Most people who play, coach or watch football would call it a thankless position.
Anywhere else, that depiction of offensive linemen is probably true. Not so much at Darien High School.
They are the players who do the grunt work in the trenches, who open holes for the ball carriers and vow to do everything they possibly can to keep their quarterback upright. And then they watch the runners and the catchers and the throwers score the touchdowns and gain the glory.
You bet they are, just about everywhere . . . except for Darien.
“For us, it all starts with the offensive line,” Darien coach Rob Trifone said. “In my 37 years of coaching football, I have never seen a more dedicated group of linemen.”
The line, led by senior guard Spencer Stovall and junior tackle Andrew Stueber, has helped Darien win all 11 of its games this season. The linemen, as well as all the other Blue Wave players, are determined to make it 12 on Saturday. That is when they will go for the school’s first state crown since 1996 against undefeated Shelton in the Class LL state championship game at 2:30 p.m. at Willow Brook Park in New Britain.
Last year’s loss in the state Class L final to rival New Canaan – for the second consecutive season – was enough for the players to dedicate themselves to going all the way this season. For the offensive line, making such a commitment might have been even easier, considering the treatment they receive.
“The offensive line doesn’t get to score the touchdowns or get the headlines,” Trifone said. “So it’s a tradition here to show them the love.”
Not that the linemen need it — “We don’t care about praise, we just love to keep working hard behind the scenes,” Stovall says — but a little love is always welcome.
Every week during the season quarterback Timmy Graham, one of the top players at his position in the state, goes out for a steak dinner with the group of players who he depends on for his success — and physical health.
Graham has paid for their dinners but the linemen usually insist on taking turns.
“Tim loves us,” the 6-foot, 265-pound Stovall said. “He really doesn’t want to get hit. We’ve developed a bond with our dinners, a really special bond.”
“It’s a nice tradition that dates back to about 2010 where the quarterback takes the linemen out to dinner every year,” Trifone added. “To show them the love they don’t normally get is something special.”
Such love might have been the driving force that helped earn this group the “most dedicated” label given to them by the coach. Trifone knows that appreciation leads to dedication.
“They got their rear ends in the weight room in the offseason and were totally committed to getting bigger, faster and stronger,” Trifone said. That was the big difference for us this year: The linemen showed up 15 to 20 pounds heavier, but much more fit and athletic.”
Stovall and the 6-6, 305-pound Stueber, who is being heavily recruited by Division I schools, are the returning starters on the line and have the most dinner-with-the-QB experience. They are joined by junior guard Cord Fox (5-9, 202), junior center Brian Keating (6-0, 230) and senior guard Andrew Clarke (6-0, 232). Sophomore Charlie Zuro (6-0, 265) also rotates in.
But Trifone admits there were questions about the group before the season.
“Last year the offensive line was more seasoned than this group,” the coach said. “Last year we had all two- or three-year starters on the line and we mixed in Stueber and Stovall, and didn’t have much experience with the skill position players. This year all the skill guys are back but only two linemen. But they worked so hard to get where they are.”
The linemen have helped make Darien one of the most difficult offenses to defend. The Blue Wave have been led on offense by Graham (2,896 passing yards, 71 percent completions, 39 touchdowns and four interceptions), running back Shelby Grant (772 rushing yards, 12 TDs) and receivers Colin Minicus (858 receiving yards, 11 TDs) and Hudson Hamill (591 receiving yards and 10 TDs).
But, as Trifone said, it all starts with the O-line. The Blue Wave have averaged more than 400 total yards per game this season — just under 300 passing yards per game and 111 rushing yards.
The Darien linemen not only must protect Graham and give him time to throw, but have to be stout with their run blocking.
“We probably split 50-50 run and pass,” said Stovall, who will attend Cornell next fall but will not be playing football. “A lot of it is our O-line coach Tom O’Neill. He changes what we do every week depending on our opponent. Not a lot of high school teams do that.”
“Tommy has been with me as my offensive line coach all 10 years I have been at Darien and for six or seven years at McMahon before that,” Trifone added. “He was the first call I made when I became head coach (at Darien). If you don’t have a good offensive line coach, you don’t have anything.”
What the Blue Wave will have with a loss Saturday is three consecutive runner-up finishes in state finals, and a 19-year state championship drought. A victory, and all will be right with the world.
But whatever happens, when all is said and done Saturday, one thing is a given within this Darien High football program: The five big guys in the trenches and the ones who will follow in their footsteps will know they were appreciated.