By Chris Brodeur
It’s not a football field so much as a football patch — a crude rectangle splotched with scraggly, shin-high growth. The turf blend is 60/40, dandelion to pebble. A tractor tire lies on what amounts to a sideline, perhaps awaiting use in a drill, but for now just adding to the Longest Yard motif. But don’t mistake facts for complaints, pleads Rick Bachand. “You won’t hear a sound,” he says.
To the outside world, the team practicing on the less-than-perfect field is roster filled with players with sketchy pasts, or at best, they are unfulfilled stars, diamonds that stayed buried in the rough. But to Bachand, the owner and coach of the city’s new semi-professional football team and a self-proclaimed “second-chance guy,” they are the Brass City Brawlers, a group of Waterbury’s most talented and dedicated sons. Their mission: to better themselves and their community when they embark on their inaugural season in the New England Football League next month.
The Brawlers, consisting of more than 50 grown men, including some Latino players, range in age from 18 to 35. Instead of sleeping in on a sizzling Sunday morning in early June, they’re running, blocking, and tackling in the shadow of the Michael F. Wallace Middle School.
“It’s not everyday something like this comes to Waterbury,” says two-way lineman Jose Sanchez, 20, a 2011 graduate of Wilby High School. “It’s something positive, so people can be like, ‘Hey, look. There’s nothing to do. It’s a nice Saturday. Let’s go watch the Brass City Brawlers play.’”
To be a Brawler, and stay a Brawler, there are simple rules. No swearing is permitted on Bachand’s field. Tardiness to the team’s two-hour weekly practice sessions isn’t tolerated either, even on a morning like this one, with the team less than 12 hours removed from an all-day volunteering shift at the Relay for Life of Greater Waterbury that was held at nearby Crosby High School, which will serve as the site of the team’s home games beginning July 27.
One late-arriving player breaks into a trot before he’s even learned his penance — usually a number of laps — which he accepts in stride. In Bachand’s system, players hold themselves and each other accountable. Despite scouting reports to the contrary, his players have fallen right in line.
“That’s what I love about these kids, their inherent toughness,” Bachand said. “With what they’ve been through, their struggles in life — they’ve already got that toughness in them. What they need is just the discipline. And to believe you. If they believe you, they’ll go through walls for you. And they’re going to be successful. We’re going to get kids back into school and we’re going to get this program going.”
“Honestly, I was uncoachable,” says 18-year-old Marco Mejil, a sleekly built 6-foot-2, 215-pound defensive end whose recruitment by a handful of Division III schools ended abruptly when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee early in his senior season at Kennedy High School. “Nobody could tell me anything. That’s how I hurt my knee.”
Mejil suffered the injury playing flag football with his older brother. His rehab from the reconstructive surgery was grueling, but he said he fully recovered his game-changing speed within three months. Still, the jury was out.
“I was told by his head coach that he was an absolute nutcase,” Bachand says. “(He told me) ‘You’re going to rue the day that you met this kid. Don’t take him on. He’s no good.’”
For his new coach, Mejil has been a model player, earning one of Bachand’s captaincies.
“I just wish some of these people who have written these kids off could come and see what they’re really like,” Bachand says. “All these guys ever needed was a second chance.”
The 55-man roster is comprised almost entirely of Waterbury natives, Bachand says, many of them recent members of the city’s five high school teams. Some come with checkered pasts, he admits. Others have merely stalled out of the gates to the real world. Universally, though, these players, young and old, want the same thing: to take part in something good and see where it leads.
Bachand, 55, brings nearly three decades of coaching and teaching experience, his own story shaped by a second chance. Now cutting the figure of the lineman he was for three seasons at Southern Connecticut State University, Bachand suffered a cruel and freakish injury a week prior to his freshman season at Southington High School — a muscle on his leg catching and tearing on the jagged bolt of a playground slide — that required 170 stitches and temporarily took football off the table. Undeterred, he reinvented himself as a swimmer and in 1977 received the Brian Piccolo Award as Connecticut’s high school athlete of the year. He rode the athletic success to become a walk-on player for the football team at SCSU, where he played little but observed a lot about the lasting impressions of gridiron brotherhood. He, along with a handful of seasoned assistants, are paying their collective football experiences forward.
“Football is all about life — it’s a life-teaching sport,” says assistant coach Paul Williams, who won a state championship as a basketball player at Harding High in Bridgeport in 2001 and went on to play receiver for the Central Connecticut football team. When a balky knee kept Williams from making a comeback with the Brawlers, he decided to pick up the whistle as a way to give back.
“These guys, they need a bridge to where they want to go,” he said, “so I just want to be a part of that bridge.”
This is also Bachand’s second chance at this league, which now features eight Connecticut teams dispersed among three divisions of varying skill level. After winning multiple state championships as an assistant coach at New Britain High in the early 2000s, Bachand made a successful foray into semi-professional coaching with the Bridgeport Ravens in 2011, a team whose ownership he shared with a couple of partners. Those partners grew dissatisfied with Bachand when he was able to secure Division III scholarships for a couple of star players. They ultimately dismissed him, leading him to start up his own squad — and solely assume the financial burden — here in Waterbury, a place he thinks can produce even more next-level talent.
The Brawlers will be a year-round organization, Bachand said, emphasizing community outreach and player development over wins and losses. His optimism is contagious.
“I’ve been these guys’ age before and I know that opportunities don’t come only but so often,” said Tom Watson, a 35-year-old city worker whom Bachand named one of his captains. “When you do have an opportunity, it’s important to utilize it. To take the commitment and the time and put the hard work in because you never know. This team could get a lot of exposure over the year and some really great things can happen.”
Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary has given the Brawlers his full backing, but there is hard work ahead. Player dues are around $500, a sum Bachand must front for most of his players. He has sought employment for players without it and devised player sponsorship packages to defray uniform and equipment costs. So far, the team can only afford road jerseys, which are a shimmering shade of orange and trimmed in black.
Still, Bachand is committed to making the Brawlers experience as affordable and family-friendly as possible come late July.
“Where can a father take his three kids to a game for 10 bucks, have three hot dogs and be entertained for three hours?” Bachand said. “Most teams charge $8-10, and they charge children. I’m charging the league minimum ($6) for adults and I won’t charge kids under 16.”
As inspiring as Bachand’s vision sounds, the obstacles beg some questions: Why Waterbury? Why practice on a field a Pop Warner team would scoff at? Why take a chance on these guys when no one else will?
“He could have taken the easy way out,” says Tanner Bachand, 21, the Brawlers’ left-handed starting quarterback, who made the NEFL All-Star team last season as a member of his dad’s Ravens. “But to able to show us that he has the passion to start from the bottom and take on that responsibility, it helps boost us.”
In return, the Brass City Brawlers take the field, day in and day out, to boost a city.