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Kevin Cullen

Team learns about loss in a season full of wins

By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / November 21, 2010

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The Rivers School played Pingree in the Norm Walker Bowl yesterday at Gillette Stadium.

But this isn’t about that football game. This is about how the boys at Rivers got to that game, and how on the way they learned as much about life as they did about football.

Rivers has never been considered a football power in the Independent School League, which consists of some of the most elite prep schools in New England.

But last year, they hired a young coach named Rich Fisher, who brought in a sophisticated system that challenged his players as much cerebrally as it did athletically. The Rivers playbook is as thick as “War and Peace.’’ It has 62 plays and 45 formations and motions.

“These kids are smart,’’ Fisher says. “They can handle it.’’

As the wins piled up this season, they had to handle a lot more.

Their quarterback, Shaquor Sandiford, was playing well, but with a heavy burden. His father, Chris, was dying of cancer.

While many teammates offered sympathy, several of Shaq’s teammates offered empathy. One of the linemen had lost his mother to cancer over the summer. The mother of another lineman is battling cancer herself.

One day, Bobby Costa, the fullback who lines up in back of Shaq, approached him after practice. Costa’s father died three years ago.

“I know what you’re going through,’’ he told Shaq. “You’re not alone. If you need me, I’m here. We’re all here for you.’’

Chris Sandiford watched from the sidelines as Rivers beat Milton Academy, but he went back into the hospital, Brigham and Women’s, and went downhill fast.

The coaching staff arranged to meet at the hospital one night, and Fisher got there first. Shaq brought him into the room and Chris Sandiford was lying in a bed, his eyes closed, fighting for every breath. His shrunken body arched slightly every time he inhaled.

“It’s OK,’’ Shaq whispered to Fisher. “He can hear you.’’

Fisher cleared his throat and said, “Mr. Sandiford, I want to tell you how proud I am of your son.’’

Chris Sandiford died two days later, on Thursday, Nov. 4. Shaq showed up at school the next day. He had slept three hours. He asked to play in that afternoon’s game against St. George’s.

Fisher wanted him to sit out. But Shaq, who gets up at 5:30 every morning to travel from his home in Chelsea to school in Weston, shook his head.

“You saw my father fight,’’ Shaq told his coach. “Every breath. He fought for every breath. I’ve got to fight through this. That’s what my father wanted me to do.’’

Fisher knew he couldn’t say no.

Shaq Sandiford went out, sleep-deprived and grief-stricken, surrounded by teammates who would die for him, and threw for three touchdowns and ran for two more. Rivers won in a rout.

Fisher had resisted giving out game balls, wanting to build a team concept, but he broke his own rule and gave Shaq the game ball. The locker room erupted.

It was a different scene a week later, when the team, dressed in suits and jackets and ties, arrived for Chris Sandiford’s funeral at St. John Missionary Baptist Church in Roxbury.

For most of the team, white kids from affluent suburbs, it was the first time they’d been in Roxbury, not to mention a black Baptist church.

“My family wasn’t expecting the whole team to show up,’’ Shaq said. “It made a bad day a lot better.’’

Kids who wouldn’t dream of crying on a football field cried openly in a church on Warren Street. If any of them felt self-conscious, they looked up and saw their coach crying, too.

The next day, Rivers played Roxbury Latin for not just the league championship, but for the unthinkable: an undefeated regular season.

Fisher was like his players, emotionally spent. Before the game, he told himself he could live with a loss. He could understand if the kids lost their focus.

In the second quarter, the team’s best player, Taariq Allen, went down with an injury. Allen, who is committed to play at Nebraska next year, was carted off the field, and many assumed the championship went off with him. The half ended, 14-14, and in the locker room the Rivers kids looked at each other furtively. They looked, their coach thought, deflated.

Rich Fisher didn’t mention Chris Sandiford by name. He didn’t have to.

“Either we keep fighting,’’ he told his team, “or we give in. What’s it gonna be?’’

Roxbury Latin went up by a touchdown early in the second half, but Rivers came roaring back. Allen’s cousin, Ben Patrick, ran for 270 yards, Shaq threw for a touchdown, and Rivers won.

“If we had lost that game, it wouldn’t have meant a hill of beans to me,’’ Fisher said. “With all the distractions, with all the emotions, with all the adversity these kids faced on and off the field, losing a football game wouldn’t have mattered.’’

Fisher won a national championship as a player at the University of Colorado. He was an assistant coach at Colorado, the University of Idaho, and Oklahoma State. But his most rewarding season was spent coaching 44 high school kids in Weston.

“I watched them take care of each other, on the field and off,’’ he said. “I got the privilege of watching these boys become young men.’’

Rivers lost yesterday when Pingree broke a tie with 11 seconds left in the game.

It was the end of an almost perfect season, when boys grew to men and learned that life can never be perfect.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com