SACO — Andrew Libby woke up Tuesday morning to nerves playing with his head and his stomach. It felt like the hours before kickoff on a high school game day in September.
And this was late February.
Cody Lynn felt much the same before he left his home for Thornton Academy. He couldn’t shake the notion that this day would turn out bittersweet. “It’s a little sense of finality,” said Lynn.
One door closed behind Lynn and Libby, and another publicly opened when they signed their letters of intent to play college football.
Libby will head to the large University of Masschusetts campus in Amherst. Lynn will go to Assumption College in Worcester, Mass.
Actually, each had faxed his commitment letter two weeks ago from the solitude of a school office. Tuesday’s signing was for the benefit of family, and the classmates and teammates who had become family. Tuesday was for the applause, hugs and hearty handshakes.
It wasn’t for the media, although the television cameras and notebooks did show up. Libby was said to be the best high school player in the state before he tore up his knee in the first game of the 2013 season. With Libby, the running back, on crutches, Lynn, the tight end, stepped out of his teammate’s shadow.
Lynn is perhaps a couple of inches taller but they appeared as bookends Tuesday. Both wear their hair short. Both have open faces with mature smiles that need a little time to develop. Both are really just boys about to become men.
“I was the new kid,” said Lynn. “My family moved from Wisconsin.”
He was in middle school and wondered how he would be accepted, how he would assimilate.
“I was accepted,” said Lynn. “Football was just one big family.”
It helped that Coach Kevin Kezal and his staff built a strong program, one that would reach the Western Class A championship game three straight years and win the state title in 2012. That Andrew Libby and his older brother, Luke, helped set the tone for acceptance was important, too.
Now mended, Andrew Libby wanted to make that point when it was his turn to speak. Without notes he forgot his nerves and simply talked about a supportive environment and how lucky he was to have grown up in this community.
His knee injury was a jolt. Libby had goals of playing college football at the Division I level. He has goals of someday playing football for pay.
But when you’re 17 or 18 with dreams and wonder if prospective college coaches are looking at you as damaged goods, it is difficult to stay optimistic. Libby did.
“Some coaches did back off,” said Kezal, “and we understood. They have a finite amount of (scholarship) money to offer and they needed to be sure.”
UMass struggled over the past two seasons, making the transition from what was a Division I-AA program to a full Division I program. It fired its coach and turned to Mark Whipple, who once led the Minutemen to a Division I-AA national title.
With help from Paul Gorham, the South Portland native and former Sacred Heart University head football coach, Whipple got to know more about Libby.
Lynn, with his good hands and long, powerful stride, caught the attention of Bob Chesney, who was a first-year coach at Assumption last season. The Grehounds went 6-5 overall, 6-3 in the Northeast 10, a Division II conference that includes Bentley, Saint Anselm and Southern Connecticut State. Like Libby, Lynn wants to be part of a new beginning.
Very quickly the morning event in the atrium at Thornton Academy was over. Students headed to classrooms. The Libby and Lynn families slipped in and out of impromptu cellphone photo sessions.
Twenty years ago, an event to witness the signing of a letter of intent was a novelty. Cindy Blodgett may have been the first, in the library at Lawrence High in Fairfield. Still shy, the basketball star was criticized by a few. Who did she think she was to hold a press conference?
In fact, she and her coach, Bruce Cooper, thought it practical to get everyone in one place rather than do interviews over the course of a week. She had decided to attend the University of Maine. That was big news.
Now the public signings are commonplace. Thornton Academy Athletic Director Gary Stevens has hosted six in the past few years.
Neither Libby or Lynn beat their chest. Tuesday was their rite of passage. A day of affirmation of what is good about high school sports.
The two players thanked their guests for coming, sometimes one at a time. They meant it.
Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at [email protected]