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Football moms are 'special teams' of their own

By Julianne Hanckel

Publication: The Day

Published November 10. 2012 4:00AM

Sacrifice and hard work are part of the game for them, too

When football season starts, the mothers of the Ledyard and New London high school football players kick into overdrive.

By season's end they've served up countless plates of pasta, flipped hundreds of pancakes and endured the funky potpourri of perspiration and plastic.

They've perfected the art of falling asleep in less-than-comfortable positions and have learned that a full refrigerator and kitchen cabinets will be exactly the opposite once a dozen - or more - teenage boys whirl through their homes.

During football season, moms sacrifice their personal lives, fashion and beauty routines - except when one takes her son to get pedicures with her. He's in the chair right next to her, toes in the tub.

If the end result of all their sacrifice is a smiling kid or many smiling kids, it's all worth it.

Here are a few of their stories.

For 13 years Jelani Lucas headed to school without his mother there to kiss him goodbye. Usually, she calls their house phone from work, and the ringing wakes him up.

Fourteen-year-old Jelani knows that those absent mornings aren't all for naught.

The New London High School sophomore also knows that when it comes time for football, his mother, Michele Lucas, is always there.

He's the youngest of three sons who have each chosen to absorb themselves in football. His older brothers, Paul Winston and Jevon Elmore, are well-known New London football alumni. Elmore is currently playing football at West Point Prep.

For 13 years the single mother of three has worked the 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift at Henny Penny. "It's just one of those things you just do," she says. "If it has to be done, it has to be done. You just make it happen; you don't have another choice.

A way of life

"It's all I know. It's been that way for 15 years, and I just keep going. I've been working five to two for 13 years only for this reason, so I can be at the parent-teacher conferences, the football practices, the games, the pasta dinners."

Directly from work, she's on her way to pick up a sandwich for her son before practice or study hall. When it comes time for practice she can be found in the same place she's sat in for years - the upper-left corner of the New London high bleachers.

Her maternal instincts overrule any thought of missing football practice.

Yes, practice.

She's petrified of receiving a phone call at home that her son has been injured and is in the back of an ambulance. That's never happened. But refusing to miss practice means catching up on sleep whenever and wherever she can.

"I never slept in public until three or four years ago. Now I'm like, I don't care. I've earned the right to sleep right there," she said, pointing to the spot she's sat in for the countless games she's attended.

It's also not uncommon to find her asleep in her car or under a tree. Even though Jelani has two more years of high school football, Lucas is already thinking about how she'll react to the change when he graduates.

"I'm kind of feeling it already," she says. "What the heck am I going to do? I guess there won't be any more naps in the car or underneath a tree."

The bulletin board outside Jeanne McDowell's second-grade classroom at Winthrop Magnet Elementary School is decorated with pom-poms in New London's Whaler green and gold, but a dark blue-and-gold Ledyard High School football helmet sits on her desk.

The Ledyard resident has been a New London teacher for 27 years. She's had the tough job of supporting the town across the Thames River while being gently heckled by some of her current and former New London students.

McDowell taught all three of Lucas' sons in kindergarten.

"I have a real strong heart for both teams," she says. "I love New London kids to death. It's such a neat thing to walk by the field, and they're yelling and screaming at me to come over to their side.

"Although there's a rivalry, there's something that helps connect it, too."

McDowell's son, Michael, a Ledyard sophomore who plays on the varsity special teams, has been playing football since he was 8.

"I had no idea how to put those pads on, and the poor boy had his knee pads where his shins were and he couldn't run on and off the field," she says. "Everything was on, but weren't on the right parts of his body."

Now that her son is beyond youth league, she restrains herself from rushing the field when the competition makes plays she feels are a bit too rough.

"As a football mom, the difference is that if we could, we'd get on the field and put pads on and take down the other team," McDowell says. "We're right there, right in the trenches. Even though we're physically not down there, our attitudes are down there."

Heather Russak is a math teacher at Ledyard High School. Her son Michael, 17, is one of 20 seniors on Ledyard's team. She walks a fine line in the classroom, as some football players have taken to calling her "Mom."

Russak said that while she likes to keep it low-key and support the team "behind the scenes," it's hard to stay in the background when four of her five sons play football. She's instrumental in helping Ledyard coach Jim Buonocore organize fundraising and pasta dinner events catered by Valentino's restaurant.

With practices, games, team events and pasta suppers consuming most of her fall semester, the Algebra I and II teacher doesn't get a chance to grade papers until late at night. "Sometimes I don't know how I do it some days," she says. "You just do it. You just make the time or sacrifice your time."

It takes a village

When Kristin Pezzolesi goes grocery shopping, she buys a bit extra. She's got three kids of her own but doesn't think twice about extending a hand or a meal to other New London football players on the team with her son, Grant, a senior and one of the team's captains.

The Pezzolesis live in Waterford, but Grant attends the Science and Technology Magnet High School, which his mother said allows him to take advantage of the school's engineering curriculum and also play with "higher caliber" athletes.

Before Grant got his license and started driving team members home from practice, Pezzolesi had memorized most of the food orders that the carload of kids would belt out from the back seat.

"It was lots of Whoppers, barbecue chicken sandwiches, fries, Sprite mixed with fruit punch," Pezzolesi says. "Just a massive amount of food."

Spaghetti dinners take place every Thursday before a Friday game. It's a longtime ritual, a reward for a good week of practice and an incentive to win the following day.

On the Waterfront restaurant donates the half-dozen or so trays of pasta and meatballs. School board member Barbara Major whips up her famous salad, which she said is made with "garlic, garlic and more garlic." Sliced bread and Gatorade also grace the table. There's a separate table for desserts, and by the end of the dinner all that remains are chocolate crumbs.

Pezzolesi helps out at every pasta dinner and also works close to 40 hours a week as a dental hygienist in New London. Tuesdays are her days off.

"I don't cook very much, only on Tuesdays, but there's also mountains of laundry, dishes, grocery shopping to do. You know it's bad when you get excited about baked potatoes," Pezzolesi jokes. "But we do try to all have dinner together every night."

On Sundays she takes a seat, but not on her couch. Instead, she's cheering on her daughter, Ally, as she makes her way up and down the basketball court for Waterford High School.

"That's my rest time," Pezzolesi says.

When she talks about her kids, sometimes it's not clear if she means her own children or the others she's informally adopted over the years. But she means both, and it's clear that the love and care she provides for her own three children are extended infinitely to others.

"You open your home to other kids," she says. "They know they can call if they're somewhere and need a ride home. They know it's always OK to call me. They just know that they can always count on us (her and other moms) to be there for them, no matter what.

"If you make a difference for one kid, it's worth it."

j.hanckel@theday.com

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