'Don't ever give up' becomes a romantic reality at Killingly

Killingly — The late, great Jim Valvano gave us the greatest counsel since "do unto others" one night 24 years ago now, telling the audience at the ESPYs, "don't give up; don't ever give up."

And it sure felt as though Jimmy V's words ran like a current, all the way to Sunday on the football lawn of Killingly High, when Chad Neal, the good-guy coach, found his eyes welling and voice cracking, addressing his boys who just made the state championship game.

Not too far away, Gene Blain, the athletic director and the last man to author such history in the land of maroon, sure looked as though his eyes were a bit teary, too.

Maybe that's because there's no manual for this day. There's no script to follow when "don't give up; don't ever give up" becomes romantic reality.

Yes, the Redmen, 21 years removed from the last trip to the finals, are headed back. The proud program, left for dead through some lean years, an afterthought for so long, has restored the roar.

And once again, sports become such a great metaphor. If you care about something enough, the facts don't count. You chop wood and keep chopping and until the tree falls in the forest ... and everyone is there to hear the sound.

"There were days I thought it would never happen. But we just kept at it," Neal was saying after Sunday's 49-7 waltz over Berlin. "We cared about it. That was the biggest thing. We cared and we did it the right way. The right way was to believe in our kids. The kids believed in us and the families in this town got behind us."

This is nothing new in Killingly. There was a period in the 90s when Killingly was The Show on Friday nights in eastern Connecticut. Alan Beausoleil ... Ben LaBelle ... Steve Exarhoulias ... Robert Dionne ... Jason Dinerman ... and a coaching staff that never took itself too seriously.

There was never a more entertaining and welcoming sideline than the one with Blain, Gary Brine, Brian Levesque, Earl Wild and Bob Chalifoux. The game would end in victory, the kids would head to Giant Pizza down the road and the adults to Lake Tavern, which Brine owned, for a few, you know, lemonades.

But after the state championship of 1996 — when the Redmen tap-danced on mighty New Canaan — the program went into witness protection. Many factors. The residual effect: The feeling — that feeling of the whole Friday night thing being an event — was gone forever.

Except that Neal, in spite of many interminable Friday nights, rebuilt this thing from ashes. Brine, the defensive coordinator with Blain, returned to the staff. And darn, if even Levesque, now the superintendent of schools in Montville, didn't return to the sidelines Sunday wearing his old Killingly colors. The good folks of Montville will excuse the boss man. The old days never leave your soul.

"There were some lean years here. A lot of them," Brine said. "When I was approached for the (assistant coach) job by Gene three years ago, we said, 'we can get there again.' That kind of piques your interest. The community is rallying around us. Great kids. Just an unbelievable feeling."

Now the names of Beausoleil and LaBelle have become Lockwood, Gauthier, Desaulnier, Caffrey and Burgess. Names that will resonate in program lore and legend. They brought it back. One swing of the ax at a time. Often when nobody was looking.

"Rock bottom was around 2008. We had some talent and some troubles," Neal said. "I was emotional (Sunday) with the kids because of where we came from. This staff, these guys, I love them. This is our family."

And yes, this much remains true about sports. Maybe life, too. Losing makes winning that much sweeter. And so maybe all those long nights and long seasons happened for a reason. To make this better. Who knew?

"When you win, you still feel going into a game like you're the underdog after you've dealt with losing," Chad Neal said. "That's what drives us. I know what it was like. I don't want to go back."

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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