It is fair to say the Stamford football team had a more difficult preseason than any other in the state. Besides just getting better on the field, the Black Knights had to also keep it together emotionally.
As coach Jamar Greene said, it was a challenge. A horrific car crash on Aug. 26 took the lives of NiShawn Tolliver, a senior defensive end, and Ky-Mani Antoine-Pollack, a former student at the school who had graduated from an alternative education program.
Greene said the tragedy altered the way he coached his players.
“If a kid made a mistake I had to watch how to speak to him, put an arm around him and say this is how to correct it,” Greene said Sunday night.
Greene had his players ready for Friday’s opener at home against Staples. Isaiah Johnson’s second touchdown pass to Tyriq Deveaux, from 28 yards out with 6:27 remaining, brought the Black Knights within 13-12. Greene opted to go for a two-point conversion in part because their first extra kick was blocked. Johnson ran the ball into the end zone and Stamford held on for a 14-13 upset.
“It was a pass option, the quarterback could do what he saw and made the right decision,” Greene said.
The victory caused a raucous celebration, unbridled joy for a community in need of it. A large student section poured onto the field. Tolliver’s mother was given the game ball.
“It was unbelievable,” Greene said. “Just to see the crowd, the fans, the administration all come together in celebration. It was amazing.”
Stamford entered the season with low expectations, but the defense allowed just one score. The Wreckers’ go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter came on an interception return.
It was not a typical weekend for Greene and his players.
“They’re on cloud nine a little bit,” Greene said. “All weekend I’ve been getting texts and calls from coaches and family members and friends, colleagues just congratulating us on the win. It has been blowing up on social media. It has been a real nice weekend.”
It had been as difficult a period for Greene as his players, and not just because he had to both coach and offer support. Antoine-Pollack’s aunt is Green’s godmother. Greene grew up with his mother.
“They both kind of hit me in a way where I needed to go on the side and be on my own and meet with someone on my own first before going to the rest of the team,” Greene said. “I went to someone I could speak to and went through my own grieving process so that when I went in front of the team I would be able to be strong for the team. It was tough because I had to emotionally stay strong for the team, but it also affected me as well. NiShawn was at practice and then the next day he’s gone. His brother is on the team so emotionally I had to stay strong.”
Tolliver’s brother, Daiquan Hall, has not missed a practice, including the day of the accident.
“I realized practice was therapy for him,” Greene said. “He was with his brothers, so for two and a half to three hours a day he could focus on playing football with a bunch of young men who had his back and he grew up with.”
A win that started out cathartic will now try to be used as a springboard by Stamford, which faces Fairfield Warde on Friday night.
“We’ve lost to Warde the last two years in the final seconds of the game,” Green said. “They’re a good team, well-coached. I told the kids we will enjoy this for the weekend, it’s a confidence builder, we’re 1-0, but come Monday we have to focus our attention on the mistakes we made so we get ready for Warde.”
1. St. Joseph (1-0). After routing McMahon, the Cadets should get more of a test this week from Notre Dame-West Haven.
2. New Canaan (1-0). It looks like Zach LaPolice is going to be Drew Pyne’s go-to receiver this season.
3. Darien (1-0). We will get a good read on the Blue Wave after Friday’s early-season showdown against Southington.
4. Greenwich (1-0). The Cardinals certainly didn’t look like the fourth-best team in the league against Danbury. Is there a fourth-best? But since this was my order to start the season, who do you bump down at this point?
5. Ridgefield (1-0). The Tigers pitched a shutout after Fairfield Warde scored on its first possession. They host New Canaan on Friday, a litmus test to see if there is anyone out there that can play with the Power Four.