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    Friday, January 27, 2023

    With Charles in charge, the Falcons soared

    Fitch’s Charles Cabusao (6) looks for yardage as Skylar Noland (54) blocks in Thanksgiving Day high school football action Thursday, November 24, 2022 at Dorr Field in Groton. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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    Fitch head coach Mike Ellis Jr. huddles his team in the closing minutes against Ledyard in Thanksgiving Day high school football action Thursday, November 24, 2022 at Dorr Field in Groton. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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    Groton – The everlasting gift of high school sports is not always quantified in goals scored, home runs or touchdowns. It’s the people, the connections, the moments that can choke you up all over again 25 years later.

    Mike Ellis had a moment Thanksgiving Day, reveling in victory. His moment was tethered to the moment that happened in practice two days earlier, a moment that every educator needs to appreciate. A moment that properly frames the educational value of sports.

    “This win,” Ellis was saying in the wake of Fitch High’s retention of the Colonel Ledyard Sword after its rather engaging 46-36 win over Ledyard, “ranks right up there. I think especially this year because these kids have battled. You saw we've only got seven seniors. And we had an awful, awful practice Tuesday.”

    And this is where the story begins. Coaching kids in 2022 is an exercise in frustration management, as Ellis will explain later. But here you had The Big Game under 48 hours away and the Falcons’ practice was inexplicably for the birds. And then the moment came. Senior Charles Cabusao, normally quieter than Sunday morning, decided to give vulnerability a chance.

    “Charles never says a word,” Ellis said. “But I found out that Charles has four screens at home and that he's a (video) gamer. When he wears his headset and plays, he talks like crazy. Without the headset, he doesn't say anything at all. But when he started talking to the team, he just stopped and he cried.”

    So did Ellis, recounting the story.

    Note: Mike Ellis could be curmudgeonly by now, having coached and taught for more than two decades. Instead, his passions burn like the most bewitching inferno.

    “It was a game changer,” Ellis said of Cabusao’s speech that happily interrupted practice. “Because all of a sudden, you saw the demeanor of everyone change. They then understood what this meant to at least one kid. He talked about how as a kid, the family drove by and saw the kids playing at Poquonnock Plains (Park) on their way to church on Sunday mornings. He then talked about how his parents finally let him play. And then how they started to bring him to the games and how he couldn't wait to be out here on the field. And that's about as far as he got before he started to cry.

    “He couldn't stop. And then all of a sudden you see these other guys who are non-emotional guys crying with him. And I think that’s what won this game. Because we came here (Wednesday) morning for practice. And everyone was here early. And it was a great practice. That was really the turning point for us.”

    This is so much more, though, than one kid’s torrent of emotions before the big game. It’s the lesson Ellis was allowed to teach after.

    “What I find with coaching kids now is the trickle down from the pros to college to high school,” Ellis said. “It's about ME, what’s in it for ME. And decisions are made based off what is good for ME.

    “These are just high school kids. They've got no idea at this point in time. The great thing for me is when you have a day like today, the ME goes away and it's just about the team, the scoreboard and which side has that higher number. What a great teaching moment. That's why I'm happy about this. Not just the win, but the way these guys came together. It wasn't about just individuals anymore. It was about a team effort.”

    Ellis’ postgame tears came on the field, recounting when Charles was in charge two days before. What a scene: Players, parents and many others celebrating, posing for pictures and holding The Sword like it was their first born. Soon, Ellis got the team into the hallowed Fieldhouse one final time. More tears. Kids and coaches alike.

    And somewhere in there was Cabusao, celebrated as the team’s scholar-athlete as well, who gave everybody in that room a moment. Should the Falcons of 2022 gather 25 years from now, what do you think the frame of reference for the entire season will be?

    When Charles cried.

    And maybe – just maybe – his teammates will carry that lesson of honestly, vulnerability and selflessness into their post-high school lives.

    Inspiration often works like a fly in the house. You just don’t know where it came from our how it got in here. But it sure gets your attention. In this case, how one young man’s bravery built the bridge from ME to WE.

    Bravo to Charles Cabusao. And Mike Ellis. Two pretty great teachers.

    This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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