This 'Youth Football Guy' proves he's ready for Whalerville

New London — Our corner of the world is blessed with a passion for local sports, a consistent conversation starter in barber shops, coffee shops and gin mills. T.P.A.L. (The Public At Large) may not always attend the games, but surely follows the rhythms, evidenced by how the No. 1 read story on America's Most Underrated Website ( Saturday morning was New London High School's victory in its football opener.

Other games to read about from Friday night. But the Whalers were The Show. No surprise there. Football in Whalerville draws the most curiosity among our masses. The biggest program we cover. If Craig Parker, the four-time state champion basketball coach in the 06320 likes to call Conway Gym our Madison Square Garden (he's right), then Cannamela Field is our Lambeau Field. Our hearth of history.

This is why hiring Johnny Burns as the program's new head coach caused some, you know, consternation in the offseason. Burns passed at least one test New Londoners demand — one of their own, NLHS class of 1995 — but otherwise his resume had patrons of the aforementioned barber shops, coffee shops and gin mills going, "WHO?"

No one person actually said this, but the general feeling could be loosely translated into, "we just hired a Youth Football Guy to coach the Whalers?"

Youth Football Guy.

Yep. Burns hadn't any varsity coaching experience before Friday night, merely some success in youth football.

"I'm aware," Burns was saying inside a happy locker room, following a 20-7 win over Capital Prep/Achievement First, a Hartford-based cooperative of magnet schools that will win its share of games this season.

"I was aware when I had the opportunity to become the head coach here. I always knew what the primary criticism was going to be. So whether it's thick skin, or just being a New London Guy or a Whaler, people will say what they say. I believed I was ready enough to work harder and be better."

Burns' sideline was mostly composed throughout, belying how sometimes football sidelines, especially early in the season, can be cauldrons of chaos and cursing. The Whalers committed but two penalties in the first half. His kids were engaged.

This isn't to say there weren't some warts. Getting players on and off the field a few times was a fire drill. But overall, there was no evidence this was truly Burns' first rodeo. All the former Whalers, even the ones who used Youth Football Guy as a pejorative, would have been proud.

"The most special part to me is being home, back on this field," Burns said. "It's surreal. I'm back home. So much looks and feels the same. This group of kids has the opportunity to prove what we believe. Not too many others believe. And I understand the lack of confidence into what we're looking to do together. I get all the reasons. I don't judge anybody for that."

New London's educational leadership should understand the relevance of the football program. It's not the bromide of "source of pride within the community." It's not just sports. Football enhances perceptions here by allowing us the opportunity to tell the kids' stories. New London kids, eclectic and diverse, have stories, despite some suburban perceptions of what those stories might be.

Example: There is no manual on how qualities of leadership develop. The real-time decision making within the context of sports, however, is a good place to start. Take this scene during Friday's game:

Jacob Commander, who would run for 176 yards and two touchdowns, had just come off the field after making a big play. He could have done the requisite celebrating. Instead, he began yelling. Teachable moment.

"I'm Gucci, no great!" he said, a creative, 2018-ish way of commanding his teammates' attention.

"That means "I'm ready to go," Commander said. "'I'm Gucci, no great' means 'I'm coming out working, but if you don't put your work in, it's not great.'"

Oh, if God could have hit the cosmic pause button there. His teammates were listening to him as if he came up with the Beatitudes right there on the sidelines.

Owen George, the quarterback from Montville who attends the Science and Technology Magnet School, could have left in the offseason, given the coaching change. He thought about it. But he stayed.

"I like what coach Burns is doing," George said. "I couldn't leave my friends here. Science and Tech is a good school. I just couldn't leave."

Seems pretty good evidence that Burns is teaching the right things here. Not bad for a Youth Football Guy. He even left his 13-year job as a social worker with the Department of Children and Families to become a safety officer at New London High to be closer to his kids.

"We live together now," Burns said Friday night, chuckling.

And then Burns went across the walkway to the cafeteria to be with his kids again, thanks to some nice folks who made sure there was plenty of food for all after the game.

Test No. 2 comes Friday at Notre Dame of West Haven. Tough one, that.

So far, though, they're Gucci in the 06320, for reasons even beyond Friday's final score.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro


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