WATERTOWN — With the Watertown Red and Black trailing Mohawk Valley by 13 points with 2 minutes, 40 seconds left in the Empire Football League semifinal game Sept. 29, quarterback Jared Hendricks set up in a shotgun formation at the Mohawk Valley 5-yard line. To Hendricks’ left was T.J. Williams, to his right, Curtis Dukes.
Joe Brennan watched from the sideline. These were the games he lived for: late September, the bleachers at the Alex T. Duffy Fairgrounds filled, forcing people to either stand or bring their own folding chairs. A win meant a trip to the EFL championship and a chance for Brennan to earn his second ring.
But the 12-year veteran couldn’t leave the sideline. Two weeks prior, in a game against Glens Falls, he sprained his MCL and dislocated the patella tendon in his right knee.
A game away from the championship, Brennan was forced to be a spectator.
With his arms crossed, he watched from under the brim of his cap as Hendricks received the snap and dropped back two steps. The play was a fade route to the far-left corner of the end zone, intended for Keegan Queior. They didn’t connect. The ball hit the grass and bounced past the official who motioned incomplete.
Brennan dropped his head briefly before picking it back up and making his way onto the field to dap up the offense as it came off.
For a guy who owns the Red and Black all-time rushing record and the all-time rushing touchdown record, Brennan’s disposition during a playoff game he couldn’t play was fairly tame.
Would it have been like that five years ago?
“No, not even close,” Brennan said. “Anytime in my career that I had missed a game or anything like that, you can ask (my wife) Kristi, I was pacing angrily and miserable.”
The Red and Black lost the EFL semifinal game to Mohawk Valley, 34-28, ending its 2019 season.
Following a prayer circle, the Red and Black converged at midfield, where coaches and players made their final postgame remarks. Brennan stood behind Jerry Levine, who was filling in as head coach George Ashcraft was home healing from a medical issue.
Levine looked at his semi-pro team and thanked them: “Those of you who aren’t coming back, thanks for being part of the organization.”
Brennan’s head briefly dipped before speaking:
“I love you guys,” he said. “It’s a brotherhood, it’s family.”
Then he broke the huddle as he usually does.
“R and B on three, 1-2-3.”
“R and B” the team called back.
Brennan, the last one to leave the field that night, announced his retirement a few months later.
A CAREER DECISION
Joe Brennan sat on the leather couch in his living room and relived his past. It’s been two months since he stood up in front of his team at their annual end-of-the-year banquet and announced his retirement.
On that same night in November, it was announced, to Brennan’s surprise, that the Red and Black would retire his No. 21 jersey.
As it rained outside on a January afternoon, his two young daughters — Juliana, 4, and Lorelei, 2 — played on the floor and Brennan flipped through newspaper clippings of his career dating back to his high school days at Sandy Creek.
He came across a feature story dated Sept. 29, 2005, the headline read, “Sandy Creek’s Brennan keeps defenders on run.”
“Oh yes, I remember this,” he said.
It was a game between Sandy Creek and South Lewis.
“This is the one where four games in I had almost 900 rushing yards on the season, but I had just finished rushing for 290 yards against South Lewis on (a game televised by) Time Warner Cable.”
It was a barn-burner with a classic ending. Sandy Creek eventually won, 50-48, when it stuffed South Lewis at the goal line on what would have been a game-tying two-point conversion.
Later that year, Brennan would earn Times All-North Section 3 MVP honors after finishing with 1,542 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns. The headline for the MVP story, dated Dec. 11, 2005, read “Comets running back enters celebrity status with standout season.” Brennan started to become a household name.
However, he wouldn’t become known as a college football star — his celebrity would remain more local.
After being cut from SUNY Cortland’s football team, he turned to his uncle, Mike Stevens, a former Red and Black player and his coach at Sandy Creek.
Would he be able to play for the Red and Black?
“What he saw was the relationship with how the coaches were, how the players were,” Stevens said of the Red and Black. “Obviously they practice together and they go play a game, but it turned into a lot of close relationships and family dynamics and that’s what Joe strived for.” When Stevens asked Ashcraft if Brennan could play running back for the Red and Black, Ashcraft gave a response that Brennan would never forget.
“I don’t know, can he?” he said.
Over the next few years Brennan proved that he could. Having grown up going to Red and Black games, Brennan understood the tradition that surrounds the 124-year-old franchise.
“Joe, knowing what he knew already did (about the history) helped with his personality and what he wanted to accomplish with us,” Ashcraft said. “That definitely, definitely helped.”
His idols included Ernie Wash and Al Countryman, the Red and Black stars of his childhood. And when he joined the team, Brennan sought out to break Countryman’s record as the Red and Black’s all-time leading rusher.
In 2016 he accomplished that goal.
During a home game and with Countryman in attendance along with 3,000 people, Brennan rushed for 79 yards against Carthage and was honored at halftime.
