As far as Sheila Ossit is concerned, football and life are pretty much interchangeable in Groton.
Friday nights in the fall are all about the game, and Ross Field — a few blocks away from the high school, unassumingly tucked in between houses on South Main Street in a quiet, residential area — comes alive when the Indians are home.
“This is a football town,” the Village of Groton resident said earlier this week. “Everybody supports the team; (Ross Field) is always packed and well-supported by the businesses and the community. It’s a lot of fun, a lot of screaming and yelling, and not just for our own kid, but for all the kids.”
Ossit, executive director of the Cayuga Chamber Orchestra, is also the “team mom” in Groton, hosting massive gatherings after home games and producing the team’s yearbook, chock full of advertisements from local businesses and well-wishes from families to their sons. It’s more than just a team and its supporters to the folks in Groton.
“It’s a football family,” said Tracy Cooper, also of Groton, who along with Ossit helped keep the stats for Indians coach Jeff Lewis this past season. “We still have people who come to the games and help out, and their kids have graduated; they don’t even have a child playing anymore. It’s a bonding experience here in Groton, and once you’re in, you’re in.
“It’s not something where your kid graduates and you get over it,” she said. “It’s a life thing. It’s kind of funny, but it definitely is.”
Ossit and Cooper both had sons who donned the red and white of Groton for the final time this fall. Seniors Zack Ossit and Tristin Cooper are just two of countless young men across the nation for whom organized football — a passion practically since they were old enough to hold a football — has likely come to an end.
Unlike many other sports, which can be played in one form or another for many years into adulthood, football has a unique set of requirements to play it. Generally speaking, most young men who play in high school never get the chance after that.
It’s a realization that’s just starting to hit the younger Ossit.
“It’s definitely a tough feeling,” he said Tuesday in his dining room, one corner of which is the designated football “catch-all” closet, piled high with uniforms, cleats and equipment.
Ossit and the Indians played their final game on Oct. 25, a 14-0 victory over Deposit that left Groton with a record of 5-3.
“It really hasn’t hit me yet, because we jumped right into basketball,” said Ossit, a 5-foot-10, 195-pound offensive lineman/linebacker. “But more and more as I get farther away from football season, I’m realizing, ‘Hey, it’s not happening again.’ I’m going to miss everybody that I’ve played with.”
Cooper, Ossit’s teammate ever since the pair first donned the pads more than 10 years ago, agreed.
“It’s kind of like a bittersweet taste,” said Cooper, a 5-11, 165-pound wide receiver/defensive back, who was also the team’s “utility” player, lining up wherever coaches Lewis and Mick LeVick needed him. “It’s bitter in that I kind of realize that I’m not ever going to play football again. You kind of know that it’s over, but it hasn’t sunk in yet.
“And it’s sweet because you can look back on all the memories and really cherish those,” he said. “These last three years of football have been the best times of my life. It’s amazing. And even in youth football, just looking back, there are a lot of good memories and things you can cherish.”
A family thing
The line between football and family was blurred long ago for Ossit and Cooper, whose fathers coached them when they were elementary-school age right up to the modified level. It was Kevin Ossit who introduced Zack to football at an even younger age.
“Growing up, me and my brother (Nathan, now 14) and my dad used to watch football all the time,” Zack said. “We have video of us running out of our basement … and my dad would announce us. We’d come out and he’d pretend to scream like the crowd. Ever since a young age, we’ve grown up in a house where we loved football, and it’s come directly from our father and it’s carried on. I’ve loved it ever since then.”
Kevin Ossit even “hired” his youngest — daughter Maggie, now 13 — to be his assistant coach in his final season coaching youth ball. “She’d be out there cheering everybody on, and they’d call her Coach Maggie,” Ossit said. “They still do.”
Tristin Cooper said he’s always been on the same team as Zack, along with fellow senior Zeke Wright, arguably the Indians’ best player this year, who broke his collarbone in Week 5 and missed the rest of the season. Wright was an all-state running back a year ago as he led the Indians to the Section 4 Class D title game, where they lost to Tioga.
The boys all played together, starting with flag football in kindergarten and right up through varsity, and were coached by Zack’s father as well as Tristin’s dad, Jeff Cooper, whose death last January rocked the small, tight-knit community.
“It was very emotional,” Tracy Cooper said of this season. “Football is huge in our family. My husband was very big into football, coached all these guys when they were younger. It’s been an emotional year anyway.”
The realization that his football days were over hit Kevin Ossit 30 years ago. He played at Cortland High School, and the 1984 graduate still remembers the feeling of walking off the field for the final time.
“You sit there for a little while and you don’t want to take the pads off,” said Ossit, who played running back and defensive back for the Purple Tigers. “You want to keep everything on for as long as you can, because you know that that’s going to be it. You’re not going to play again. And the biggest thing I missed was my friends — hanging out with them, laughing and joking, going through the hard times and the good times.
“And I miss getting hit, to be honest,” he said. “I miss hitting and getting hit. That was the biggest thing.”
Kevin Ossit said he hasn’t tried to ease his son’s transition into post-football life.
“He’s got to go through it and experience it his own way,” he said. “We’ve always been open and talked about things, but that’s one thing he’s going to have to do on his own.”
Both Zack and Tristin — who hopes to play club hockey next year in college, and is looking at SUNY Brockport and SUNY Oswego — know there will be a time in the not-too-distant future when the longing to put on the pads and the eye-black and go hit someone will grow strong again. Kevin Ossit knows it firsthand: It hit him in the summer of ’85.
“It was hard,” he said. “You get up and you smell that grass, you feel the temperature and you can smell it in the air; you feel like you’ve got to do something, but you don’t do it. You end up going up and watching the (younger) guys practice. And you go watch their games.
“I guess you pass it down each year,” he said. “Everybody gets that feeling.”
Zack Ossit — who is planning on studying sociology and criminal justice, with the goal of becoming a detective — said he’s certain he’ll get that same ache to get back out there.
“I’ll probably do the weight-training stuff in the spring,” he said, “and then once the summer rolls around and I smell that grass, and I drive by Ross Field, I’ll probably think, ‘Wow, I really miss that.'”