NEW FRANKLIN It was already going to feel weird.
Last Friday’s home opener for the Manchester Panthers came amidst the COVID-19 pandemic that has deeply affected life into many ways, including a revamped high school football season filled with irregular schedules. The Panther, for example, did not have a game the first two weeks and began their season in Week 3 against a 2-0 Fairless squad.
But another big oddity came with having a new head coach on the sidelines for the Panthers after nearly five decades with Jim France at the helm. His replacement, former NFL linebacker and longtime area coach Jay Brophy, stepped into France's shoes in the midst of a pandemic and was happy to be part of a 7-0 Manchester win.
"I love it. This, to me, is like the Friday night stories you talk about ... small town, I love it. At this stage of my career, this is where I want to be. It takes away all of the publicity stuff," Brophy said, his voice raspy from yelling during the game. "This is where the neighborhood turns out, you've got a great group of kids and to get a game in finally, I told the officials before the game, 'I want to explain this to you guys ... we've only had half of a scrimmage, we've had no officials at all, and you've got (teams) into their third week and we're just kind of feeling it out."
The game itself definitely resembled a contest featuring two teams without a normal offseason and one of those two teams playing its first semblance of a normal game this season.
A 52-yard touchdown run by Cooper Briggs gave Manchester a 7-0 lead that held up as the Panthers dominated on defense and special teams.
Punter Kenton Duty – who also had an interception as a defensive back – dropped two punts at the Fairless 1-yard line, pinning the Falcons deep in their own territory.
"We call them special forces ... we wanted to make sure we emphasize special teams this year," Brophy said. For us, it's going to be big and we've got to play all three facets of the game to be successful."
That Brophy was on the sideline at all was something he didn't expect, at least not earlier this year after spending two seasons as an assistant on France's staff.
"Two years ... this was going to be my third and when coach (France) retired who I'm a good friend with - I talked to him this morning and I try to talk to him weekly - he kind of talked me into staying around and maybe going for the head job because I wasn't going to do it," Brophy said. "There was nowhere else to go... I was going to retire. But there's just something about this place that made me feel like I can't leave and want to be around here as long as I can."
France's retirement in March not only as head football coach, but also as Manchester High School principal, ushered in a new era for the program even as it plays in a stadium that bears his name.
That, combined with waiting an extra two weeks for their first game while peers and rivals suited up and got snaps in, could have created some anxiety for the Panthers.
There were some uneven moments to be sure, but the end result was a hard-nosed, workmanlike effort that toppled a previously undefeated for.
"I told them, all I want you do to is play Manchester football and the scoreboard will take care of itself," Brophy said. "It was a hell of a good feeling knowing we had a shutout in an old-style game that coach likes to play, on his field, on the first night out. We're young, but we're coming together really well."
Oddities aside, the one familiar element of the night that players, coaches and fans could take away was the winning feeling that has been a part of plenty of Friday nights over the years at Manchester.