Jude Kelly returning Weaver to varsity for first time since 2014 is about more than football

Jude Kelly returning Weaver to varsity for first time since 2014 is about more than football

Published in CT Insider

HARTFORD — He had retired from teaching. After nearly a half century, he had retired from coaching football at St. Paul. The folks at East Catholic, where he had coached three state champions, even named a Jude Kelly Way.

“It was time,” Kelly said. “It was time to get out … and then I get a phone call two months after I retired (in 2020).”

It was Jon Esmail, an outstanding receiver for Kelly at Southington High, who worked with the Police Athletic League in Hartford.

“He said Weaver is looking for a coach,” said Kelly, who’ll be 70 next week. “I said, ‘Nah, Jon, I think I’m done.’ He said, ‘You should try it. The athletic director is a really good guy. You should talk to him.’”

So he did.

And here early Monday evening, was Weaver coach Jude Kelly on the first day of conditioning and non-contact drills allowed by the CIAC.

Once drab, beat-up Weaver High School on Granby Street underwent a terrific $133 million renovation. Its athletic facilities were transformed, too, its turf football field is beautiful.

And, now, Weaver has its own varsity football team for the first time since 2014.

The players that had dispersed to various schools during the renovation continued to play on a co-op team with Bulkeley and Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy. And, yes, Kelly had overseen a junior varsity program at Weaver last year as it got its program back to speed. Picking up games as the season progressed, Weaver finished 8-1.

This is different. The Weaver Beavers, who won state titles in 1996, 1997 and 1999, have their own Friday Night Lights again. They have their own source of school and community pride.

“They tore down the old Weaver school, so these kids had been farmed out to different schools for five years,” Kelly said. “Many of them didn’t even know each other. So it’s not like it’s a regular program where they all know each (other) in their class.

“I thought last year they gelled really well. Last year was a good thing for us. We learned a lot. The past year since, we were able to get kids into the weight room checking their grades a lot more. It’s much more of a football team now. We’re a real team.”

Winning state titles in 1983, 1986 and 1987, Kelly coached the wishbone to glory at East Catholic. He opened up the passing attack with the vaunted “Air Raid” over 17 years at Southington and won a state title in 1998. He took over at St. Paul in 2005. Despite low turnout for football, he cobbled a 70-84 record over 15 years. There were some strong seasons. He coached Byron Jones, who went on to become a first-round NFL pick with the Dallas Cowboys, and Logan Marchi, who passed for nearly 10,000 yards.

In all, he has won 250 games, eighth all-time in Connecticut high school history. The numbers only tell the half of it. Jude Kelly is revered as much for the man he is as for the games he was won. He is a teacher. He is a mentor. That’s why athletic director Sterling Scanlon wanted him.

“In my mind, football is (the) best thing in education for kids to learn life skills,” Kelly said. “That’s why I keep doing this. I’m more interested in having a program where the kids are getting a good education.”

From Bridgeport to Stamford to New Haven and Hartford, it is no secret city schools have struggled mightily in football in recent seasons. There are myriad financial and societal reasons. So when you see a school, a program, get such a fresh start as Weaver, it’s impossible not to root for them.

“The numbers we’re getting, that says something,” said former UConn star Andre Dixon, a member of Kelly’s staff. “People want to be part of something special. It’s important for the community. It’s important for the city. To be able to hire someone like Jude Kelly says a lot. A man who knows how to win and do it the right way.

“New school, new gym, new field. What they’re trying to do is very special.”

Other conferences didn’t have room or demanded Weaver, with teams in the CREC/CRAL, join with all its programs. When Plainfield dropped out, Weaver football found a place in the ECC. Can Weaver win?

“Of course,” Dixon said. “Everybody knows the athletes are here. Now it’s a matter of implementing the right coaching and right system and getting people to buy in — the parents and across the board. I think the sky is the limit.”

Kelly’s dad was a city kid. He played sports at Bulkeley before working at Royal and getting drafted into World War II. Jude grew up and attended Wethersfield High. He coached Catholic schools on both sides of the river. He coaches one of the biggest public schools in the state. This is a different challenge.

He is not too proud to say there is a learning curve.

“Right now if you wanted an idea where I stand, I still remember my kindergarten days,” Kelly said. “Not much, but some. I’m in the kindergarten stage with the inner-city kids.

“I’ve had a lot of different types of players over the years and loved them all. It is different. The kids are very athletic. They are fun. They are workers. They also have so many issues that come up. Last year I felt we made a lot of head way. The big thing for me when I first started, the numbers weren’t as much. I’d take attendance and kids are missing.”

He had an important meeting.

“I coach football to get kids ready for life,” he said. “When you graduate from high school, you’ve got to go to class in college. You get a job, you better go to work. If you’re married, you better go home. Attendance is a big part of it. It did help some, but there are so many different things.”

Football has its demands. Life has its challenges. Football is discipline. Life can be chaotic.

“You have to be flexible,” Dixon said. “You have to be understanding. Some kids have to watch their siblings, while other places might have day care or a nanny. Even feed their siblings sometimes, have jobs to help pay bills at home. Every situation is different.”

“If you’ve got to watch your younger brother, just let me know,” Kelly said. “Just don’t not come because you wanted to go off with your other friends.”

Coaches don’t want to lose contact with their players. One day can lead to two and two can lead to a week. And, just like that, the player is gone.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the impact the staff has in bringing back this program,” Scanlon said. “Jude and his staff have been unbelievable. They’re committed year-round and that’s so important.

“The participation rates have really climbed. Last year we had 40 non-seniors. Coming back we’ll probably have at least 50 kids which is a great number for an urban team because right now (city football) is really struggling.”

Kelly said he is hoping to maintain numbers at least in the high 30s to run both varsity and junior varsity programs. The school itself has considerably more students in the younger grades. The room to grow is there. So are the challenges.

In the meantime, what will Weaver run on offense and defense?

“I have coaches who are very passionate about what they do,” Kelly said. “If they are things I feel that are sound, I let them run it. I’m not going to tell them what to do. A lot of them had coached and worked in the inner-city for a long time. I’m overseeing things. I’ll put in my little piece.”

This is about football, but it’s much more than football.

jeff.jacobs@hearstmediact.com; @jeffjacobs123

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