The 11 seniors on Marblehead High School's football team are kneeling among the dirty towels and discarded stereo equipment in the locker room at Blocksidge Field in Swampscott. It's 10 minutes before the last game they will ever play, and they sit quietly listening as their coach, Bill Manchester, speaks.
“Seniors, you've got 44 minutes, then the rest of your lives,” Manchester says. “This isn't just for respect in Swampscott, this is for respect in the whole area. For you seniors, this is the only game that will ever matter. So I'm going to ask you twice: Are we ready?”
“Are we ready?”
As the team runs out of the locker room, Manchester rubs a hand over his perfectly round, shaved head and says, “Let's make this a happy ending.”
Happy endings aren't Marblehead's thing. The football team hasn't won a conference championship since 1973. And the only two football trophies in the case outside the athletic director's office are from the Roosevelt era: 1934 and 1935. “Things are what they are in Marblehead,” says Andrew “Skip” Whipple, quarterback from 1996 to 1999. “And football being bad, that's just one of those things.”
This is a story about what it's like to be the player, the coach, or the athletic director who returns to the football field each year not for championship glory, but with the hope of throwing one great pass, making one decisive tackle, or orchestrating one beautiful play. This is not a story about big dreams. It's about the thousands of little ones that make up a season of high school football.
September 11: Marblehead (0-0) vs. Pentucket (0-0). After a 75-yard punt return and a scramble by Pentucket's star quarterback, Tommy Beaton, Marblehead is down 14-0 at the half. The Marblehead team crams into the tiny visitor locker room. Heads are down. Coach Manchester is not pleased. “They're kicking the living shit out of us!” he yells, slapping his hand on the chalkboard. “What's 'no more' stand for? No more losing! What are you waiting for–next week?”
He orders the team to its feet.
“The real question is, Do you want to win?”
“DO YOU WANT TO WIN?”
But the fire won't light. The Marblehead defense continues its tough play, but Chad Osborne, the lanky junior quarterback, seems tentative, and the running game is nonexistent. With six minutes to go, a last-ditch effort on 4th and 12 falls short and the game is over. The frustration is apparent.
“That's typical Marblehead football,” says Jim Rudloff, defensive coordinator. “You like your jersey, like your wristbands, like your face paint, but you don't want to hit anyone. Then, later on, you realize, 'Oh, I'm not hurt. It doesn't hurt to hit people.' And it's too late. It's pathetic and it's not everyone, but that's Marblehead football.”
October 2: Marblehead (0-3) vs. Lynn Classical (0-2). “The Lynn games aren't usually too pretty,” Rod Pickard, Marblehead's athletic director, says as he walks into the Manning Bowl. “But then again, neither is the stadium.”
The Manning Bowl in Lynn looks as if it hasn't been tended to since the NFL was formed. Rust spiders down the sides of the light fixtures, and the field is raised in the center like a steppe. The goalposts are old school, anchored in the ground on each side instead of in the center. Less than a month before the game, the city officially condemned the stadium. But officials say that as long as the teams play during the day and fans stay in the south side of the stands, it's okay to play.
In the first half, Osborne throws touchdown passes, and a Marblehead linebacker anticipates a halfback pass, intercepts it behind the line, and runs it back for a touchdown. Although both teams fumble often and play terrible special teams, when the half closes, Marblehead is up 20-7.
The Marblehead players kneel in the corner of the end zone. Away from the other players, Adam Segal, a captain and senior linebacker, consults the other captains.
“Are you running out of stuff to say?” he asks them, running his hand through his hair. “I went through the normal clichés–'Get it up,' 'Don't let up,' 'Work hard,' and now I've got nothing. I'm drawing a blank.”
Despite the dearth of clichéd pep talk, Marblehead does not let up. Junior Thomas Davis opens the second half with a big run, and Osborne continues his Peyton Manning impression, connecting with senior Sam Maxson for his third touchdown pass of the game. With 5:21 left in the 3rd, it's 26-7.
“We can't lose to Marblehead,” a young fan in glasses and a Philadelphia Eagles jersey says to his friend. “That shit's embarrassing.”
But this year's Lynn team seems determined to break from history. They fail to move the ball in the second half and, with 8:17 left in the game, Osborne cements the blowout with his fourth touchdown pass, the second to Davis. The game ends 33-7.
