“Island Cup” chronicles the Nantucket-Vineyard football rivalry


For more than half a century, the gridiron rivalry between Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket has been the subject of many fondly recalled anecdotes, heated discussions, and not a few fistfights.

Now it is the subject of a book, “Island Cup: Two Teams, Twelve miles of Ocean, and Fifty Years of Football Rivalry,” (Bloomsbury, 292 pages, $24), by James Sullivan. It chronicles the protracted rivalry between the Vineyard and Nantucket football teams, the Whalers and the Vineyarders, over half a century.

Mr. Sullivan writes about the succession of successes of the smaller Nantucket school under their legendary coach, Vito Capizzo, who had played under Alabama’s Bear Bryant, another legend, and the multiple victories in the most recent years of the larger Vineyard school under the guidance of coach Donald Herman.

“I think James did a very nice job of capturing the intricacies of the rivalry,” Mr. Herman told the Times. He said that he has gotten “quite a few chuckles” from reliving some of the stories, and he thinks the book is very informative from both sides.

Mr. Sullivan spent “basically an entire season between both teams working on the book,” according to Mr. Herman, and he was able to gather a lot of stories from players who showed up at the 50-year team reunion.

The book got its start from a story Mr. Sullivan wrote for the Boston Globe about the year the game was canceled, 2010. A number of photographs in the book were taken by Ralph Stewart, staff photographer for The MV Times.

When the Wall Street Journal wanted to review the book for their July 14 weekend book section they turned to someone they knew well, West Tisbury resident Tony Horwitz, a former reporter for the paper who won a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.

What they did not know is that he is also the father of a Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School football player, Mr. Horwitz told The Times in a telephone conversation soon after finishing a four-day horse fencing project that left him, “cut up, with poison ivy and glad to be done.”

Mr. Horwitz’s son Nathaniel played on the junior varsity team last year and expects to play for the varsity team this coming year. “Like any parent, I am nervous about my son getting hurt, so I cringe whenever he gets tackled, but he loves it and I am delighted for him,” he said. “I am a football fan, so it’s fun for me to go to the games.”

Mr. Horwitz’s review, “Friday Night Lighthouses,” begins with a description of his first experience attending the Island Cup game on Nantucket on a raw day last November with 1,500 other fans who made the trip across the sound by ferry.

“A newcomer to the Vineyard — to locals, a ‘wash-ashore’ — I was stunned by this primal display from my normally taciturn neighbors. I knew my island took its sports seriously and disliked Nantucket. But I had no idea that football games between the two islands were blood feuds out of ‘Braveheart.’

“For readers with a tie to either island, there is much to relish in this blood-and-salt tale of gridiron rivalry,” Mr. Horwitz writes.

Some of the stories are told as though the writer were in the locker rooms with the teams. He writes about the coaches, their biographies, the players and the games and does not use adjectives sparingly when describing the fans, their motives or the rituals that have developed over 50 years on both islands.

Mr. Sullivan said, the Vineyard, like Nantucket, “bred toughness. One injured player was ordered to crawl off the field so that his coach wouldn’t have to call a time out. The player had a fractured femur.”

It is a story of sacrifice and excess that could have been taken right out of America’s heartland and it gives a perspective on the islands that not many have been privy to or care to publicize.

Or as Mr. Horwitz puts it, “All this may surprise summer tourists, who associate Nantucket with the homes of whaling captains and with sunburned WASPs in salmon pants. The Vineyard is likewise known for its affluent ease, a retreat for the Clintons, Kennedys and Obamas.”

Mr. Horwitz notes that Mr. Sullivan tries to make the drama of the former years current by framing it with the 2010 season. “But by then the rivalry had waned from its heyday in the ’80s and ’90s,” Mr. Horwitz writes. “Nantucket hasn’t won the matchup since 2002, and the Vineyard now plays in a separate, higher division. This leaves Mr. Sullivan with a slight and somewhat outdated story, which he stretches to book-length with endless recaps of minor games.”

Mr. Horwitz told The Times, “I gave as honest an opinion as I could while trying to highlight the most entertaining bits. I didn’t want to scare readers away or mislead them in any way. ”

Author James Sullivan writes for the Boston Globe and is a contributing editor for RollingStone.com. His previous books include “Seven Dirty Words,” a critical biography of the comedian and social commentator George Carlin, a book on the history of blue-jeans called “Jeans,” and a biography of the singer James Brown called “The Hardest Working Man.” He spent his honeymoon on the Vineyard.

Mr. Horwitz’s most recent book is “Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War.” He is currently writing a history column for the Smithsonian Magazine and “mulling over next book ideas.”