Longtime rivals Darien and New Canaan to meet in championship following remarkable off-field collaboration

It's a big weekend for high school football in Connecticut with six state championship games on Saturday, including New Canaan versus Darien—a longtime rivalry.

Marissa Alter

Dec 8, 2023, 11:41 PM

Updated 228 days ago


It's a big weekend for high school football in Connecticut with six state championship games on Saturday, including New Canaan versus Darien—a longtime rivalry. The two teams have already met this year—both off and on the field.
Every Thanksgiving, the Darien Blue Wave and the New Canaan Rams face off in the Turkey Bowl. It's a game that means a lot to both towns.
"I'm Class of '79, New Canaan High School and wouldn't miss this game for anything," said one fan at the Nov. 23 meeting.
"It's a big deal," Darien head football coach Daniel Grant told News 12. "The players and the coaches—they love this, we live for this!"
"I would say that it is very competitive," stated Darien senior Briggs McGuckin.
"Definitely gets intense out on the field," added teammate Connor Lane.
That's why what happened just 11 days before kickoff was so remarkable. For the first time in their nearly 100-year history, both teams came together off the field for an event that put a twist on the traditional team dinner. The purpose was an open conversation about mental health.
"Tonight, there are no town lines and there are no rivalries," said Tracy McEvoy as she kicked things off. McEvoy is the president of the Wave Strong Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to destigmatizing mental health for the betterment of Darien.
The organization formed last year after the town was hit by tragedy.
"My son, Matthew—he died by suicide on March 31, 2022. He was 17 years old and a junior at Darien High," McEvoy shared. "He was amazing. He was a great student, funny, very adventurous. He was athletic and played lacrosse."
"It just didn't feel real. It didn't make sense," said Lane, explaining that he and his classmates grappled to understand it. "It was a very numbing feeling."
"It went from confusion just to like pure sadness. We had never really experienced anything like that," explained McGuckin.
Then, two months later another student died by suicide. Sophomore Hayden Thorsen, 16, was a hockey player.
"It just added to something that was already so terrible," McGuckin recalled. "I mean, Hayden just lit up the room wherever he went. He was always smiling. He never wanted to make anyone feel left out. He was just so kind and inclusive."
"Everybody was thinking like, 'What could I have done before?'" Lane said. "I think the community as a whole understood very quickly that we needed to make a change."
That’s where the Wave Strong Foundation came in.
“There's a need to open up the dialogue because it hasn't—it, meaning health and mental illness—hasn't been openly talked about. And so we, by very simple actions, hope to open up that dialogue,” McEvoy explained.
The effort led to the foundation's "Stronger Together" initiative and both teams gathering on Latoaka Oaks in Norwalk on Nov. 12.
"Too many males think that admitting something's wrong is a sign of weakness. 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," McEvoy told the group of over 200 football players.
The event was sponsored by Baywater Properties and Rhone, a men's activewear company that's on a mission to help people build active lives and mental fitness, according to CEO Nate Checketts.
Checketts grew up in New Canaan and played for the Rams in the Turkey Bowl about two decades earlier. He now lives with his wife and three kids in Darien.
"We are dealing with a mental health crisis that the documented world has never before seen. Suicide has risen, becoming the No. 2 cause of death among our young people," Checketts said, addressing the crowd.
Checketts shared that he's faced his fair share of anxiety and depressive moments in his life and also lost two very close friends to suicide. He encouraged the athletes to prioritize and practice their own mental well-being, sharing things he does to help.
"There are no quick fixes to mental health but consider these the taping job of a sprained ankle--box breathing, audible sigh, speak to someone," Checketts explained. "These are three tools you can now put in your mental tool kit. Think of them as lifting weights, cardiovascular training and stretching."
Some of the biggest names in NFL history echoed that in video messages made for the event. Checketts reached out to them and got responses from Eli Manning, Troy Aikman, Russell Wilson, Justin Tuck, Steve Young and more.
Students were also encouraged to reach out to those who may be struggling.
"This idea is about behavior change, right?" Rob Thorsen explained to the room.
Thorsen is the founder and executive director of the HT40 Foundation, which was formed in memory of his son Hayden, the second student suicide last year.
"We're on a mission to create opportunities for young men and women to connect with each other, ways for them to show support for one another," Thorsen explained.
The organization's first initiative is called the Shoulder Check. The goal is to make mental-health outreach routine.
"Hayden was a guy who put his hand on people's shoulders. He was empathetic, which I think is not the norm for a 16-year-old boy," Thorsen told News 12. "My wife and I found ourselves not necessarily looking for answers—because there's no end to that search, and I don't know where that goes—and instead we found ourselves applying our emotional energy, our thinking, to try and manifest something positive in this."
The way Hayden was now lives on through the Shoulder Check.
Thorsen wrapped up the Stronger Together event with having the two teams stand as one, place their hands on each other's shoulders and repeat the following after him: "I'm here for you ‘cause I promise to reach out, check in and make contact."
It’s a message that resonated with these young people after what they’ve gone through.
"It's always OK to just say, 'How are you doing?' and put your hand on somebody's shoulder and really just check in on them because keeping it inside doesn't lead to anything good," Lane told News 12.
"We tend to be looked at as role models in our schools. I think it's very important to show that even though we're supposed to be like tough football players that we take a moment to realize the bigger picture," McGuckin added.
Rivalries are great on the field. But no matter what happens in the game, perhaps the real win has nothing to do with the final score.
"We're over the hump of not being able to talk about things here--not for the right reasons, but we're over the hump," Thorsen told News 12. "They are willing and able to share. We just need to create the space for them to do it."
"To put those words into action is monumental and hopefully impactful for the rest of their lives," McEvoy said

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