to accomplish he still would like to? He spoke about his final season, in for others what would be an atypical manner.
“I won’t say anything record wise,” Pyne said. “I just want to be the best team we can possibly be. That’s playing well, having the right attitude and playing for each other. Whether we win a state championship or not I want to be the best team we can possibly be. Take it one game at a time. A state championship isn’t even in the realm of possibility right now. We have a very challenging schedule this year. By no means is this a cakewalk to make it into the playoffs. I think it’s one of the hardest schedules I’ve had at New Canaan.”
Finally, 15 years from now, when someone asks “Do you remember Drew Pyne?” what would he like the answer to be?
“Not only a quality person and player but a great teammate and a great player,” Pyne said. “A fun guy to coach and a fun guy to play with. The best teammate possible.”
(Cover graphic by Jordi Katz)