They're back for more
Seasons come and go, but for veteran football coaches, 'it's still exciting'
On a warm September afternoon in 1978, Tom Lopez stood on the sidelines of the Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School football field, one minute away from his first win in his first career game as a head coach.
"And then," Lopez recalled last week, "Holliston kicked a field goal. It wound up a tie, 3-3. I don't remember too much about it, but I do remember that it was kind of a boring game."
He said he still gets nervous from time to time, but never as much as he did on that Saturday afternoon three decades ago. Tomorrow evening at 7, Lopez will be on the Lincoln-Sudbury sideline once again, kicking off his 30th season as head coach, when his Warriors host Medfield in a nonleague matchup.
In Wrentham, Dave Hughes will reach the same 30-year milestone tomorrow night, when his Hopkinton High gridders take on King Philip Regional in another nonleague matchup. L-S and Hopkinton are just two of 36 teams in the suburbs west of Boston that will kick off the high school football season this weekend, including defending Super Bowl champions Medfield, Milford, St. John's of Shrewsbury, and Wayland.
In an area that also features three other head coaches with at least 20 years of service -- Peter Capodilupo at Newton North, Tom Lamb at Natick, and Phil Marchegiani at Marian High in Framingham -- Hughes and Lopez stand alone.
To stand such a test of time requires skill, consistency, a bit of luck, and most of all, dedication to the job and to the student-athletes in their charge.
"It's still exciting," said the 62-year-old Hughes, who earned his 200th career victory in an undefeated regular season in 2005 and enters this season with 207 wins. "I can't describe it. It just is. As you get older, you may lose some of the energy you once had, but the kids give it back to you. They keep you young. And then you remember that this is your passion. This is your bliss."
As for Lopez, a player at Newton South during his high school years, he spent seven seasons as an assistant at L-S before taking the reins of the program in 1978. He has guided his Warriors to six Super Bowl appearances, three resulting in victories.
Standout players have come and gone under his watch, including two -- linebacker Mike Croel and defensive lineman Joe Sims -- who played in the National Football League. But that's not what keeps him coming back year after year after year.
"It's all just evolved that way," said the 59-year-old Lopez, whose Warriors will christen the school's new turf field tomorrow night against Medfield. "I was teaching in Sudbury. We lived here. We still do. It seems normal. You don't think about how many years you'll be doing it when you get started; it just happens.
"One day I'll wake up and not want to do it anymore," Lopez said. "But now, I still want to. I want to see the kids keep getting something out of it. I've been to the Super Bowl, but some of the seasons when we didn't go were just as rewarding in their own ways. You can have a rewarding year if you go 5-5 as long as the kids are learning and getting a lot out of it."
His son Mike, an outstanding player for his father in the late '90s who has returned to serve on the L-S staff, says consistency is the key.
"Things really haven't changed much," said the younger Lopez, a math teacher at Framingham High School who said he knew that coaching was in his future when, as a kid, he used to accompany his dad on scouting trips. "The plays are the same, the calls are the same, the jokes are the same. He's always been the same with the kids. He wants to see those kids who work their butts off for three or four years and reap the rewards on the varsity as a senior. Every year, there's a new group of seniors and one of the things that's unique about him and consistent as well is that he relishes taking each new group each year and molding them and teaching them. It keeps him fresh."
David Rocklage, a senior, two-way lineman who is also a team captain, knows Lopez and his style as well as any current player on the Warriors' roster.
"Coach doesn't care who you are, he just puts the best players on the field," said Rocklage, a four-year varsity player. "But that makes everyone work harder. He's a legend here and he has high expectations. Playing for him and learning from him has made me and all of my teammates better both as players and as people."
Junior linebacker Keegan Ashley concurred, adding: "He has to know what he's talking about. He's been here 30 years. How can we not learn and be motivated by him, given what he's seen and been through?"
At Newton North, Peter Capodilupo is set to embark on his 24th campaign as coach. A longtime English teacher, his philosophy on the game is, understandably, laced with metaphors.
"The thing is, we're all teachers and the field is like one big, open classroom," said Capodilupo, whose team will host Dedham Sunday in its season opener.
"This is a cyclical game. It begins in the heat of August with sweat burning at your eyes and ends in the cold of November. Even the games themselves have this similar life cycle," Capodilupo said.
"It's not just coaching and teaching football, it's coping with the changes of the world. The kids come in at the end of the summer and in that, it's like going from a sense of freedom to a structured environment. I think coaches understand the pattern of it. There's a real purity like that in teaching this game. You get to see a diverse group of children put on the same jersey and work to achieve a common goal. Their differences become irrelevant. In a world that's so disparate, it's a pleasure to be able to teach and to see the kids embrace the same things."
Sooner or later, as with anything in life, the end will come. Not yet, though.
"It crosses your mind every once in a while," said Hughes, who led the Hillers to a Division 6B Super Bowl win in 1993 after starting the regular season 0-2. "You wonder, maybe someone younger can take over and do just as good a job as you, if not better.
"Certainly there are some young assistants around who might deserve their shot. I'm taking it one year at a time. You don't see an ending; you never do. People will ask when you think it might be time to hang it up, but you don't know. If anything, being asked is how it gets in your head at all."
Football, more than any other sport at the high school level, showcases a deep commitment shared by a coach, a school, and a community.
That relationship is crucial, with the head coach clearly setting the tone.
If the coach exudes the enthusiasm for his craft the way that Lopez and Hughes and others do, it weaves its way into the fabric of his town, making the relationship easy to maintain.
"There's a segment of the personality that enjoys consistency and a successful atmosphere," said Lamb, now in his 21st season coaching the Redmen, and who also serves as the school's athletic director.
"You have to enjoy the place you are and they have to enjoy you. And when you are lucky enough to make a living at your hobby, especially in the same place, it makes you truly appreciate what you have."