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Article: Darien, New Canaan football teams put aside 100-year Turkey Bowl rivalry to destigmatize mental health

Darien, New Canaan football teams put aside 100-year Turkey Bowl rivalry to destigmatize mental health

NORWALK — Every year, New Canaan and Darien’s high school football players square off for the annual Turkey Bowl game. But for the first time in nearly 100 years, the two teams put aside their rivalry ahead of the game to open up about mental health.

On Sunday, 12 days before kickoff, more than 200 football players from the neighboring towns sat down at LaKota Oaks in Norwalk to share a meal and destigmatize opening up about mental health struggles.

The goal of the evening, said Wave Strong Foundation president Tracy McEvoy, was to create a space to help students open up and break down the “mythical standards of masculinity.”

“You have the ability to apply what you learn this evening not only tomorrow at school, but for the rest of your high school careers, post-high school lives — whether that's college, trade, school or a gap year — and into your adult life,” McEvoy said in a speech to the students. “Tonight, there are no town lines, and there are no rivalries. And the betterment is for each and every one of you in this room.”

McEvoy's son, Matthew, died by suicide last year — one of two such deaths of Darien High School students last spring. The other was Hayden Thorsen, whose father Rob was also at the event.

Conversations around mental health have become a key focus, not just in towns like Darien and New Canaan, but across the country. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide was the second leading cause of death in 2021 for those aged 10 to 34 years old, with significant increases for men between 2020 and 2021.

“Too many males think that admitting something's wrong is a sign of weakness,” McEvoy said. “We are here to tell you that being vulnerable is a sign of strength, and that includes speaking up and asking for help when you need it.”

The event, sponsored by Baywater Properties and men’s activewear company Rhone, encouraged students to see the similarities between both teams and find ways to both prioritize and practice their own mental wellness and reach out to those who may be struggling.

Rhone CEO Nate Checketts said he knew exactly what kind of pressure the players in the room were likely feeling in the lead-up to the big game, having played in the Turkey Bowl two decades earlier for the New Canaan Rams.

“When I was there, we had well-intentioned alumni come and they would say, ‘This is the biggest game of your life, you'll never forget where you were when you were at the Turkey Bowl.’ ” Checketts said. “That just wasn't true. The Turkey Bowl was important, and I played my hardest in the game. But there's so much more to life.”

Now a Darien resident, he joked “I’m the Donna Kelce of these two towns,” complete with a two-team New Canaan and Darien jersey.

Kelce is the mother of professional football players Travis Kelce, who plays for the Kansas City Chiefs, and Jason Kelce, who plays for the Philadelphia Eagles. When the two men faced each other in the Super Bowl earlier this year, their mom famously wore a jersey that stiched together both of her son's jerseys.

In his speech to the students, Checketts spoke about his own friendships later in life with the people he played against, even in the Turkey Bowl.

“I just wanted them to feel perspective, to understand that you can give your all to this game, but outside of this, you might be playing across from a future best friend or even a future teammate,” Checketts said. “What matters most is how you've taken care of yourself and how you're taking care of those around you. Mental health is much bigger than football.”

The students were also treated to surprise video messages from some of the biggest names in the National Football League including Eli Manning, Russell Wilson, Troy Aikman, Steve Young and more.

“You’ve got to keep your friends and your family and those around you — keep them close, rely on their strength and understand there's a lot of people going through the same things you are, I promise,” Manning said in his video message. “There's people out there that want to help. They care about you, love you and you're important.”

New Canaan Head Coach Lou Marinelli said he was proud to see his former player Checketts give back in this way.

“It was just so powerful,” Marinelli said. “I didn't know that it was going to be like this, and I am just so impressed with the job that they did, and I'm so glad that our kids, both Darien and New Canaan, got together and were exposed to this because I think it's tremendous.”

Both Marinelli and Darien Head Coach Andy Grant took to the stage together to implore their players to reach out and check in on each others' well-being.

“I think, most importantly, the players were very receptive, open,” Grant said. “They looked at each other. They talked to each other. I think we accomplished every goal we set out for.”

While it may have been the first time both teams put aside their rivalry, organizers are hoping it’s not the last.

“I would love to see this grow,” Checketts said. “I think this is something every community needs.”

McEvoy said not only would she like to see both towns come together again but she hoped this could inspire other communities and teams within the Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference to come together in a similar way.

To close out the evening, Darien resident and HT40 Foundation founder Rob Thorsen had everyone in the room stand up and introduce themselves to someone on the opposite team to share a “shoulder check.” Thorsen created the Shoulder Check initiative in honor of his son, Hayden, to spread the importance of checking in with loved ones, even just by putting a hand on someone’s shoulder.

The HT40 Foundation, founded in Hayden Thorsen's memory, aims to "bring people together with kindness and compassion, leaving no one left apart," according to the foundation's web site.

Across the room, football players and coaches alike stood up to greet each other, shaking hands with those they will face off with in a handful of days.
 
“I had no doubt that these dudes wouldn't just get up and put their hands on each other's shoulders,” Thorsen said. “I thought it was pretty cool to see. I hope it resonated with them.”

“They were introducing themselves to the other students that they didn't know and shaking hands,” McEvoy said. “Yeah, it was awkward, but who knows, they may be teammates in college. … I think it's important, at this early age, for them to realize that there really aren't any boundaries between the towns and that, as Nate said, we're all the same.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline can be reached 24/7 at 800-273-8255.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct Jayden Harron's name in a photo caption. 

Darien and New Canaan football players use the "shoulder check" method of checking on friends' mental health during the Stronger Together event at LaKota Oaks in Norwalk, Conn. Sunday, Nov. 12, 2023. 

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