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They talk football ... but more importantly life ... at New London

New London — The conversation ping-ponged for this group of adolescent boys, who would return to being football players soon enough. But now they were just kids talking.

About fear and loneliness. Sexual orientation. How they find it hard to trust. Healthy relationships.

"Normally," Juan Roman was saying, listening to his players, "kids don't talk about things like this. It's a chance for them to have true, meaningful conversation."

And this is why Roman, a man layered in compassion and decency, is so much more than the football coach at New London High.

This is why: Because practice can wait on autumn Tuesdays at 2:45 p.m. Practice can wait because on autumn Tuesdays at 2:45, his players interact with Patrick Sheehan Gaumer, a Violence Prevention Educator with Safe Futures, an agency that works to rebuild lives affected by domestic violence or sexual assault through counseling and advocacy, case management, court advocacy, support groups and educational programs.

Kids talking about ... real life.

"It's a chance to start the conversation," Sheehan Gaumer said. "We as grownups have done a horrible job talking about hard subjects to our youth. We pretend they're not old enough, mature enough or grown up enough. We think they're going to absorb information about relationships through TV or songs. It's imaginary. It's grownups playing pretend."

But there's nothing pretend about Tuesdays at 2:45 in the cafeteria at 490 Jefferson Ave. The kids learn and share. It's about healthy relationships, the proper treatment of women (and everyone else) and a chance to be vulnerable without judgment.

A recent discussion produced an eerie, if not unanimous, sentiment among the kids: a sense that an alarming number of people in their lives have proven untrustworthy. To the point that trust issues are omnipresent in their lives. It was a moment that every teacher, coach and administrator needed to see, if they weren't aware already: You want kids to achieve? You've got to earn their trust first. And it takes time.

"I appreciate the idea that the guys can to talk to each other," Sheehan Gaumer said. "Loneliness, fear, anger, all of these things they're feeling, but nobody's broken the ice for them to talk to each other about it. Their shared experiences, shared challenges and shared needs are all important. Everyone needs to be seen and heard. They bond in lots of ways."

Roman and the Whalers are not having a New London-like season. They are 1-6. They are normally 6-1. Bet there's a considerable number from the "stick to sports" crowd that believes there's no room in football to explore one's feelings, not when there's a game on Friday night, dammit.

This just in: We need to teach our kids — all of them — that there are far more important concepts in life than the vagaries of the bubble screen. And that toughness isn't necessarily about who can bench press the most.

"As a society, we teach football players that masculinity comes from being tough and strong, which it can," Sheehan Gaumer said. "But it also says that emotions are weak. Needing help is unmanly.

"Except that they do it on the field all the time. You miss a tackle, the guy behind you has your back. But suicide among men in this country is high because we're not teaching men to ask for help when it comes to other things. I can ask you to have my back on the field, but when it comes to the hallway and I might feel embarrassed about something, I can't ask for your back there."

Good stuff here, no?

"Having the kids here says a lot about coach Roman and what he values," Sheehan Gaumer said. "The goal of this program is to teach the kids to be mature with their feelings and confident in themselves. We often teach that being a man is to deny a whole part of yourself. If you have these feelings, you're broken and there's no fixing it. In reality, there's no feeling a woman has that a man doesn't. Yet we teach them if it's not anger, you can't show it. We filter it all into anger. That can turn into domestic violence or turn inward."

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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