A decision that could have had a negative impact instead launched James Freyre to becoming one of the leaders of the New Canaan football team.
Freyre briefly left the Rams last season to attend a lacrosse recruiting showcase. Lou Marinelli, the Rams’ coach, benched his middle linebacker for a game against Fairfield Ludlowe and didn’t allow him to practice with the starters.
“It was one of those things where I went and when I came back and kind of realized what I did, I knew that it wasn’t right,” Freyre recalled. “When I heard he wasn’t going to play me I felt I owed it to the team to still be a positive. On scout team I wasn’t going to play with the 1s, but (defensive coordinator Chris) Silvestri says every week you have to try and get better, so I thought the best way to get better and get the team better was to get as many scout reps as I could.”
Instead of becoming a pariah in the locker room, Freyre gained renewed respect. It is one of the reasons that when the Rams host Darien in Thursday’s much-anticipated Turkey Bowl, Fryere will be out on the field as one of the captains for the opening coin toss.
“A lot of kids will be quiet after something like that, but he couldn’t have been any more helpful than he was,” Marinelli said. “He was on the scout team and I think he won himself the captaincy during that week because he took it like a man, he understood and he couldn’t have been any more positive or better at helping the team. He’s a selfless kid. He’s very quiet. Funny. You have a lot of fun with him. He’s all about the team. He’s almost shy about his own accolades.”
That praise has been universal; Freyre has been one of the most dominant players on a defense that is being talked about as one of the best in New Canaan’s recent history.
“I didn’t know if we’d be this good, but I knew we were going to be pretty good,” Freyre said. “Personally I just wanted to take a step forward. I felt like I just started hitting my stride during the state playoffs last year and I wanted to keep that going. I think this year I got a lot more cerebral with my game and started understanding intricacies of our defense more. I think it helped me with the mental part more. As a team I knew we had the athletes to do it. It was just about putting the parts together and I think we’ve done that pretty well this year.”
New Canaan and Darien both come into Thursday’s game at 9-0. The Blue Wave, who lead the FCIAC in scoring, are No. 1 and the Rams No. 2 in the state polls.
The Rams have given up just 84 points so far, and more than half have come against reserves late in the second half of blowouts. The closest game, ironically enough, was a season-opening 20-6 win over Trinity Catholic. It has been the only one during a run that New Canaan hopes will result next month with a fourth straight state title that the offense struggled, before freshman Drew Pyne earned the starting quarterback spot.
“I feel like we are getting closer and closer each week,” Freyre said. “Especially with the beginning of the year and the Trinity game, how it really was a defensive battle like we haven’t had before in our last four years. That kind of brought us closer together knowing we could be the difference in this team and the focal point of it. We’ve kind of had that attitude that we want to carry the team. That has led us to become better and better each week.”
Freyre is second on the team in tackles and returned an interception for a touchdown against the Crusaders, which Marinelli said was a seminal moment. Marinelli is the first guest each year at what has become known as “Football with Franny,” periodic gatherings during the season when his wife Fran helps teach the game to the mothers of New Canaan players.
“At ‘Football with Frannie’ I remember saying I want to show you something that doesn’t have to do with Xs and Os,” Marinelli said. “James intecepted a ball and returned it for touchdown. There were 10 guys around him in the end zone, just as happy as the kid who scored. I said to the moms this has nothing to do with how good or bad we are, but this could be a special team because they all love to play together. It’s not scripted. It’s a natural thing. This senior class is a special one and James has emerged as a leader.”
Freyre said the game has slowed down this season, and because of it Silvestri has given him greater latitude.
“If the offense makes a check at the line he gives me the freedom to make a check if necessary,” Freyre said. “It’s more me understanding why we do things.”
Freyre is going to play lacrosse next year at Denison, but right now he is focused on helping the Rams end a four-year losing streak to Darien on Thanksgiving. In an ironic twist, what will make the day so special is part of why Freyre will end his football career next month.
“Football is the ultimate team sport and I am definitely going to miss that part of it, especially the way this year has been going,” Freyre said. “I know I am going to miss it, but one of the differences between high school and college football is in high school I’m close to the community, the games are packed and I know who is watching and my best friends are playing. That’s the best part.”