In his first three years at Natick High School, Jalyn Aponte got up early and splashed the sleep from his eyes before making the journey from his Mattapan home to the western suburbs. “I never ate breakfast,” he said.
“He’d get up at 6 a.m. and I’d drive him to the METCO bus that took him to Natick,” said his mother, Kimberly Alfred.
For Jalyn, the process was all worth it. He fit in nicely at Natick High and enjoyed being around his teammates on the football team, where he was a standout running back. After back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons, he couldn’t wait for 2020, his senior year. “It’s nice to be on a team like that,” he said. “It’s like a big family.”
Then COVID-19 swept in, wiping out the entire high school football season.
The focal point of a high school football player’s career — especially the seniors — is the traditional Thanksgiving morning game. For most of them, it’s the last organized game they’ll play. Thanksgiving is a bustling, cheery holiday, families reuniting and making dinner plans. The morning football game usually kicks off the festivities.
Not this time. “I’m going to miss that,” said Aponte. “We play that final game for our families and teammates.” It’s the day you get to keep the game jersey with your name on the back.”
Before the pandemic intensified again, the Natick players and several other teams were competing in an informal summer 7-on-7 league held in Ashland. "When that got canceled and other states began to shut down football, we just did the best we could,” said Natick’s senior quarterback Will Lederman.
Staying together as a team while tracking the pandemic became a strange new world for the Natick Redhawks.
“As summer went on it looked like things weren’t getting better,” said head football coach Mark Mortarelli. “So we started virtual workouts in late June, exercises the players could do at home.” The workouts were taped so the coaching staff could review them.
Players kept in touch through a group chat and clung to hope that there’d be a fall season. “Very much so,” said Mortarelli. But it got grimmer as sport by sport — including a basketball program that included special needs students — and cheerleading were canceled.
While boys' and girls' soccer, field hockey, and cross-country had a semblance of a masked and socially distanced season, football was too big a risk.
With Natick High adopting a hybrid schedule of in-person and remote classes, Mortarelli, who works in the school’s alternative program, said “the worst part was seeing [his] players, masked of course, in the corridors and just saying hello, nothing formal.”
Mortarelli recalled playing football for Natick, including three Thanksgiving games against archrival Framingham. Those were usually the most memorable games, particularly for seniors. “That’s who I feel worse for,” said the coach. Natick has 23 seniors on the 2020 squad.
“I’ve been slowly going nuts these last four months,” said senior linebacker/receiver Jake Dunlap, a football and basketball captain. “I’ve been doing something for 18 years, playing sports, now I’m confined to the house.”
Playing in the 7-on-7 league offered a chance to be with some of his teammates, “but there’s nothing like putting on the [shoulder] pads on Friday nights,” said Dunlap. “When everything shut down in March, I was delusional optimistic. I didn’t believe that football would be shut down. It was crushing.”
Kimberly Alfred, Aponte’s mom, will miss watching her son play. The absence of the Thanksgiving game hurts the most. “I know Jalyn is really bummed out,” she said.
Alfred also was a METCO student, starting in Lexington and spending her high school years in Natick. She was thrilled that her son was selected to attend the Natick school system. Her high school years still resonate. “I got a good education at Natick High. I wanted Jalyn to go there,” she said.
There was plenty of celebrating around Thanksgiving dinner tables in Natick last year after a 34-12 victory over Framingham in the 114th game of the storied rivalry.
For Lederman, not playing football on Thanksgiving is nearly unthinkable. “It’s going to be weird waking up and not go to that game. I started going to the Thanksgiving games with my dad when I was 6 or 7. I’ve played in three Thanksgiving games. It’s crazy, whether it’s at Natick or Framingham. There’s about 3,000 fans. It’s surreal.”
Despite the loss of a season, Lederman practiced with the cross-country team. “I did sprint workouts. It helped me get faster.”
Lederman, Aponte, and Dunlap, along with other seniors, plan to play at the collegiate level. The pandemic has taken away the opportunity to showcase their ability one last time.
Still, the players made staying fit a priority. “I’d go with a couple of players to LA Fitness in Natick,” said Dunlap. But without football, “life just doesn’t feel right,” he said. “Senior year is supposed to be one of the most important things in life.”
There have been discussions among high school football administrators and coaches about having a season beginning in February. “I’m trying to stay positive about it, but that’s four months away,” said Mortarelli, whose team plays in the Bay State Conference. Non-conference games against Brockton and Acton-Boxborough were stripped from the schedule, even if there’s a late season.
“I wouldn’t complain if we could have any kind of season,” said Mortarelli, who has been coaching football at Natick since 1998 and head coach for the last 10 years.
“It’s hard having decisions made for you, and things taken away,” said Lederman. “But it’s taught me to never take anything for granted. Never again.”
Lenny Megliola can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter@lennymegs.