One of my favorite moments growing up was the pomp of Little League opening day, when we would ring the diamond at South School in Andover, get introduced to the crowd, and later enjoy a postgame hamburger that Mr. Curtin, the local McDonald’s owner, would cook at a field-side griddle.
In those days, it was OK to be on the Yankees, especially when your dad was coach and your teammates included your older brother, Gary, and friends like Bobby Heidt, Glenn McIntyre, and Chris Doherty.
Jack Johnson and assistant coach Dick Heidt took the preseason draft seriously, long before anybody heard of fantasy football, and our team always battled it out against the dreaded Red Sox.
The scariest moment was going up to bat against Jim Wetterberg, a manly 12-year-old on the White Sox who could throw pure heat and intimidated you as he stood on the mound with his bleach-blond hair flowing from his cap.
The fun continued into high school, especially playing football for the Andover Golden Warriors.
Heidt and McIntyre were teammates, as were Jon Kent (now a military lawyer), Steve Stabile (a firefighter), Tom O’Brien (brother of Penn State coach Bill O’Brien), and cocaptain Michael Chiklis (star of “The Shield” and, currently, “Vegas”).
We were coached by the legendary Dick Collins, a taskmaster who once threw down his clipboard in a rage and sent us off to run hills after punter Brett Pearson hit him on the head with a booted ball.
And I can still remember one of our assistant coaches, Dick Bourdelais, reaching under his shirt and thumping his chest repeatedly with his fist as he accused us — during a halftime speech against our Thanksgiving rival, Central Catholic — of lacking heart.
I played three more seasons in college, even reaching the Hall of Fame at my alma mater, Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis. That award, rest assured, was due to my freshman membership on a team that reached the Division 3 semifinals, not personal accomplishment.
That said, I didn’t think anything could surpass those experiences — until my own sons began playing sports.
From the moment Patrick started playing soccer and baseball to the final buzzer of Kelley’s last wrestling match, my wife and I got more joy watching them compete than we ever did playing or, in her case, being in the dance troupe.
Soccer started as a rugby-like scrum, with a pack of kids moving in a cluster until the ball popped out and the group momentarily dispersed. By the time Kelley was a senior and squad cocaptain, the game had taken on a speed, precision, and feistiness that had me cheering like a spectator at the Coliseum.
Patrick gravitated toward running, and over time earned a cross-country cocaptaincy that made the trips to Franklin Field, the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center, and New York’s Van Cortlandt Park all the more rewarding.
Both boys reached those accomplishments not at Andover High, but St. John’s Prep in Danvers.
I bring that up because my worlds collide Tuesday night as Andover takes on St. John’s in a state Division 1 high school football semifinal. The winner gets to play in the Super Bowl Saturday at Gillette Stadium.
One one level, I’m torn between my own alma mater and that of my sons. My personal allegiance is clear, but I retain an affinity for the Prep, a school whose scholarship matches its athletic prowess.
Patrick never would have become the man he is today without his teachers, for sure, but also without his coaches, including three-season running gurus Ray Carey and John Boyle.
And I know Kelley gained a level of personal confidence from spending four years wrestling under the great Manny Costa. He also picked up a paycheck in the summers landscaping with assistant coach Kevin Cote.
As a parent, I would never relinquish the hours we spent — especially for four-team wrestling meets — with parents like the Hardings and the Grabowskis, talking about everything from raising cows and cooking quiche to remembering a lost son.
But I felt a renewed connection to Andover High on Thanksgiving, as I stood in a crowd of more than 6,000 as the Warriors played the Central Raiders for the 40th time.
The teams entered the game with identical 9-1 records, and the stakes were clear: a spot in the division semifinals against a still-to-be determined opponent.
They traded scores in the first half, with Central opening with a field goal, Andover responding with a touchdown, and the Raiders answering with one of their own.
It was 10-7 in favor of Central when Andover quarterback C.J. Scarpa hit receiver Cam Farnham for a 77-year touchdown. That pushed the score to 14-10 as the teams entered the locker room for their own Thanksgiving halftime speeches.Continued...