“That night was very bittersweet, it was a special night to break the all-time record for yardage and have Al Countryman be there, he shook my hand at halftime and congratulated me and they made a big announcement of it,” Brennan said. “But I came out of that game with an injury, my calf cramped up.”
Brennan finished his career with 7,532 career rushing yards and 70 career rushing touchdowns.
A LOCAL HERO
As a kid, running around behind the bleachers at the Alex T. Duffy Fairgrounds in his No. 22 Emmitt Smith jersey, Brennan lived for those summer nights when he could watch players like Countryman and Wash run up and down the Red and Black’s field.
The impact he has on local kids is not lost on him.
“If a kid shows up to a game and wants your autograph or a picture, you better sign that autograph and take that picture,” Brennan said. “Because I was that kid, I was that kid behind the bleachers, going up and shaking Ernie Wash’s hand after a game, in awe. These kids see us as if we’re NFL players.”
Being a member of the Red and Black comes with its community obligations, not only to promote the program but to give back to the community and grow that next generation of fans and possibly players.
Brennan, a nutrition educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension, often finds himself in schools teaching youths about eating right. On one occasion two years ago at North Elementary in Watertown, his visit turned into an autograph-signing session.
Levine, a long-time teacher at the school before he retired, was subbing on the particular day that Brennan attended. When Brennan entered the cafeteria, Levine made sure to introduce him to the crowd of kids as the Red and Black’s all-time leading rusher and touchdown scorer.
Brennan began to do his rounds, talking to kids table-by-table about the importance of eating fruits and vegetables and staying healthy. By the time he got to the second table a boy approached him with a pencil and a napkin in hand and asked for an autograph.
Brennan obliged and as he scrawled his name on the napkin, another kid spoke out, “I want it, too!”
To those kids in the North Elementary cafeteria, Brennan was no longer the nutrition educator from Cornell Cooperative Extension, he was the running back for the Red and Black.
“The whole table starts saying it and before I know it the whole cafeteria is yelling that they want my autograph,” Brennan said. “Somebody had the idea for me to write eight on the page and then go make copies and then we cut them up. So, every kid got my autograph that day.”
It turned out that one of the 150-plus youths in the cafeteria was Wash’s son.
“Ernie messaged me, ‘Thanks for signing an autograph for my son today, it meant the world to him,’” Brennan said.
Brennan has the innate ability to get along with practically anyone. Whether it’s a group of elementary school youths, a random person at the store, or a new teammate, he won’t struggle to talk to them.
“When you get a large group of men, there’s going to be cliques or groups,” R&B offensive lineman Tony Ivey said. “And Joe’s the type of guy who can bounce between each group or clique and won’t skip a beat.”
Brennan has a particular affection for his offensive line.
“Offensive line is the one position in any sport where all you do is try to take care of other people,” Ivey said. “(Brennan) understands that, and he notices. Joe has offered to buy us dinner and gives us game incentives like, ‘If I rush for 100 yards, I’ll buy you a candy bar, if I get 200 yards, I’ll have you at my house and cook you breakfast.’ We always bought into that.”
TIME TO GO
Brennan knew he could help Watertown win its final game of the 2019 season. And with the 2020 season approaching, Brennan says he feels healthy enough to play again. Honestly, if he were to strap on the pads and show up to the first Tuesday night practice of the season, the team would welcome him back with open arms.
But he doesn’t want to.
He felt that way when the Red and Black’s 2019 season ended as well.
“I remember standing on the sideline that night and thinking, ‘Man, I know if I was playing I could help us win this game, but I don’t want to,’” he said. “I don’t feel the urge to play football anymore.”
He will turn 33 in May. He’s excited to spend more time with his wife and daughters during the summer.
“When you go up to Joe after a game and he’s smiling, and he’s talking and he’s goofing around with his wife and kids, especially his kids, when he’s doing that, that’s who he is,” said Jared Cook, a close friend and former teammate of Brennan’s. “He’s a good person, he’s kind-hearted, he doesn’t have a bad thing to say about anyone and that’s one of his best qualities for sure.”
When Brennan played for the Red and Black, he was committed to playing Red and Black. That meant missing weddings, birthdays and even putting his honeymoon on hold.
“When Sundays come and I’m not beat up, it’s going to be nice,” Brennan said. “When my girls want to go to the beach on Saturday, we can go to the beach. My 12 years of playing for them, before the kids were born, our lives revolved around the Red and Black schedule.”
Of course, he’ll miss it, the practices, games and oddly enough, the postgame ice baths.
He still trains six days a week and keeps in shape, though he’s more into playing darts on the new dartboard he got for Christmas than he is into playing football.
Brennan’s football career won’t be measured in how much money he made or even in the amount of times he was on TV in or the paper.
“To me, even though I never got paid a dollar to play for the Red and Black, I look at it like I got paid in fun, to play the game I love,” Brennan said. “At the end of the day, it would have been nice to play college football and pro football and all that, but I’m grateful for the 12 seasons I had for the Red and Black.”