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Starting H.S. football earlier would be a win-win

Practice began for a number of high school football programs across the state Monday. Date: Aug. 19. Eight teams are going to make state high school football championship games in a few months. Date: Dec. 14.

Hence, high school football has become a de facto four-month sport in Connecticut. It runs into mid-December now, threatening to run afoul of winter weather, not to mention completely imperiling the rosters, schedules and preparation time for some winter sports coaches.

So are we ready to dispense with a few traditions and make this stop — and thus make the rhythms of sports more equitable for all kids and coaches across the state?

Example: What becomes of any wrestlers and basketball players who are still playing football on Dec. 14? Forget that winter sports practices began weeks earlier. Wrestling’s official start date is Dec. 16. Basketball begins Dec. 19.

Who among us — even the most ardent football worshipper — thinks it’s reasonable that a football player will be ready for the wrestling mat two days after the season?

Is that not inherently unfair to the wrestling coach, whose team won’t be whole, and to the teammates, who might be missing a valuable team member?

As for basketball: When do you suppose the football player would assume basketball shape and find anything resembling a consistent shot?

Is that not inherently unfair to the basketball coach, whose team won’t be whole, and to the teammates, who might be missing a valuable team member?

And we haven’t even mentioned how high school kids playing football for four months might be mentally weary and physically vulnerable for a while.

“It’s a good question relating to a good topic,” former Ledyard wrestling coach Steve Bilheimer — among the best in state — said. “In my opinion, it takes at least 2-3 weeks (depending on the individual) for a high school wrestler to get in good enough shape to sustain their maximum capacity during wrestling competition. Football shape is different than wrestling shape. It's not better or worse, the two sports have different types of demands on the body.

“If I had the power to change rules and schedules, I would figure out a way to either end football playoffs earlier or start winter sports later so winter sports had more time to prepare. It would give athletes more time to heal from football and prepare for their next sport.

“If football was in the finals, it would stress me out a little bit, but I never saw it as a bad thing. When our football team had a good year, wrestling usually had a good year as well. The guys that came in from football during a playoff final year were usually hurting at first, but caught up in a couple weeks. Fortunately, I think we won all of our first matches during the years that football was in the finals, and we never rescheduled the match like some teams have done in recent years.”

Bilheimer touched on several issues: The length of the football season forces winter coaches to wait a few weeks for their teams to be whole and potentially rearrange their schedules. Also: Why can’t the football season begin (and end) earlier?

Interesting question. I had lunch last week with former Fitch football coach Mike Emery, who is living and teaching in North Carolina. Emery said the first day of football practice in North Carolina was Aug. 1. The games begin Aug. 23.

Why isn’t that something we can explore here?

The answer is because too many people in Connecticut still view Thanksgiving football as sacrosanct. They'll yell "tradition!" louder than Tevye did in "Fiddler on the Roof." I ask: Is your tradition more important than sending physically compromised kids to the wrestling mat and basketball court? Does “tradition” trump the idea that Thanksgiving football hijacks the entire high school sports schedule in Connecticut?

The football season runs longer because of it. And so does every other season.

Example: Last winter, Waterford won its state basketball championship around 8 p.m. on March 18. Baseball practice for about a half dozen basketball players began at 3 p.m. March 19. That means their offseason lasted about 19 hours. That’s absurd.

Aside from Stonington-Westerly and maybe a handful of other games throughout the state, does anybody truly care about Thanksgiving Day football anymore? The crowds are completely weather dependent. If it's a nice day, people come. If it's not, they stay home. Nobody's breathing into brown paper bags over the outcome.

Meanwhile, the tradition roars on. Kids to endure four months of football and then get thrown around a wrestling mat two days later. Neither smart nor safe. And yet we allow it.

So here’s a modest proposal: Start football practice Aug. 1. Start the games Aug. 23. Playing two weekends in August would enable the football schedule to end on or around the third weekend in November. It would also enable winter sports practices to begin earlier and for the winter season to end earlier, thus giving spring coaches a fair chance as well.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro



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