ROCKPORT — Although the cloth on football jerseys may come unraveled during a rough-and-tumble season, the fabric of a connection between two Camden Hills Regional High School senior football players and their longtime coach has grown to an unbreakable bond through the years.

Starting in kindergarten, players Enzo Russillo and Mason Chadwick, along with Joe Russillo, Enzo’s father, began their journey as teammates, coach, father, son and friends.

Ultimately, fall became synonymous with football for Joe and Enzo, as well as Chadwick, now members of the Windjammer squad.

In fact, each time the calendar flipped to August, the pads, jerseys and helmets got handed out, then pulled on and strapped up, ready to make player-to-player contact.

That meant football time had arrived for the trio.

However, to the untrained eye, one may miss the deeper connection the Russillos and Chadwick share — namely, something that goes beyond the field.

Connection of a lifetime

The three started their journey together when Enzo — who now plays tight end and defensive end for the Windjammers — and Mason — a running back and cornerback — put flags on in kindergarten in the Five Town Football youth program for their first year as competitive football players, while Joe guided from the sidelines.

From there they all transitioned to tackle football in first grade, or, as Joe puts it “bumping into each other and falling down.”

As the years passed, the bond grew stronger between the three, as it culminates into one final seven-game — with two additional scrimmages and possibly playoffs — high school season.

Coach Joe Russillo, back right, leads a ‘Jammers’ cheer following the team’s victory in the 2013 Coastal Youth Football League junior varsity championship game. Sally Russillo 

“It’s been an amazing journey with them, because I get to watch them develop as football players,” said Joe. “That’s interesting because their bodies change and their mentalities change.”

“It’s been familiar, and a close bond, especially with Mason,” said Enzo. “We’ve become great friends because of the team and the sport. It’s a nice feeling knowing I’ll be seeing someone with a familiar face and someone I can go to with questions. With Joe being my dad and coach as well, it’s a blessing and a curse. I know everything in the loop and it’s very motivating to have him as a coach.”

“There hasn’t been a single year where Joe hasn’t been my coach,” said Mason. “It’s commonplace for him to be there on the sidelines to be there during games, and during practices. We all hang out outside of practices, and these past few years of high school Enzo has become one of my best friends. I do blame football for that. Me and Enzo have gotten extremely close, and I know coach Joe super well, which is very helpful when it comes to football.”

As Enzo and Mason focused on playing, Joe had the task of being not only their coach, but a father to one of his players.

“I was very aware of the stigma of dads who coach their kids and push them too hard, and I’ve had to navigate that over the years,” said Joe. “How hard do I push when he doesn’t want to go to practice, or I have to lean on him a little bit, but am I doing [that] as a dad or as a coach. How am I doing that equitably? So, I’m treating him as a player and not as my son, which has been a struggle to navigate.”

Despite the “struggle,” Joe has had years to mold that relationship with Enzo, just as a coach does with the players on the field.

“I think we’ve come to a great place with that,” said Joe. “It helped for a while that he was playing a position that I wasn’t really coaching, so I wasn’t really focused on him. I wasn’t in the position to correct him all the time, which I think really helped, and I rely on the other coaches to do that. I think we’ve worked through it where we’ve come to a good place where we both really enjoy it.

“There were times with Enzo where I had to drag him to practice because he didn’t want to go, and now he’s waiting at the door, saying ‘let’s go, I want to get there early.’ Watching that evolution with not just Mason and Enzo, but with all the kids that develop as football players. What gets me choked up is watching them develop as people, and young men, as kids and taking the lessons we try to teach in football and what the sport teaches you, and apply them as leaders now on the football field.”

Coach Joe Russillo has fun with his youth players in 2013. Sally Russillo

Joe’s close bond — as well as a “dad” mentality — with his son also branches out to Chadwick, as well as seniors Ryan Clifford and J.J. Harrington, who Joe has coached for 10 and 11 years since grade school. In fact, seniors Enzo Russillo, Chadwick, Clifford, Harrington and Hunter Norton are captain for this year’s Windjammer squad.

“I’d say it’s probably more of a feeling of a protector,” said Joe. “They are all great kids, but if I see something that they are doing at practice I feel I have a stronger connection with them than maybe some of the other kids that I haven’t been coaching as long. They are kind of like my step kids; they are my kids and I feel like I take care of them that way and care about them that way.

“It goes beyond just being on the field and the game of football. It’s really about caring for them as young people and wanting them to be successful.”

The bonds between the players and Joe allow them to be successful on the field when the whistle blows.

“We know a lot about each other,” said the 16-year-old Enzo. “We know a lot about how we work on the field during games and practices, how my dad works with his playbooks and his offense. That is an advantage when it comes to the playbooks, but with Mason we talk a lot on the sidelines and can figure out what’s going on inside each of our heads, and make things happen when we play.”

“On the football field it’s more professional because you mean business when you step on the field,” said the 17-year-old Mason. “Outside of the football field, I’ve gotten close with Enzo, and when I see Enzo, I normally see coach Joe. I feel like that attributes to how we are on the football field, since that bond has brought us closer together.”

