CONNECTICUT POST. March 15, 2010

Junior colleges could play ball
Football team proposed

By Noelle Frampton, STAFF WRITER

BRIDGEPORT — Spencer Jones is a good football player. A running back for New Haven’s Hillhouse High School, he topped 1,200 rushing yards last season and made All League.

But his grades aren’t the best, and as a senior this year, the 19- year- old faces the possibility of losing his dream of playing college ball and maybe going pro. The only schools that wanted him were Division III, and they weren’t offering scholarships.

Unfortunately, Jones’ story is all too common in Connecticut, especially in inner-city areas, said two area high school coaches who have seen it happen time and time again.

Even widely touted Christon Gill, Central High School’s All- State senior quarterback and safety, isn’t headed to the Division I school of his dreams in the fall because his SAT scores aren’t high enough.

Gill — who led his Bridgeport team to a 9-2 record and a spot in the FCIAC title game last season, throwing for 1,014 yards and 15 touchdowns and running for 408 yards and four touchdowns — is fortunate because he’s close enough to making the necessary score of 820 that he got in to Avon Old Farms preparatory school, where he’ll still be able to play ball while working to boost his scores.

“ There’s a lot of talent in Connecticut, it’s just that they don’t take care of the business in the classroom,” he said. “I knew I had to set­t le down and keep pressing. ( Football) keeps a lot of people off the streets.”

A few points lower, howe v­er, and Gill would have been among those forced to at ­tend junior colleges — where there’s no football.

But if Bernie Armstrong and Peter Cox have their way, there will soon be a new way for gifted high school athletes with mediocre academics, or little money, to play football in community college and therefore have a better chance, they say, of making it into a four-year university.

The coaches are proposing a club football pr o­gram, called the Southwest­e rn Connecticut Grizzlies, for community college st u­dents in the region who take at least six credits, typically the equivalent of two classes, and maintain a 2.3 GPA, or slightly above a C average.

Such an opportunity would motivate students who probably wouldn’t otherwise continue their education after high school, the men said.

“ A lot of my kids, if they can’t play football, they don’t come to class,” said Cox, assistant football coach at Central High. “Because football is their ticket to life. With inner- city kids, you take sports away from them, you take their life away.”

On Tuesday, the coaches got permission from the Board of Park Commissioners to use Central’s Kennedy Stadium for practices three times a week, on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, provided they don’t interfere with high school schedules.

Cox has been dreaming of a program like the Grizzlies for roughly a decade, after he saw a similar pr o­gram work well in the Pittsburgh area. He found more than a sympathetic ear in Armstrong, general manager of the minor league Connect i­cut Bearcats, football coach at Platt Technical High School in Milford and a former University of Maryland player who has been cashing in his professional contacts to spearhead the effort.

“Like super intramurals,” the program would keep talented athletes playing, give them experience on fields and provide a second chance, Armstrong said.

Ricardo Rivera, a 27-year­old business student at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport, said he would love that second chance.

Recently married and moved to Bridgeport from New Jersey, Rivera’s ge t­ting serious about his education while playing with the Bearcats, and he said he is hoping to transfer to the University of Connecticut.

When Armstrong, who teaches health at Notre Dame Catholic High School in Fairfield, mentioned the possibility of college ball, he jumped at the chance.

“ I always wanted to play college football,” he said. “ I never had that opportunity. I wanted to have that experience to say, ‘ Hey, I was part of something really great.’ ” Big- time college coaches aren’t as impressed by minor league football, he said, be­ cause it lacks the “uniformity” of the college level.

The Grizzlies would travel to four- year universities, such as the University of New Haven, the University of Maine and Northeastern University, to play against junior varsity or club teams, Armstrong said. And players wouldn’t lose any years of eligibility for college play.

He’s already been discussing a scrimmage with Peter Rossomando, UNH’s football coach.

“ I think it’s great,” Grossman said of the program. “To be honest with you, this is a long-overdue process in the state of Connecticut.”

Neighboring states such as Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania have junior college football, but the Grizzlies would allow kids to stay in their home state, he said. He added that he believes it’ll bring more athletes to four- year teams who simply need academic “ seasoning” first. The big question mark, at this point, lies with the community colleges themselves.

Armstrong said he has reached out to HCC, Gateway Community College in New Haven, Norwalk Community College and Naugatuck Valley Community College in Waterbury.

But the schools are still weighing his offer, which includes a yearly $ 2,500 association fee per school to help cover costs.

Linda Bayusik, acting di­rector of student activities at HCC, said she met with Armstrong early last month to discuss the program, and she said she likes it.

But it’ll take time for the college to determine whether it’s a feasible option, she said.

“It’s not something that’s going to have a quick answer,” she said. “I think it’s a great idea, and I hope we can be part of it. It would be a good draw to bring students here from high school who play football. But it’s not my decision; it’s the college’s decision.”

If the proposal garners support from student le ad­ers, it will go to the dean of students and other administrators, she said. There are no team sports at HCC now, although the college displays old trophies as vestiges of a bygone bas e­ball team, and students are excited about a recently­started Table Tennis Association, Bayusik said.

Armstrong, a former Dan­ bury High School coach, witnessed the backgrounds of at- risk youths during his six years working for the Bridgeport Housing Authority. He’s seen what they’re up against, and he said he wants to help them experience college.

Tired of saying, “Whatever happened to this kid? He was fantastic when he was 18,” Armstrong has lined up about seven or eight coaches with high school, college and minor league experience, and he has secured new equipment — helmets, pads and cleats — on consignment at a low price from Stadium Systems in Canaan.

“ There’s a gap here,” he said. “ I think our pr o­gram kind of fills that gap. We’re going to be able to ex ­pose these kids to some great things.”

Several students, such as Spencer Jones, have al­ ready expressed interest.

Football “made me want to go to college and have goals,” Jones said, adding that the program would “help me get my name out there. It would be able to get me to a good four-year college.”

Armstrong said he knows the program will have to get results to be successful. “Like anything else, seeing is believing,” he said. “I’m very optimistic. I feel like we can do it.”