Darien youth football teams made a decision a while back to not play each other, should it come down to two Darien teams battling for the championship.
This “one team, one dream” mentality among Darien Junior Football League teams began as a show of solidarity about a decade ago when then-coach Mike Connolly advised the two Darien teams to not play each other in the final game of the Fairfield County Football League’s championship, so that the teams could be co-champions.
Former DJFL president and current board member, Dick Albu, said this mentality remains with the league. “We encourage coaches — if we have more than one team on a grade level — to practice together, become one team,” Albu told The Darien Times. “We try not to have Darien teams play each other in the championship game.”
What started out with fewer than 100 players, the DJFL has blossomed into a regionally respected program of 450-plus kids on more than a dozen teams from first to eighth grade.
Playing for the passion of the game and not merely for winning was part of the impetus for the Darien Junior Football League’s breakaway from the Gateway League in the 1990s. They helped form a new league, which organized teams by grade level; rather than having two grades per level, the new league composed each division with a single grade to even the playing field.
“One of the things that I really like about Darien junior football… is the fact that we’re teaching kids the basics of football and allow them to really enjoy game,” Albu said. “We monitor very carefully the coaches so they’re true to that. Obviously we like to win, but winning isn’t the end game, it’s about kids enjoying themselves and coming back next year.”
Jim Coley, current DJFL president, agreed, saying the league works to build players’ individual self-esteem while also showing them the value of teamwork.
“We want to impart on them a love of the game,” Coley said. “We’re also trying to get them in a position to maximize the number of kids who play in high school.”
Several years ago, Darien junior football teams decided to use to the same playbook and formations as the high school Blue Wave. Varsity Coach Rob Trifone told The Times that this early preparation has helped his team, adding that he has consistently been impressed with the DJFL.
“From the first board meeting I ever went to when I joined the Darien community, I cannot tell you how impressed I was and continue to be with the amount of time and commitment the members and coaches of the DJFL family put into our Darien youth players,” Trifone stated in an email. “We clinic all the time with the DJFL volunteer coaches to share our knowledge of football and teach them all of the skills and drills that we use here at Darien High School. The result in my short, six-year tenure here at DHS is that our roster has literally doubled in size as the younger athletes not only learn the game properly, but learn to love the game.”
Improving the safety of Darien youth players also inspired the new league as it emerged in the 1990s.
“Going back over last two years, we’ve done a number of things to emphasize safety with the tackle program,” Coley said. About five years ago, the league purchased concussion-resistant helmets for all the players in the tackle program, which includes players from grades three through eight.
League leaders also embarked on an awareness campaign to educate parents and coaches on the dangers of concussions, and how to quickly identify concussion signs. “We’re the first tackle football league in the country to have coaches be concussion trained,” Coley said of the Fairfield County Football League.
“Over the past several years the DJFL Board has been proactive in making available concussion training for its entire head and assistant coaching staff so that they know how to recognize a potential concussion on the field when it happens and take the necessary action,” states the DJFL website.
The league also reached out to parents to encourage them to learn how to test their children if they suspect their kid might have a concussion. In 2010, the high school and the DJFL began implementing Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing, also known as ImPACT testing.
This test is a computer-based, neuro-cognitive assessment that evaluates a child’s visual and verbal memory, reaction and processing time and symptom score. It is approved for children 10 years old and up and must be repeated every two years. The test is best utilized when a baseline is established prior to any injury to the head so that comparisons can be made pre- and post-injury in the event of a concussion, according to test advocates.
“We put in a whole reporting mechanism for concussions,” Coley said. “If we suspect a kid has a concussion, we immediately take him out of the drill or game. He must get a doctor’s clearance before he can play again.
“We, as a league, have sort of led the way [with concussion awareness] and being ahead of the curb in what we can do,” Coley continued. “It is a contact sport, so we certainly have done things to minimize as much as possible the potential for injury.”
The league also advocated for higher field lights at the high school and Holahan fields to make the field more visible during night practices. This should also improve the safety of the players, who only hit for a small fraction of the practice, if at all, Coley said.
“We definitely have seen a decrease in the amount of live hitting that goes on during practices,” Coley said. “Some teams don’t even hit at all during the week.”
The league started practice two weeks ago, and last week had its “jamboree” scrimmages. Last year was one of the best years for the Darien league, having won two out of the six grade-level tournaments out of seven participating towns. This year there are eight towns in the FCFL — Darien, Fairfield, New Canaan, Norwalk, Ridgefield, Weston, Westport and Wilton.
The league kicks off with its first games this weekend. More info: djfl.org