Coach Joe Russillo, back left, and assistant Kerry Sabanty, back right, lead the 2009 Five Town Football K-2 Flag Football program. Among those pictured making funny faces are kindergarteners and now Camden Hills football seniors Mason Chadwick, back row far left, and Enzo Russillo, bottom row far right. Carl Chadwick

Learning about life

With the three — who reside in Camden — spending a large amount of their lives around each other, each one has learned something different when it comes to football, or life in general.

“Football has always been about life lessons and creating the person I am today,” said Mason. “I put that on football a lot. We’ve all gone through a lot these past couple of years, and the fact we are still that close at this point and get stronger from it makes our bond even stronger. I’ve learned a lot on the football field from technique, confidence and how to carry those things outside of football.”

For Enzo, the leadership quality has eluded him for the majority of his life, but with eyes set on his father and Mason, the fog around the characteristic has started to lift.

“I still struggle with leadership even as a senior now,” said Enzo. “It’s scary to lead people, but I’ve learned a lot from Mason on leadership. He always says he’s not too keen on leadership, but he’s quite good at it. I’ve learned a lot from him and my dad. My dad’s a great leader [as well.].”

The 50-year-old Joe has the most experience with leadership, but despite being the “veteran” of the three, he is still a student of life and the game.

Mason Chadwick (60), Enzo Russillo (48) and Ryan Clifford (9), tri-captains in a 2017 Five Town Football middle school game. Sally Russillo

“The thing I think they’ve taught me, is before I show up for practice and they are joking around and laughing, they are having fun and it reminds me that’s why I’m here,” said Joe. “We certainly teach the players some life lessons, and a lot about football, but we are here to have a good time. The players, especially the ones that have been here for so long, I watch them and it reminds me we are here to have fun, relax, enjoy it and let everything go.

“I tend to take the game pretty seriously. My wife, Sally, jokes I didn’t cry at our wedding, but I cried when we won the [youth football] jayvee championship [in 2013].”

One final season

Like all good things, the trio’s football connection must come to an end, and the 2021 season will be the final together for Joe, Enzo, Mason, as well as the other senior players, after they were forced to miss the 2020 season due to COVID-19.

“I think I’m going to remember not specific memories, but just that feeling on the field,” said Joe. “That is unique because not every dad or coach gets to do that with players that have been playing for this long. I feel really fortunate to have had the opportunity to go through Five Town Football, and then continue into the high school program.

“For me to be able to coach down at that level and then come up here, and coach with this great group of kids and coaches I think it’s going to be that general sense of having that opportunity. I think it’s going to be the connections with those guys personally I’ll remember. When you are on the sidelines with the helmet strapped on, there’s something unique about that which you don’t get anywhere else.”

“I was talking to J.J. [Harrington], who we are also very close with, and said ‘this is our last equipment handout, and we’ve had 12 at this point,’” said Mason. “I feel like when we had to turn our equipment in before we even got to use it [last year] was two weeks ago. At the same time, though, it feels like it was forever ago. The little stuff like that at the end of the season I’m going to think flew by, and then this time last year look back on it. That absence won’t be something sad or depressing, but melancholy I guess. I’m really happy that it happened, but I will miss it.”

Windjammer head coach Chris Christie, left, and assistant coach Joe Russillo. Sally Russillo

“I feel amazingly blessed and fortunate to have had that opportunity to coach them for these number of years,” said Joe. “It’s sad because I’m going to miss them. Everything evolves and they need to move on and that’s where they need to be, but it’s going to be a sad day, and it will be hard to control my emotions on that last game when I know there will be no more football with those guys. That sadness comes because there is something to be sad about. We’ve had this great run together and it’s been so much fun.”

For Enzo though, the senior is taking a different approach.

“[I’m] surprisingly optimistic,” Enzo said about his last season. “I expected myself to be more sad about it, but I feel happy and optimistic about it. Of course, I feel the realization of this being my last year, but at the same time I’m going to make it the best year I can.”

It all comes back to the connection they all share, though, as it may have blossomed on the football field, but traveled to Mason’s and Enzo’s lives off the field.

Mason Chadwick (55) and Enzo Russillo (44) in a 2013 Coastal Youth Football League junior varsity playoff game. Sally Russillo

“The lead-up to high school was such a good memory,” said Enzo. “Freshman year I expected to not know anyone, and expected a completely different thing, which I did get a completely different experience from the past, but I still had my dad, and Mason was there as well.

“Showing up to the first day of practice and feeling scared and nervous, but having these two people that I know, as well as J.J. and Ryan there, and it didn’t feel like it was so scary. I didn’t feel so isolated, and it helped make my transition a little bit better. It’s meant a lot [to have them around]. They are amazing friends outside of football.”

“I definitely remember leaning on those guys going into high school and football,” said Mason. “It was there when I needed to lean on it for those first two years when I needed it. Even in school and in classes, having those classes with them, then having football with them really helps because you already have that connection there.

“I’ve thought about the end of the season a lot. It’s definitely going to be emotional, and be the same for everyone else. I’m hoping the connection can carry on into those years, but it probably won’t be the same as it is now during football and high school. I think the emotions will be heavy in the beginning, but become something we appreciate when we look back on it.”

“I’m super proud of them, and I don’t have to say that,” Joe said. “I say it because they’ve come such a long way through their own perseverance and hard work, but they’ve also come so far as people, members of the community and young men, and that’s what I’m proud of them for, and they should be proud of themselves.”