Jeff Jacobs: Friendship matters most to Amity’s Craig Bruno, New Milford’s Sean Murray even during game week

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Craig Bruno and Sean Murray started talking 21 years ago and neither sees a compelling need for silence this week before they meet as opposing coaches Friday night.

“I’ll be honest,” Murray, the 35-year-old coach at New Milford, said. “I don’t see us not talking.”

“I just talked to Sean today,” Bruno, the 53-year-old head coach at Amity, said Tuesday night. “We talk every day. Maybe we don’t talk Thursday or Friday. I don’t know. Maybe we do. We’re a little too close for that not communicating the week of the game stuff.”

How close are they?

“As close as you possibly could be,” Bruno said.

How close?

“He is my mentor, my brother, my best friend,” Murray said.

And best man at Murray’s wedding in 2018.

Bruno wasn’t sure who was the first to call when they discovered in 2020 that the Connecticut Football Alliance had scheduled New Milford at Amity. Murray couldn’t remember either.

They do know this much.

“We couldn’t believe it,” Bruno said. “If either one of us had anything to do with it, it wouldn’t have happened.”

COVID canceled the 2020 game. COVID couldn’t stop the rescheduling in 2021.

“I would not sign up for this game ever again if I didn’t have to,” Murray said. “I root for Craig every week. He roots for me every week. One of the first things my wife asks me after we talk about our game is, ‘Did Craig win?’ It’s incredibly uncomfortable trying to beat your best friend, especially in a big game for both of us. We’ve been preparing ourselves emotionally since the schedule came out.”

The first conversation they ever had was in 2000. Murray was a freshman at Bunnell in Stratford. Bruno, who had played under Bob Mastroni at Bunnell, was defensive coordinator.

“Myself and a couple of other guys got called up to dress for Thanksgiving,” Murray said. “He called us aside and said, ‘You are the future of this program. I’ve heard good things about you guys. I’ve watched you. You are going to be something special.’ That was the start of our bond.”

Murray was the second quarterback of Bruno’s 12-year tenure and, as a senior, Murray led Bunnell in 2003 to its first state playoff appearance under Bruno. Bunnell would go on to win state Class LL titles in 2006 and 2007.

“That entire week was probably the most intense week I’d ever been part of,” Murray said. “We were gassed up for that game against Stratford. Afterward everyone went to one of the kids’ house, all the players and coaches, we ate together and celebrated.”

Murray threw for two touchdowns and ran for another in Bunnell’s 32-0 victory. The next morning — Thanksgiving — the coaches and captains paired up to go to games that Bunnell needed to go its way to qualify for the Class MM playoffs.

“Then we met up at (Bruno’s) parents house for Thanksgiving dinner and another celebration because we were officially in,” Murray said. “That was a special weekend. Even then, I was close with his family. His mother and father always treated me like a grandson.”

Bruno took over for Mastroni in 2001, went 94-35-1 and, along with Bunnell’s only two state titles, was named the Connecticut High School Coaches Association Coach of the Year in 2006. Bruno, who has a 136-62-1 career record, went on to coach at Naugatuck for four seasons, leading the Greyhounds to the state playoffs in 2014. He took over Amity in 2018.

“Craig is one of the most intense men I’ve ever met,” Murray said, “but he is also one of the most caring. He pushes and pushes, but he’ll hug you, cry with you, laugh with you and be there for you. He’s the best.”

Murray played one season at Western Connecticut, before transferring. He did not play at Southern Connecticut. He volunteered to help with Bunnell’s freshmen, stopped for a time to finish school and returned when Bruno called in 2009 to tell him he had a freshman coaching position open.

Murray was on Bruno’s staff for four years. After the 2012 season, Murray got a teaching job in New Milford. Bruno took the coaching job at Naugatuck.

“It was hard to separate, I felt guilty,” Murray said. “He told me, ‘Dude, you got a job. You’ve got to go and start your life.’ It was his guidance and mature reasoning that made me think, ‘You’re right. I’ve got to move on a little bit.’ It made me feel a lot better knowing I had his full support.”

Murray became an assistant at New Milford until 2016, stepped away for a couple of years and became head coach in March 2019. Murray said he has taken things offensively and defensively from Bruno.

“One of the things he is the best at is getting his teams emotionally prepared,” Murray said. “I try to emulate that as much as possible, but it’s hard to be as authentically emotional as he is. He’s on another level than everyone when it comes to that.”

Bruno said when his players watched video of New Milford they recognized some of the same things they do.

“All my guys know the story,” Bruno said. “I’ve watched his games, but this is he first time really studying them. It’s so cool for me to see Sean’s passion. I’m as proud as I could be. His competitiveness as a player was second to none. He was a ferocious competitor, fast, very smart. You could see he was going to be a coach.”

Murray has been over Bruno’s house many times. Bruno has been over Murray’s a bunch of times. They’ve gone to all sorts of games together, all sorts of different stadiums. To Ohio State, Duke, Boston College, North Carolina, Buffalo all over the place. One weekend a handful of years ago, they double-dipped for Tennessee Vols and Tennessee Titans games. Met up after their Friday night games and drove through the night to Knoxville.

“That one was pretty crazy,” Murray said.

Murray has been to Bruno’s daughters’ graduation parties. Bruno was Murray’s best man. Their families have been intertwined for 20 years.

“I can go to him for advice, but at the same time we sit back, relax, watch a game and laugh all night,” Murray said. “He has more experience than me on the field and off the field. I know I’m always going to get a straight answer, an honest answer but from the heart. Everyone should want a friend like that.”

Murray’s wife Victoria, like Sean a physical education teacher at New Milford, is due to give birth in two weeks. The couple lost a baby a year ago.

“We’re hoping for a healthy delivery,” Murray said.

“We’re all praying very hard,” Bruno said.

Bruno is a football junkie. He needs the game. He does not deny this for a minute. The season between the Naugatuck and Amity jobs, he served on Marce Petroccio’s staff at Staples. The lost season to COVID was tough on him.

“I’m so addicted to football,” Bruno said. “One time last year I drove to a field we had played at previously and just walked around.”

“Beyond football, he is such a class act,” Murray said. “He’s so caring. I try to coach to the best of my abilities. I ask myself, ‘Would Craig be proud of this? Would he be happy?’ That’s always in the back of my mind.”

Bruno showed the aforementioned class and caring when Amity played Westhill a few week ago after captain Jordan Martinez was killed in an auto accident. Westhill asked to move the game. Amity said no problem. Westhill coach Alland Joseph wanted to leave Martinez’s spot open on the line the first offensive play of the game. Bruno made sure to decline the penalty.

When the teams met for the coin flip, the Amity captains brought a football and a signed card to present to the Westhill captains. Folks remember that sort of grace long after the final score is forgotten.

“This was something much bigger than the game,” Bruno said. “This was as sad as anything I’ve seen in my coaching career. We just wanted Westhill to be OK.”

Both Bruno’s and Murray’s families will be there at Amity on Friday night. Both teams are 3-2 and need to keep winning for a chance at a playoff berth.

“We going to compete at the same intense level,” Bruno said. “We always do. But Sean knows how close we’ll be after it is over. We both know.”

“This is a big game for both teams,” Murray said. “We both understand that. But at the end of the day, we’re going to shake hands, hug and probably talk to each other on the way home. That’s what we do.”

jeff.jacobs@hearstmediact.com; @jeffjacobs123