For the past four years, a semi-professional football league in New London has given former high school and college students a chance to keep playing the sport after the end of the school.
The Connecticut Sting practices every Tuesday and Thursday at during the summer, and has a weekend series of games that started in July and will conclude in September. In addition to players from New London and the surrounding areas, people have come in from as far away as Bristol and Hartford.
Reggie Robinson, owner of the team, was born in New London and raised in Hawaii before returning to play for the team from 1989 to 1993. He formerly played with the Middletown Spartans, another semi-pro team, and had a close connection to youth sports through his 17 years working as a coach with the .
“I knew there was a lot of talent in eastern Connecticut, and I wanted to be able to showcase that in my hometown,” said Robinson.
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The team has a 50-person roster and is open to anyone who wants to play. Team members must pay dues and buy their own uniforms and equipment, but can get sponsorships from local businesses to defray these costs.
James Singleton, the Sting’s head coach, is no stranger to the sport. He coached for 20 years at the high school level, formerly coached New London Youth Football, and is now a coach at St. Bernard School. Several of the team members are familiar faces to him, and he thinks the players will be a force to be reckoned with on the field.
“They’re a bunch of talented players that are coming from all different areas, and they’re all coming together as a team,” said Singleton.
Eric Robinson, a wide receiver, played for NLHS before graduating in 1999. He spent six years with the Connecticut Thunder, a team that eventually folded, and is in his fourth year with the Sting. Robinson also coaches youth football and is a kindergarten teacher at the Mashantucket School.
“It’s like playing at New London High all over again. That’s our home field,” said Robinson.
Aside from good exercise and a chance to tour New England for games, the team also offers a chance for old friends and teammates to come together again. Reggie Robinson says the team also provides additional support to youth beyond the end of school.
“I’ve seen a lot of them go in the wrong direction, so I’m trying to give them something to do,” he said.
Loydeeka Mitchell, a defensive tackle who graduated from NLHS in 1996, said he enjoyed both the game and the camaraderie of the team.
“I love it, to be honest with you,” he said. “It’s something new. It keeps people out of trouble.”
Participation can also open doors for players who are seeking to advance to arena teams or professional leagues. The New England Football League is divided into three levels, and the Connecticut Sting are in the middle at the double-A level. Although scouts are more likely to look to the triple-A teams out of cities such as Hartford and Boston, it is still possible for players at the double-A level to grab their attention.
“There’s a few guys who went CFL [Canadian Football League] or NFL Europe out of this league,” said Eric Robinson.
Mike Ward, a 2006 graduate of Norwich Free Academy and defensive tackle and running back, formerly played in the Utah Blaze and Allen Wranglers arena teams. He said playing for the Sting is a more laid-back experience, since there is no anxiety about being let go from the team, and that it keeps him closer to home than the Utah or Texas teams.
“I told myself I wouldn’t be caught dead playing semi-pro, but I’m out here,” he said. “It’s the love of the game.”
James Cook, a cornerback who graduated from NLHS in 2002, has been with the Sting since they started four years ago. Though he intended to leave after his third year, his father—with whom he had bonded over the sport—passed away. Before he did, Cook’s father told him that he would be with him no matter where he played the next year.
“That kind of got me to come back out here again,” he said.
The double-A level is divided into a northern division of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont teams and a southern division of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island Teams. Each division has six teams, and the top four teams advance to a playoff series at the end of the season before the division winners play each other. The Sting had a 7-1 record in 2010 and a 7-3 record in 2011.
“We’ve been up at the top every year, and we’re hoping to be there again,” said Reggie Robinson.
The Sting games are free, with home games taking place at New London High School at 4 p.m. The remaining games are:
- Aug. 11: against the Blackhawks at Old Killingly High School
- Aug. 18: against the Wardogs in Woonsocket, R.I.
- Aug. 25: against the Riptide at Westerly, R.I.
- Sept. 1: against BYE at home
- Sept. 8: against the Wardogs at home
- Sept. 16: against the Outlaws at home
- Sept. 22: against the Rage in Mansfield, Mass.
- Sept. 29: against the Blackhawks at home