Pandemonium–well, as much as can be expected from 35 fans–erupts. Marblehead's cheerleaders, who spent much of the game in a heated dance-off with the Lynn cheer squad, scream. Parents hug other parents. Someone rings a cowbell. The players gather in the middle of the field around the coaches. The boys' cheers echo through the empty stadium. As they remove their helmets, Coach Manchester speaks, the joy and relief pouring out in short staccato bursts: “Defense. Unbelievable. You shut 'em out,” he says. “We're a good football team, it took three weeks to show that, but we are. Biggest win since I've been here. It's been eight years since we beat Lynn and seven years since we scored 30 or more points. Victory is sweet. Taste it this week. Helmets up. Pride on three.”
“One, two three . . . PRIDE!!”
October 15: Marblehead (1-4) vs. Saugus (0-5). On a cold, rainy Friday night, it takes serious willpower to attend a game between Saugus and Marblehead. Saugus, already struggling, is without its two best players and plays like a bad scout team, letting Marblehead decide when, where, and how to score. At halftime the score is 21-0.
In the locker room, the players are abuzz. Alex Bresner, a hard-tackling junior defensive end and one of the most respected kids on the team, is aggravated. Apparently, the two teams have a history of bad blood, and before the game there was some serious shit talking–on the Internet.
“Yeah, on Masslive.com,” Bresner says. “Kids go on and talk about football. Number 57 [on Saugus] posts so much shit and he sucks.”
The second half is a mirror image of the first. After two more Marblehead scores, Coach Manchester puts in the JV. The Marblehead band members, who make up a majority of the fans still in attendance, play “Another One Bites the Dust.” The varsity players, having never been subbed on the good side of a sweep, don't know what to do with themselves.
“Is this is a dream?” Corey Raper, the 280-pound defensive end and team jokester says, looking at the scoreboard and shaking his head. Segal is also at a loss. “You don't understand. This never happens. Like, the score and all that? NEVER . . . HAPPENS.”
At 41-0, Manchester tells the JV players to run out the clock, but Saugus refuses to tackle sophomore Greg Barnes and, facing little choice, he breaks free for a 44-yard touchdown run. Manchester grimaces and puts his head in his hands. The game ends 47-0.
Manchester is embarrassed but happy. “We've been on the other side of that too many times. We weren't even trying to score those last two. They were banged up but, right now, this feels pretty incredible. They beat us the last nine straight years.”
Then the father of a younger player calls Manchester over and lays into him for not playing his son. Even as the father yells, Manchester stays calm. After five minutes he walks away sighing.
“There's always something,” he says. “It's like I can't even get through this smoothly. It's hard to even enjoy it.”
But his players find a way. In the background, Bresner walks down the corridor to the locker room, gleefully savoring his triumphs on both the field and the computer, “What's 57 going to say now, huh?” he says to no one in particular.
November 25: Marblehead (2-8) vs. Swampscott (5-5). Swampscott's field is packed with some 3,000 fans for the Thanksgiving Day game. Marblehead's student body, after ignoring the whole season, seems determined to make up for it. A group of girls clad only in sports bras and sweatpants, their stomachs painted to spell “GO MARBLEHEAD!” shivers in the last row of the stands.
After Marblehead fails to move the ball, Swampscott returns the punt to the Marblehead 30 and, on the first play, lofts a high arcing pass into the hands of the Swampscott wide receiver for a touchdown. Two minutes into the game the score is 6-0. Despite repeated chants of “Swampscott sucks” by the Marblehead fans, Swampscott scores again to make it 12-0 at halftime.
While the coaches consult outside the locker room, the boys try to rally each other for the second half. “The game isn't close to over,” Bresner tells his dejected-looking fellow players as he walks around the room hitting lockers. “So chill the fuck out.”
Finally not at a loss for clichés, Segal tosses out a few: “Memories last us a lifetime. You could be a coach, or watch your son play, or whatever, but it's not the same. Think about how amazing it would be if we did this.”
The team, newly inspired, takes the field. But once again, Marblehead is unable to stop Swampscott's passing attack and, with 8:32 left in the third quarter, Swampscott scores again to make it 18-0. Chants of “It's all over” come from the Swampscott side.
Then the rain comes. For 15 minutes it pours, and the stands clear of everyone but the students. The game seems over, but then Osborne, throwing the wet ball like a shot put, completes an improbable 60-yard touchdown pass to Davis. The kick is good, and all of a sudden the score is 18-7.
But the football gods refuse to give Marblehead a break. On their next possession, Osborne fumbles, and Marblehead's last chance for victory is swallowed up by a Swampscott lineman. The game ends 25-7, and Swampscott's players slide in the mud to celebrate. As the Marblehead players board the bus, athletic director Pickard walks along the track that outlines the field.
“Well, there's always next year, a new group of kids, new players to work with,” he says, his weary eyes failing the smile on his face. He stops and turns around to watch the Swampscott players flex as they pose for pictures.
“The losing has to stop sometime.”