Walk Away: Senior plays last high school football game on Nantucket

Martha's Vineyard senior Nathaniel Horwitz on the sidelines prior to the 35th Island Cup, Saturday on Nantucket. — Photo by David Welch

Walk Away. That was the name of the drill saved for the week before the Nantucket football game. In a sport that is physical to begin with, the Vineyarder-Whaler football rivalry is like no other and has been known to flare into excessive violence. Penalties can alter the course of a game. So, for a couple practices before the annual battle, we learned the art of walking away. Easy in theory, harder after a teammate tackles you after the play-ending whistle and whispers an insult in your ear. Late hits were encouraged, trash talk required. Personal fouls went unpunished, but retaliation was rewarded with pushups and invective from the coaching staff. Giving the enemy an advantage because we were unable to control our emotions was not an option — composure in the face of adversity.

We couldn’t lose to the Whalers. That was the mantra during the two weeks leading up to the football game Saturday at Nantucket’s Vito Capizzo Stadium. With the overall Island Cup record tied at 17-17 and the Vineyarders victorious the past nine years running, the pressure was tremendous. When we last travelled to Nantucket, in 2011, the score was too close for comfort, and no one will forget last year’s amazing 27-26 comeback victory. As much as we hate to admit it, Nantucket is a consistently strong team and always a threat. Even harder to admit is that the margin of victory has been decreasing. This year, plagued by injuries and facing Nantucket’s superior season record, the fear of losing was tangible. Each time we dropped a pass or fumbled a ball during the two weeks of preparation, the nightmare lurked — what if this happens during the game? What if this mistake is the difference between a Vineyard win and the first loss in a decade? What if this mistake is my fault? The thought of letting down your team, of failing your community, was unbearable.

When head Coach Donald Herman began his tenure, Nantucket was up in the Island Cup series, 9-1. Since then, the Vineyard has been the powerhouse. The game is always competitive. For the rivalry to remain great, however, Nantucket has to win some of the time. But as the game approached, we thought, please God, not on our watch.

Then we won, 14-0, not allowing Nantucket to score on their own turf for the first time in Island Cup history. For most, fear was vanquished after the first series. With a Nantucket fumble recovered by sophomore linebacker Austin Chandler and our first offensive play resulting in a long touchdown run by sophomore Jacob Cardoza, morale was good. Nonetheless, it wasn’t until three-year varsity running back and defensive back Joe Turney ended Nantucket’s last drive with an interception and senior quarterback Tony Breth ran out the clock that we could finally relish our success.

We did it. The Cup was ours for one more year.

For the seniors, it is likely that none of us will ever play again. Some are ending careers that began in middle school. Others are left wishing we had started earlier. All of us will miss it. The football team has a certain bond that cannot be found elsewhere. Football begins in the August heat before any other sport and ends long after other teams have sought winter shelter. The practices are longer, the yards harder (no pun intended). The football field, more than any other, complies with the metaphor of a battlefield. But the armor you wear onto the gridiron is not only beneath your jersey, it is made up of the trust and friendship you have developed with your teammates, your brothers. The practices surrounding Thanksgiving were rife with players declaring the football team their second family, and that claim is entirely accurate. Although we will never again swarm onto the field as a purple horde, we will always be a family. Like countless Vineyard players before us, we will return to the site of our victories and defeats to watch the next wave of Vineyarders. We will wear our lettermen’s jackets with pride and recount memories with friends made during our time beneath the lights. We will never forget.

We left the Nantucket field surrounded by the cheers of Vineyard fans and former players, zipped up our Vineyard football bags for the last time, and dispersed among the welcoming crowd on the boat back to the better Island. Before the boat docked in Vineyard Haven, we assembled one last time on the freight deck, waiting for the cars and passengers to disembark. Brandishing the cup, we poured off the boat to flashing lights, deafened by the victorious roar. No other team in the world receives a welcome quite like ours.

As Vineyarders, we walk on and off that boat countless times. No time is quite like that. As we close a chapter in our lives, we do so with a bittersweet taste in our mouths, the pounding sirens in our ears, and glory gleaming in our eyes. Here is a memory that will never fade. We stand one final time a team, forever a family, and then we hug goodbye and walk away.

Nathaniel Horwitz is a senior at MVRHS and a member of the staff of the High School View. He lives in West Tisbury.