Weaver Football is back! Don’t Miss Game Day this Saturday, September 18
Weaver Football is back! Come and Support the official return of Weaver Football!!! Don’t miss game day this Saturday, September 18 at 10:00 AM as the Beavers kick off their 2021 JV season opener versus Jonathan Law High School out of Milford, CT.
Location 📍: Hartford Public High
55 Forest, St Hartford, CT 06105
“I said, ‘We’re going to have a meeting,’ and about six kids showed up,” Kelly said.
This was where this new, adventure would have to start for Kelly, the eighth-winningest coach in Connecticut high school history. But before the rekindling of Weaver football could begin, COVID-19 wiped out the 2020 season.
After Weaver High reopened in 2019, students who had been in other schools during the five-year rebuilding process returned to the Granby Street campus in Hartford. Athletic Director Sterling Scanlon was determined to re-establish a stand-alone football program rather than be part of a co-op.
Last week, just a year later, Kelly returned to the cafeteria on the first day of school visiting three waves of lunching teenagers and got about 30 to sign up. Alfred Malave, who played as a freshman at Bulkeley, said, “I was excited. When I first came back to Weaver and they said we didn’t have it, I was upset. One of my friends told me they were starting up, and I came to the gym.”
Later in the week, as dusk was descending on Weaver’s grass soccer field, about 25 players of various shapes and sizes, most of whom had never played football were working as Kelly and his clipboard moved from group to group. “We’re going to be tired today,” one of the coaches barked as they ran sprints. The football program is just starting a freshman/junior varsity program this season.
“These kids have been craving football for a while, and Jude is showing them that he is giving himself to them” Scanlon said, “They see how invested he is in them and the program, and in return they are giving him everything they have. And it’s great to see. There may have been some apprehension of outside people wondering, ‘Would a guy who’s coached in suburbia his whole life be able to relate to inner-city kids?’ That was a real concern. What Coach Kelly has proven in the last month is that kids are kids, and if you show that you care, then they’re all in.”
“The biggest issue is for them to realize how important it is to make a commitment to a team, a commitment to your teammates and your coaches and your school and be there at practice, and effort is important.” Kelly said. “And I see it coming together. I see some response. They like to have fun, they listen well, they want to be coached up.”
Making the connection
“Everybody just thinks we’re a basketball school,” said junior Carlos Sierra, one of the new Weaver football players. But Weaver had a long and storied history in football, including an undefeated team in 1967, and CIAC state championships in 1996, ‘97 and ‘99, before the school closed for rebuilding in 2014.
Kelly, who won three championships at East Catholic and another at Southington, finished his 46-year career after the 2019 season at St. Paul in Bristol with 250 wins. After a year in retirement, Kelly, now 69, was contacted by one of his former players, Jon Esmail, director of programs at the Hartford Police Athletic League, who urged him to consider taking on the task of bringing football back to the North End.
“It would be a new experience for me,” Kelly said. “The city environment is a new environment. My wife said, ‘You live football,’ and I kind of thought about it. It would be a challenge for me and that’s what I’m good at.”
After a long talk, Scanlon encouraged Kelly to apply for the job.
“We had six other people apply and we had a panel of staff members, and during the interview process, he blew our whole panel away,” Scanlon said, “It was a unanimous decision to go with him.”
Mark Anderson, who coached with Kelly at Southington and teaches at Hartford Public, and his brother, Scott, joined Kelly as coordinators.
“He loves the game of football, but he also loves the kids,” Scott Anderson said. “He truly, truly loves these kids. He knows that inner city, they need more help than other towns, so I think he decided, ‘I’m going to help these kids.’”
Building a core
At East Catholic, Kelly ran a wishbone offense and brought that run-oriented system to Southington. He changed everything when he discovered a future NFL quarterback, Scott Otis, on his team. His ‘Air Raid’ offense won a title in 1998. At St. Paul he coached another future NFL player, defensive back Byron Jones. This will be an adjustment.
“I always had a core,” Kelly said. “Here, we’re trying to build a core. I’ve got to move more, think more.”
On Labor Day morning, Kelly arrived at the deserted school at 8:30 a.m., setting off alarms as he unlocked the door. By 10 most of the group had gathered in the weight room. He has mostly freshmen and sophomores, some, like sophomore quarterback Christian Walter, played Pop Warner ball for the Hartford Hurricanes.
“Everybody’s new to football, mostly,” Walter said. “We’ve got to work together to build teamwork.”
Gently, Kelly reminded one player he was late for weight training, but he has generally been understanding about attendance, letting his culture take root slowly.
“There are lots of things you learn from football, and all of those things are life skills,” Kelly told his group in an early practice, “And I can tell you this, you get out of school, you go to college, you go to work, wherever you go, attendance is number one. You’ve got to go.”
He rewards players who make to every single practice.
“It’s been hard every day,” said Sammy Rivera, a sophomore running back and cornerback. “Every day, three hours. It definitely brings people together. We came close as a family and that’s good for social skills. He’s teaching us discipline and that it’s more than just a game.”
One of the more experienced players, Sierra sees things coming together, too.
“We’re starting to get it now,” he said. “We’re starting to build a good team to rely on everyone. Coach Kelly is talking about football being more than football. It helps you build a brotherhood, have friends down the road you can rely on.”
Kelly’s staff includes former UConn running back Andre Dixon and Tyrell Boseman, who played on a state championship team at Capital Prep.
“There are a lot of great football players that came through here that made it out of the inner city,” Boseman said. “So football helps inner-city youth, gives them structure, gives them discipline, teaches you different things in life. For kids here at Weaver, it helps them stay off the streets.”
Dixon remembered his former teammate with the Hartford Colonials of the United Football League, Asaph Schwapp, who starred at Weaver and went on to play at Notre Dame. Schwapp, who died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2013, reminded him of what football can mean.
“Football saved my life,” Dixon said. “You get in these type of communities where most of the parents can’t pay for these kids to go to school. If you have a good football program like we’re trying to build here, that’s going to give these kids the opportunities to play in college. This struck my interest. These guys are from the same make-up that I’m from. The streets they grew up on look similar to the streets I grew up on back home. And Jude Kelly’s the guy for this. He’s the guy. When he talks, you can tell he commands the room. This is his show, it’s Jude’s show. He’s special, man.”
Mark Anderson said, “[Kelly] can build teams like no other coach I’ve ever met. He builds teams into families, and that’s something these kids can use. I can’t think of a better person for that job.”
The road will be bumpy. Weaver’s new football turf was damaged by the recent flooding, forcing the team to share space with the soccer team and look for places to play the JV schedule Scanlon is putting together, starting Sept. 18 vs. Jonathan Law of Milford.
Kelly knows that when varsity football begins in 2022, success cannot be defined at first by wins and championships, as it was in the past, but by the life lessons given and received.
“Why did I do his? That never comes into my mind,” Kelly said. “Just, what do we need to do today? What can we do better? Be patient, as long as we get better every day and the kids are learning life skills. We all want to win, but I don’t think I could have coached the years I did if I didn’t believe in the fact that high school football is the best thing in education.”
Dom Amore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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