Island-to-Island football rivals remember friendships most

Photo by Ralph Stewart

All these years later, it is not the touchdowns, members of the 1953 and 1963 Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School football teams remember so much. It’s not the wins, losses, or box scores. It’s not the glory in winning, or the misery in losing the big football game against Nantucket that sticks in their minds. Those memories dim with time, and sometimes get mixed up in the retelling. The game and the glory are recorded in old scrapbooks, difficult for older eyes to see.

What they remember are the friendships they made, on both sides of the ball. The friendships don’t yellow with age like an old newspaper clipping. The friendships get stronger with time, renewed year after year, often at the big game.

Teammates return to the field to cheer on sons and grandsons, and to see the friends who went to battle with them on the gridiron. Opponents, there to cheer their own sons and grandsons, return to offer a handshake and a warm smile.

Those early games were played in a different time. The NFL was a professional league desperately trying to displace college football on black-and-white televisions, not the slick, multi-billion dollar juggernaut we know today. Many families didn’t even have a television, so football was kind of a foreign concept to some Island kids. Football programs scraped by on hand-me-down equipment from local colleges. Travel between the two Islands was more difficult.

On Friday afternoon, five former players, Bob Tankard, Tom Bennett, Leigh Carroll, Glenn Hearn and Tony daRosa met with The Times at the Tisbury Senior Center to reminisce about the big game.

“We stayed with the players before the game,” said Bob Tankard, of Vineyard Haven, who played running back and defensive back on the undefeated 1963 team. He later became the Vineyarders head coach.

“We got over there Friday night, we hung out with them, then on Saturday morning was the war. On Saturday morning we didn’t even talk to them. Then we stayed after. You started talking to each other after the game.”

Mr. Tankard stayed with the Santos family on Nantucket in his high school playing days. “Mrs. Santos, when I was coaching, would walk over and give me a hug, and Mr. Santos would do the same thing,” he said.

He also remembers Nantucket quarterback Vaughan Machado as a tough opponent. “Last year, when Nantucket came, Vaughan Machado was coaching. I walked up to him and said ‘don’t you know when to give it up?’ He said, ‘man I love this.'”

“That’s the thing I used to really look forward to,” said Tom Bennett of Edgartown, also on the 1963 team. “We made really good friends with those Nantucket guys. We developed some really good friendships. When you went over there, you really couldn’t find them, but they found you. They made a point to find you.”

In 1953, when the two Islands played football for the very first time, everybody was flying by the seat of their short, white football pants. That was before the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School was created. Each down-Island town had its own high school and its own football team. The town-to-town rivalries were intense. Kids from one town didn’t really know kids from other towns. But In 1953, Tisbury school teacher John “Jack” Kelley took the best players from each team, and went to Nantucket. Mr. Kelley went on to win national championships as the head coach of the Boston University hockey team, and more honors as a professional coach.

Leigh Carroll of Vineyard Haven was a running back on that 1953 team. In those days, most kids had very vague ideas about the rules, how to block and tackle, or even how to flip a coin to start the game. He remembers one game when the coin flipping duties fell to him, and the coach offered up a 50-cent piece.

“I flipped it and it came right for me,” Mr. Carroll said. “I picked it up and put it in my pocket.”

His teammate, Glenn Hearn, the quarterback on that 1953 team, remembers a trick play that would often fool opponents

“The quarterback turns around, hands the ball to the fullback,” he said. “Everybody was going this way, I would go around (the opposite) way, they would pass to me, we made a touchdown.” According to the rule book, once a quarterback handles the ball, he is not eligible to catch a pass. “But we got away with the play.”

Nantucket was always a tough opponent, and the rivalry heightened the intensity. Both teams took every opportunity to gain an advantage.

“One of the ways they toughed up their kids, was they played against the Coast Guard, on Nantucket,” Mr. Hearn said.

“They kept a couple of those guys to play against us,” added Mr. Tankard.”

One memory tumbles into another, and another. Mr. Bennett remembered one play when a Nantucket opponent stopped a running play, to the amazement of everyone on the field.

“Bruce Watts, that was the best football player I ever played against,” Mr. Bennett said. “He was the fire chief on Nantucket. You remember: were you in the game that time, with Jeffrey Kurth?” Mr. Bennett says, turning to Tony daRosa. “We were running through the line and Jeffrey jumped.” Mr. daRosa said. “He caught Jeffrey in mid-air.” Hardly able to contain his laughter, he whistles and motions with his arms to demonstrate how Mr. Watts flipped the Vineyard player to the ground. “Everybody on both sides of the ball just stopped.”

That prompts a chuckle from Mr. Tankard, who launches into another story about the 1963 game, which Martha’s Vineyard won to cap their undefeated season.

“Vaughan Machado was a great quarterback,” Mr. Tankard said. “The coach said this guy can’t stay in the game, because he’ll kill us.” He said Mr. daRosa and Mr. Bennett took the coach’s pre-game instruction to heart.

“They were like vultures,” Mr. Tankard said. “They went after that quarterback. They hit him so hard, it split the helmet. We got a safety in the end zone. I remember that play, I can see that play right now. How do you split a helmet? We wound up winning the game, 8-0.”

Football is a violent game, more violent than anyone knew, if you read today’s headlines about concussions and other injuries. But in those violent collisions lasting bonds were forged. By playing hard, and giving their best, against someone playing just as hard, and giving just as much, opponents came to respect each other. Lifelong friendships followed.

Leigh Carroll got a Christmas Card every year from his old coach. Bob Tankard called on his old opponent when, by mistake, he left his suitcase on a ferry bound for Nantucket. Tom Bennett has a wistful chuckle about a teammate, later killed in Viet Nam, who played half a season without hip pads. Glenn Hearn remembers taking his old coach scalloping.

“It was something special,” Mr. daRosa said. “It was pretty important to us.”