Best of friends meet every Thanksgiving on football field
As Ron Lynch and Garrett Walker lined up alongside players from their respective football teams — Lynch with Jonathan Law and Walker with Foran High — waiting for the combined bands of Foran and Jonathan Law High to play the National Anthem on Thanksgiving Day, a multitude of thoughts ran through their minds.
Assistant coaches on opposing teams getting ready for the traditional battle on Turkey Day, Lynch’s and Walker’s memories both run deep in this series that dates back 43 years. Their roots are truly entrenched in the matchup of city rivals.
“That’s what makes it unique,” said Walker, who grew up a sports rat following his father, the late Ken Walker, to games in just about every sport. Like many native sons, Ken Walker returned to where he grew up upon graduating from college, beginning a stint as an educator and coach.
“We’re just like Stratford and Bunnell,” Garrett Walker said. “You look out on that field when you’re a player. You not only know the kid you’re going up against, you know his brother or his sister. You know his parents. This is like a neighborhood game. It could best be described as a very good backyard football game.”
Walker played for his dad, from 1999 through the 2002 season as a quarterback and led Foran to the Class M state playoffs in 2001 when the team compiled a 9-1 record. The top-seed, Foran lost to perennial state power, New Canaan, 41-13, in the opening round.
Lynch played at Law from 1983-86 when Frank Luysterborghs was the head coach. As a senior in 1986, Lynch, a defensive end and offensive tackle, helped his team snap a six-game losing streak with a 28-7 victory over Foran.
The Lawmen opened that season with five straight wins before losing to Stratford in a game where both center Mike Liscowski and quarterback Mark Shackett suffered season-ending injuries. Law went 1-3 the rest of the way. That one win, however, came over Foran.
“I missed the sport,” said Lynch, who returned to his alma mater to coach in 1989. “I didn’t go to college, so I lost out on the opportunity to stay close to the game. It was great coming back here.”
Over the years, Lynch has coached in both the Milford and West Haven Pop Warner Leagues and, in addition to that, he served as an assistant at Notre Dame of Fairfield.
After getting a call last year from current Law head coach Derrick Lewis, he decided to come back to where he spent some many wonderful days as a player.
Lynch worked this year with the offense and coached the freshman team to a 3-3-1 record and an 18-16 win over Foran. His son, R.J., is a senior and played in his final game.
“It’s insane,” he said of the game day atmosphere. “Normally, we get a couple of hundred people for a game. On Thanksgiving, the stands are filled. People are ringing the field along the fences. It’s the one day when players who’re normally friends become enemies. Then it all returns to normal one day later.”
Walker, who was appointed the school’s head baseball coach in the wake of his father’s death, became an assistant football coach four years ago. He joined seven others on the Foran side who’ve either played at Foran or at Law.
The group includes Cliff Kemp, Kevin Long, Mark Manning, Jeff Phelan, Jason Hart (who played at Law) along with Jim Esposito.
“Some people think that this game is played on Thanksgiving Day,” Walker said. “It actually begins way before that. It’s been played in the kids’ minds ever since they got involved with football.”
Walker can still vividly remember the game his senior year.
“It snowed like crazy on Tuesday,” he said. “A bunch of kids came down and we shoveled the field. The next day, everything froze. We had vehicles out there trying to make it softer. We won the game the next day, 6-2. Let’s just say that field conditions weren’t the best.”
That has all changed now with the advent of turf. So, according to Lynch, has the game. “It’s so much faster now,” he said. “We used to play it between the hash marks. You could tell afterward because the grass was all turn up only in those places.
“I think some of the talent is missing now. Kids have so many other things to do. But those boys who come out and dedicate themselves to the game are still there. The numbers are fewer, however.”
Lynch joined fellow former Law players like Ted Boynton and Courtney Williams waiting for that national anthem to be completed. It didn’t turn out to be a good day for the Law side as the Eagles lost, 50-0.
Foran extended its win streak under head coach Jeff Bevino to eight and took the series lead, 21-20-2.
“You never know in a game like this,” Walker warned earlier in the morning. “Records simply don’t mean anything. They will be looking for the upset and they’ll be willing to risk everything in order to try and get it.”
As players and coaches gathered near midfield in the warm glow of a Thanksgiving Day afternoon, coaches exchanged handshakes, wished each other well, and then prepared to unwind and head home for dinner. Enemies had once again become friends.