David Bertucci Jr. sat on a cold, damp, concrete bench at Harvard Stadium Friday, looking on as floodlights illuminated the chilly night and dark green turf.
Normally on Fridays in the fall, David Jr. is on the field playing; he is West Roxbury High’s starting senior quarterback. But on this night he is watching his younger brother Derek start at right guard in the Play Ball! Township Championship game for Ohrenberger K-8 School in West Roxbury.
This season has been an important one for Derek. For the first time since he was 7 years old, the seventh grader had the chance to put on pads and play competitive football. And David Jr., knowing well what the sport means to his family, is glad to see his brother get another chance.
Play Ball!, a Boston-based charity, funds BPS middle school sports and created a football league in 2009. There were four teams back then, and the number has since risen to 10. Derek’s school is the most recent addition, as of October.
David Jr. was an eighth grader at Washington Irving Middle School in Roslindale during Play Ball!’s inaugural football season. His team won the championship that year.
When David Jr. played in the championship game, he recalled it being at White Stadium in Jamaica Plain. But five years later, the high school senior was wowed as he walked into Harvard Stadium for the first time.
David Jr. enjoyed getting to see his brother play, but admitted he was itching to join Derek on the field.
“It feels really different,” said David Jr., who played Pop Warner until eighth grade, and will lead West Roxbury into the school’s first Thanksgiving football against Randolph Thursday. “I’m used to being on the field and playing. Watching him play, it’s like, ‘Wow, I wish I could play with him.’ It’s always great to see Derek play football.”
Play Ball!’s mantra is “Getting more feet on the field.” The goal is to provide middle school students a way to exercise, get them to participate in team-oriented activities, and motivate them to do well in school.
That is precisely why students like Derek have benefited from the opportunity to play football for their school.
Though football is his favorite sport, Derek hasn’t been able to play on a team since a year of Pop Warner at age 7. He learned the sport early on in life, attending David Jr.’s Pop Warner and high school practices while his dad helped coach the team.
David Sr. was a defensive lineman on West Roxbury’s championship team in 1983 – the first city team to win a championship.
The youngest in the family, Derek was tagging along to the practices from an early age.
“Before he could play, I’d be coaching his older brother,” said David Sr., who used to be an assistant for the Raiders. “[Derek] would have to get at the end of the line, but every agility drill, at 5,6 years old, he was running them.”
After playing at 7, Derek didn’t make the weight limit that Pop Warner sets. When he learned he wouldn’t be able to play, Derek describes the moment as “devastating.”
“We cried together,” said his mother, Shelly.
“He’s a big kid, and he tried to keep his weight down,” said David Sr. “We did everything we could, but he was devastated. Football is in his blood.”
Throughout the next five years, Derek was able to play basketball and baseball. But Pop Warner didn’t work out, again because of its weight limitation.
In October 2013, though, his school got a call from Play Ball! that gave Derek another shot at playing the sport he loves.
Play Ball! was looking for a 10th team to join the league, and Ohrenberger K-8 fit the bill. Derek heard the news at school and called his big brother when it was official. David Jr. can recall the excitement in Derek’s voice.
“He called me and he told me that his school was getting a football team,” said David Jr. “He was all excited. I think it was the first week of October, but he said everybody was really excited and I was excited for him.”
Derek stepped onto the football field with pads for the team’s first practice in early October. His dad was there and helped Ohrenberger head coach Mike Gavin with the team from the beginning of this season.
After watching his brother on the field so many times, Derek was now the one suiting up for games.
“I can’t really describe it,” Derek said. “It was overwhelming.”
The learning curve was steep for the players during the first season. Many of the students hadn’t played Pop Warner, and Ohrenberger had two practices before its first game, joining the league after the season had started.
Ohrenberger was grouped in the Township Division with less experienced teams because it was the school’s first season.
Following an0-7 regular season, Ohrenberger was matched up with another team for the Township semifinals. According to Play Ball! founder Mike Harney, Ohrenberger’s semifinal opponent had some players who weren’t eligible because of grades. Therefore, Ohrenberger didn’t play a semifinal game and was mched up with Dever-McCormack in the Township Championship last Friday.
Ohrenberger lost, 36-14, but as the players lined up at the 40-yard line across from their victorious opponents and received the runner-up trophy, their smiles and excitement didn't look like the reaction of a team that had lost eight straight games.
“They could care less,” said Gavin. “They just want to be part of a team, a sport, they want to be a part of something. They came every day, they came to practice, and they made the grades. It’s a testament to the kids.”
Seeing the positive effect a team atmosphere has had on the players – including his son – is something Derek’s father has recognized. Play Ball! has given Derek the chance to grow into more than just a football player. His father has noticed a change in the student’s attitude after having the opportunity to play a season of football.
“I’d volunteer every hour I have of my life to help this program,” said David Sr. “I cannot say it enough, and I live in the city. I see the violence every day. I was a coach for 15 years. This program, there’s zero negativity in it. It’s going to save a lot of kids.”
Having had the opportunity to coach both of his sons, David Sr. knows the importance football has had for them.
“The [game] they had at Harvard is unbelievable. All these kids together, and these are tough city kids,” said the father. “Don’t just think because they’re sixth, seventh, eighth grade ... I worked for the Department of Youth Services for two years.
“There are some hard-core kids out there. These kids are at positive events, working out, making friends who they’re going to have for a long time. It’s [immeasurable] what this program has done for these kids, this city, our community, my family and for me.”
Derek’s parents said they have noticed a change in how their son acts. His brother agreed, as did Gavin. To be on the football team, students at Ohrenberger must maintain a C- grade average.
Derek said that he was a C and D student before this year, but made sure to keep his grades up so he could stay on the football team.
“[Derek] was borderline himself with grades," said David Sr. "He’s gone from slacking where you have to ask him 10 times to doing it right away, and doing it when he’s supposed to do his homework and stuff."
Gavin is a computer teacher at Ohrenberger. He remembers Derek, among other current players, from when he was a fifth grader at the K-8 school.
Having seen what one season of football has done to motivate Derek is encouraging for Gavin.
“The sky is the limit for the kid,” said Gavin. “It’s up to Derek though. It can’t be just this. It needs to continue.
“The willingness to do his work, to take that extra effort. To make sure he’s on top of all his schoolwork. He would have put [schoolwork] on the back burner last year.”
To Gavin, the importance of what the players learn by playing a team sport is invaluable, even relative to what his players learn at school.
“What it does for the kids on the front lines,” he said, “is nothing any teacher can teach them in a classroom.”
Nick Ironside can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Nick on Twitter @nironside.
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- Justin A. Rice -- A metro Detroit native, Rice is a Michigan State University (Go Spartans!) and Northeastern University graduate. Rice lives in the South End with his dog and wife, who unfortunately attended the University of Michigan ... his wife, that is. He curates the BPS Sports Blog and is always looking to write about city athletes with great stories. Have an idea? He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeJustinRice or @BPSspts.
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