Keith Parker, John Sousa, James Phillip and Leo Sybertz combined to coach 109 seasons as head football coaches in the Boston City League, including 17 Super Bowls appearances.
Parker and Sousa retired in 2009 after 30 and 15 years at the helm of Boston English and East Boston respectively while Phillip and Sybertz coached their final games last season after 30 and 34 seasons at Brighton High and West Roxbury respectively.
With the old guard gone, the city league is truly entering a new era as an infusion of youthful and energetic coaches are finally getting their shot at reviving football in the city. They will not only attempt to bring city football into the 21st century, they are also trying to cast the city’s Friday night lights across the entire community.
Four first-year coaches (West Roxbury’s Derek Wright, 44, Brighton’s Randolph Abraham, 30, Charlestown’s George Munroe, 40, and New Mission’s Michael Pittman Forman, 51) enter the league this season on the heels of six other energetic coaches who took over programs within the last six seasons — including Burke’s Byron Beamon, 43, Boston English’s Chris Boswell, 43, O’Bryant’s Kevin Gadson, 50, Latin Academy’s Rocco Zizza, 48, East Boston’s John Parziale, 44, and South Boston’s Sean Guthrie, 33.
“They have a little bit more energy, they have a lot more friends in Pop Warner that they can reach out to,” Boston schools Athletic Director Ken Still said of the new coaches.
“You’re going to have to have a lot more volunteers. You need more hands to fetch youngsters that want to play football.”
Still said the days of drawing 75 to 80 players on a city football team simply by posting flyers in the hallways are long gone. He said these days it takes a lot more work to draw football players from a pool of students that are mostly immigrants that are unfamiliar with the game.
“Now you gotta be out there watching Pop Warner games, you gotta be out there at the camps and going to some of the middle school football games and talking about your promise and what your school has to offer,” Still said. “So there’s a chase on to get the bodies because the bodies aren’t’ there [like they used to be].”
One of the biggest ways the new coaches are attracting players is through more exciting styles of play such as the spread offense that involve more passing than the city league is traditionally used to.
“We’re bringing the new style of football, we’re able to relate to the players a little bit more,” said Abraham, who played for Brighton until 2000 and became an assistant coach there after graduating from Nichol’s College in 2004. “I’m 30-years-old, I’m not that much older than they are. I can relate to them. My assistants are 25 and 27 so they can relate to them as well. We’re able to teach them the new styles and techniques as well as the spread game, the wildcat, the things that are happening that kids want to do.”
Still, it takes more than an updated playbook to attract young players in an Internet age filled with YouTube videos and Facebook and Twitter. Young athletes in the city are more distracted than ever today. Many athletes live in violent neighborhoods, have to help take care of younger siblings and work part-time jobs to help single-parents pay bills.
None of these issues are new for the new crop of head coaches, many of whom have served as assistants in the city for years. Some have even played in the city league themselves.
“These are football guys and they know what these kids need,” said Burke's Beaman, who played with and against many of the new crop of coaches in semipro leagues. “They are guys from the community, they have an understanding of it, as frustrating as it might be at times — not having numbers, money, resources — remaining committed is a beautiful thing to watch and I’m excited to see what happens this year.”
Today’s city league coaches also have to surmount mountains of paperwork that is more easily handled if the coach is technologically savvy. Texting and tweeting also helps them communicate with players too.
But even the most savvy coach can struggle to relay complicated football tactics to players learning the game for the first time, especially if there’s a language barrier.
“I thought we were going to be OK because I know a lot of football, but it’s what the kids know not what I know,” said Boswell, whose only victory in his first two seasons at English came on a forfeit.
Boswell said “a light went off” in his head during a recent coaching clinic at Gillette Stadium where he learned how to reach players who learn visually and verbally. He learned tactics such as using different color markers while drawing up plays and developing a metric system to measure his team’s success in first downs and “explosive plays” rather than in points and victories.
“I want to compete,” he said. “We need to compete and then once we can compete then we’re going to start taking it to victories. I’m not so much worried about victories if we’re not lining up right.”
Coaching in the city today requires coaches to be creative off the field too.
“It’s tough because we don’t have community schools, you’re pulling kids from Hyde Park and Dorchester,” Guthrie said. “One creative way I’ve been trying to get guys connected to our school is with symbolism: What is a Knight, a Knight has pride; connect them to our logo is what it’s about rather than South Boston since they are not even from South Boston.”
Other ideas the coaches are talking about is holding weekly pep rallies at school since many of the student bodies don’t support their football teams.
Another shared goal among the coaches is to get more fans out to White Stadium on Friday nights and maybe even instituting an annual All-Star game there.
“If the community is excited about it, the more the athletes will stay excited about it, and it makes our job easier,” Beaman said. “It is hard to get excited when you look at the stands and see five people in this big wonderful stadium we have.”
The second-year coach at Burke, who is known for his fashion-forward dress, also made sure his players got updated uniforms this year and he wants to start a booster club at his school.
“It’s one of those things that’s not difficult, it’s not rocket science, it’s just a matter of being committed to do it,” Beamon said. “A lot of times, first-year guys don’t have time do all those things because they are taking care of everything else.”
Nobody knows what it’s like to be a young coach better than the new patriarch of the league, Madison Park’s Roosevelt Robinson, 50, who has been a head coach since he was 28.
“A lot of the old guard — which I respect, they put in their time — has left and they have left a lot,” said Robinson, who has been a head coach for 22 years. “They have left some good impressions and some bad impressions, but this group really has to understand that the message is that this can cease at any time. This is the traditional warrior sport but not necessarily the toughest boys are playing anymore, it’s just developing an athlete.”
While Robinson said he thinks the new coaches will stick around for a while, most of the coaches in the league say the days of one coach being in the same position for 30 years are gone. Some of the younger coaches, such as Southie’s Guthrie, say they do want to coach for another 20 years or so. The 33-year-old said he has already noticed a bigger generation gap between himself and his players than when he first started coaching six years ago.
“That’s my worst fear, is being that guy trying to be cool when he’s older,” said Guthrie, who replaced long-time South Boston coach Robert Lerro six years ago after his own playing career at Boston College ended in 2000.
Charlestown’s first-year coach, Munroe, doesn’t worry about relating to players.
“I have kids of my own and for the most part no matter where you go teenagers are teenagers from one school to the next,” said Munroe, a former quarterback at Burke who graduated in 1991. “It’s how you work with them and how you develop and build expectations. So you let them know what’s expected for them.”
Remaining a constant in the players’ lives but continuing to engage them in fresh ways will be another challenge. But as excited as the new generation of coaches is to finally get to do things their own way, they aren’t forgetting the lessons they learned from their predecessors.
“What I take away from older generation, guys like Leo [Sybertz] and [James Phillip] is just the class, just the professionalism, the long term thinking,” Guthrie said. “Because as a young coach you’re so concerned with winning and establishing yourself that you lose sight o what’s really important: These are 14-year-old, 18-year-old young men developing themselves down the line.”
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