WATERTOWN — Joe Brennan remembers the days he played behind the bleachers at the Alex T. Duffy Fairgrounds while the Red and Black played between the lines on the other side.
When he was a youth, guys like Ernie Wash, Doug Black, Al Countryman, Mike Stevens and Lynn Patrick were his heroes.
For the past 12 years, Brennan, a former football star at Sandy Creek High School, has been that hero for the little kids who make their way to the Fairgrounds on summer Saturday nights. But Brennan’s kind has quickly faded: the local home-grown talent who followed their high school football days with a career with the Red and Black.
“The local players have declined a lot in the years that I’ve played,” Brennan said. “We had a core group of guys that were here in the beginning of my career that were here every single night, if you weren’t here, you didn’t play, and the military added to that talent pool. But we had a core group of local guys and we don’t seem to get as much these days.”
There is still some local talent on the Red and Black, Hunter Loftus and Isaiah Ellisor have just graduated Carthage and are continuing their football careers with Watertown. In addition to Brennan, Tyler and Troy Swarthout are players also from Sandy Creek, undoubtedly a result of Stevens, the former Watertown running back and longtime Sandy Creek head coach, pushing the program.
But the numbers have dwindled. Red and Black head coach George Ashcraft believes that if it wasn’t for its proximity to Fort Drum, the Red and Black would struggle to field a team.
Ashcraft believes the declining participation numbers in football at the youth and high school level have led to the lack of local players joining the Red and Black.
“I think football took a bad rap with the concussion protocol,” Ashcraft said. “It’s deemed now a very dangerous sport.”
He believes this also leads to high school football players hanging up their cleats after their senior year instead of joining a semipro team like Watertown.
Over the course of Ashcraft’s 28-year career, the coach said that he’s had connections with all the high schools in the area but at different times. As a result, groups of those players would come out for the team and fill out the roster.
“My message to the high school programs is that, all you high school coaches, if you got five or 10 kids that you think can play at this level of the game, send them our way,” Ashcraft said.” We’ll teach them, we don’t teach wrong things here, we teach the proper way of hitting, we take that time to go through it and do the proper protocol of how to tackle.”
The lack of local talent hasn’t noticeably diminished the public interest in the team, the Red and Black (0-3) still has a strong fan base that supports the team at home and on the road.
“We’re going to play our first home game on the 17th of August against Plattsburgh, win, lose or draw this weekend [at Mohawk Valley]. When we play Plattsburgh here, you’re going to see an entirely different situation,” Ashcraft said.
But when there is more local talent on the team, it attracts a larger crowd. Friends, family and members of respective high school communities will show up to watch their athletes in the next stage of their career.
Brennan was one of those players, but it’s been a while since he’s been in high school, and his connection with the high-schoolers at Sandy Creek now is much weaker than it was over a decade ago. He still has people who look up to him though. Brennan said he’s taken his fair share of pictures and has signed quite a few things. But it still makes him a little sad that the local connection on the team isn’t as strong as it once was.
“It does make me sad because there is a lot of history here,” Brennan said. “Me, as a guy who has gone at this 100 percent, I’ve always treated this as a professional athlete no matter what, every single year and part of that is researching the history of this organization, there is a lot of history going back 124 years.”