Back in the 1970s and eighties, Whaler football meant more to the island than just another high school activity.The game and its players knit the local community together, from group to group and generation to generation. Whalers were lawyers and policemen, plumbers and electricians, restaurateurs and realtors. The bonds forged on the practice fields brought in the scallops, built the houses, and taught the children.
Each Saturday in autumn, the island settled itself down to the high school field, fell into their assigned seats at the football stadium, and watched Coach Vito Capizzo’s Whalers win, handily.Middle school boys took the back row in the bleachers, faculty and family sat in the center, and the retired cheerleaders, the cowbells, and Boxing Billy sat in the front row. If you had to work, Dick Herman’s Boston baritone kept you up to date over the radio. At each touchdown, a mini-howitzer fired off in the end zone, sirens announced the score, and the crowd swelled in applause. In the reddened evening, the losing team would pile into their bus and ride, serenaded, down to the boat and slip away back to the mainland.Then, in the new millennium, the Whalers began to lose—badly. The team slipped to 0-10 in 2005—the first winless season in forty-one years—and only seventeen players dressed for the final game against the Vineyard. In 2009, the school dropped the age-old rivalry game entirely. Whaler football might have dropped to junior varsity status.
In order to bring back the team and those Saturday afternoon victories, the players had to start learning the game much earlier than high school. The Boys and Girls Club now offers seven years of football, starting with boys in second grade and finishing at the end of middle school. The young players practice and scrimmage on island. Later, in middle school, they play off-island games on a travel team. More than a hundred young men take part in the program. The Boys and Girls Club provides equipment, the coaching, and the space for a $25 membership fee. Scholarships cover the players who can’t afford the membership.
The boys, according to Coach Brian Ryder, “first learn how to depend on each other. It
has to be all eleven together.” When the boys pick up the game in the heat and dust of September, they focus on what they have to do individually. By November, the players, even the younger ones at Cyrus Peirce, can anticipate what their teammates are going to do. From the coach’s perspective, if the players know what each other is going to do in sixth grade when scrimmaging at the Boys and Girls Club, they will know what to do against the Vineyard in high school.
In his summer program, Coach Ryder has been highlighting the other aspects of football, namely emotional and physical discipline. A group of young players have been training through the summer, doing a workout “that is as hard as many college off-season programs.” In the words of player, J. T. Gamberoni, “It’s an excellent, hardcore, exhausting workout.” The routine combines free weights, plyometric boxes, jump ropes, and one gigantic truck tire. For one part of the workout, the players flip this gigantic tire from one end to the other, until their legs ache and shoulders burn.
CORY RYDER HAS BEEN PLAYING BOYS CLUB FOOTBALL for six years and has one year left. At first, he wasn’t among the best players on his team, but was “vocal and energetic.” As he got older and more experienced, Cory climbed the depth chart. For the past two summers, he has been prepping for the football season. The exercise has demanded all his energy, but he “feels good when he’s done.” Had he not been working out, he might have wasted his after- noons “watching TV, going to the beach, or working.” Now, with the training he and his teammates have been doing, he struts on to the field this September confident and ready.
“The biggest challenges these players face,” says varsity coach, Bill Manchester, “aren’t physical, but mental.” Young football players come to the game as individuals, with their own goals and objectives. The hardest part of getting a football team ready to compete is convincing the young men that they have to give of themselves and be part of a team. “Whalers,” Manchester continues, “were a group of young men who worked together to do something bigger than themselves—whether that was killing a whale or winning a football game.”
The Boys and Girls Club coaches work closely with Coach Manchester and the varsity football program. They run the same plays with the same calls. That way, should the players rise to the varsity level, they already speak the same language. Moreover, the philosophy at the high school extends all the way down to the second and third graders tottering around in their helmets.
The coaches, from elementary school to graduation, emphasize the need to “work together, stay committed, and learn from your mistakes.” For many young men, playing fields make the best classrooms. The discipline and toughness picked up on the practice squad makes more of a mark, years later, than learning the anatomy of a frog or the proper use of an Oxford comma. The lessons of mud, grass, and collision build in many young men’s minds. And if they learn the discipline, the patience, the reflection, and the trust that football demands, perhaps they will become the right men for the future of the island.