North Haven community ensures ‘Spring Brawl’ charity football game will go on

NORTH HAVEN — North Haven High School’s annual spring football game has become so big in town, the school’s longtime football coach Tony Sagnella says everyone in town knows it by name: The Spring Brawl.

It wasn’t because of some fanatical devotion to getting a glimpse of the next crop of North Haven football players, but because its mission to provide local families financial support for children with life-altering afflictions. The Spring Brawl has raised upwards of $15,000 annually.

“It was just a one-off name we came up with when we first put this game together 20 years ago,” Sagnella said. “It’s amazing, now people know the name because of the charity drive and what it stands for.”

But when the CIAC eliminated spring football for all of its member schools two years ago, North Haven risked losing the anticipated event for good.

Yet, Sagnella and the North Haven community collectively refused to let it happen. He and athletic director Steve Blumenthal met with the CIAC to figure out a way for the Spring Brawl to continue this year without violating any offseason training regulations.

The solution was for North Haven High School to hand the event over to North Haven Youth Football, which is handling everything from insurance, to equipment and other costs and packaged the game around a three-day football clinic leading up to the game.

So the 18th edition of the Spring Brawl will indeed be played. This year, it will benefit Nate Gagne, a 3-year old resident with cystic fibrosis, a condition in which where the lungs are unable to cleanse themselves of mucus, leading severe breathing difficulties. Nate Gagne’s father, Scott, is a former North Haven football and baseball player who continues to live in town with his wife, Laura.

All proceeds from the event will go toward the family to offset Nate’s medical costs.

“It’s been an honor for us to take over this event, which as meant so much to our community over the last few years,” said Sal Demaio, NHYF’s president who played for Sagnella at North Branford and has two sons in North Haven’s program.

“It’s become so much bigger than football in town. It’s something that all our kids look forward to, not because it’s a football game, but because of what they’re doing to help a great family and a great kid in town.”

The game will be played Friday night at 6 p.m. on the turf next to Vanacore Field, which is unavailable due to impending construction. Though it will be played on North Haven’s campus, per CIAC regulations, North Haven High School cannot be involved.

None of the North Haven coaches, including Sagnella, will be involved in running the game. “I’ll be flipping burgers at the snack bar,” Sagnella said. Blumenthal, who previously had to organize the event’s logistics, will be in attendance but only as a spectator this time.

Both Blumenthal and Sagnella said they’ve heard some complaints from outsiders despite their assurances that it is not a school-run spring game designed to skirt rules for the benefit of the football program.

“Any town can do this,” Blumenthal said. “We’re not doing anything special. We just needed to communicate with CIAC to make sure we dotted our ‘i’s and crossed our Ts.

“The community is doing this for a kid in need. We’re fortunate that North Haven Youth Football was willing to step up and take on such a huge task.”

Demaio admitted he was nervous about taking over the logistics. But those fears were assuaged as the North Haven players fanned out across the town, they secured the donations of at least 65 sponsors.

Costs to run the event were also kept at a minimum as town businesses were eager to donate their equipment or services, Demaio said. North Haven parents and the football booster club have also volunteered their money and time.

Demaio said he’s worked with the town to provide police for handling traffic and that North Haven fire department — a mainstay at regular NHHS football games — will provide paramedics.

Because of that, Demaio said, event will likely haul anywhere between $18,000 to 20,000 for the Gagne family.

“Once people heard what this was for, they would just donate,” Demaio said. “We got some help from the town. The whole community has really come together for this.”

North Haven’s football underclassmen will play in the game. But Demaio said they were required to register with NHYF for insurance purposes. According to Sagnella, the game itself will feature light tackling and a quick whistle.

As in previous years, the outgoing seniors divided into two teams, drafted their underclassmen teammates and will call the plays. Rich Brannigan, a former North Haven parks director who now works with the American Red Cross, and Dave Mikos, a former NHYF commissioner and business owner, are the teams honorary coaches.

“It’s going to be amazing for the community and the team coming together and do something special for the Gagne family,” North Haven senior Sebastian DeRubeis said. “There’s nothing like this. Nobody does anything like this around here. It’s truly special.”; @SPBowley