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Stonington - The room, never big on décor, manages a mysterious charm. Decorated in early restroom. Old, ripped couches. Perpetual need of Febreze. Photos of teams past, not necessarily hung straight. And still, home, sweet home for anyone with an affinity for football at Fitch High School over the years.
It's the back room of the fieldhouse just off Dorr Field, the home office, really, where game-planning, chop-busting and film-watching commences every day of every autumn. Maybe this is the place that A.J. Massengale, once a favorite son of Fitch, now the coach of this week's enemy, cultivated his passion.
Massengale brings Stonington to his old haunt this week, Friday night at 6:30. Not the first time for him back at his alma mater, but perhaps with his best team.
"I've never mistakenly gone to the other sideline," Massengale was saying recently. "I'm Stonington now. Dorr Field is not my home field."
Massengale, a teacher at Stonington as well as a husband and father of three, is all grown up now, 20 years since he was a freshman and played in the epic, 46-40 Fitch-Ledyard game. He says Dorr Field is no longer home. He is correct. But it might have been his favorite place on earth once.
"I remember that whole crew," former Fitch coach Mike Emery was saying of Massengale's teams from the mid '90s. "Tommy Slocum, A.J., Kevin Strickland ? they'd come to practice and work their butts off, leave and go home like all kids do ? and then they'd come back. We'd be in the room game-planning and they'd be back just to hang out. That's how much they loved it. A.J. was one of those kids that as a coach, you want on your team. Old time throwback guy."
Massengale coaches perhaps the league's most underrated football program. The Bears have averaged seven wins per season since 2007 with three division titles, credentials local observers might assign to other programs. Stonington is the reigning Small Division champion that has moved to the more competitive Medium Division this season. Some coaches in the league believe the Bears can win the division.
He learned well from Emery.
"One of the things I learned from coach Emery is the importance of overcoming adversity," Massengale said. "That really resonated with me."
Indeed, the words "be resilient" might bat leadoff among Emery's list of daily motivational pleas. Massengale might have absorbed more of Emery's words because he was around it more often.
"There are a lot of things high school boys could be doing," Emery said. "Video games, visiting a girl. ? A.J. was 'nah, let's go visit the coaches.' He loved being around it. I think he liked the camaraderie. A.J. was astute enough to see the coaches had fun, too. We all loved being around it.
"I don't know if that's when kids decide they want to be a coach, but it helped," Emery said. "He learned that it was fun, not just sweat and tears."