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Arms race

Three local standouts have a shot at Colombo’s record for TD passes

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By Bob Holmes
Globe Staff / September 8, 2011

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BROCKTON - The construction equipment was moments from arriving at Marciano Stadium, and a group of school officials was surveying the soon-to-be replaced field. Standing among them making small talk was perhaps the best high school football player in Massachusetts history.

Dick Jauron? No.

Howie Long? Think again.

Tommy Colombo (Brockton Class of 1987) may be the best player in state history, even if his name probably isn’t the first to come to mind in a discussion of the all-time greats. But in a city where greatness seems commonplace, his résumé backs up the statement.

A three-time Globe All-Scholastic, he threw for more than 6,000 yards, won two Super Bowls, and went undefeated all four years playing in the long-defunct Suburban League.

But what brings Colombo to the field that bears his father’s name this August morning is the number 85 and the three current senior quarterbacks who want to replace him atop the all-time touchdown-pass list.

Colombo had 85 career TD passes, a state record that has stood for more than 20 years. But with the high school season starting tomorrow, Barnstable’s D.J. Crook (65), Everett’s Jonathan DiBiaso (59), and Billerica’s Nick LaSpada (57) are all within range of the record.

And Colombo couldn’t be happier for them.

“They’re all good-looking kids,’’ said Colombo, 43, who after a year at Phillips Exeter went on to play quarterback at Villanova (Class of ’93) and was inducted into the Philadelphia school’s Hall of Fame last year. “They’re all very good students, respected in their communities, and obviously physically talented.

“They’re going to do great things. It’s a matter of time before all the stars align and somebody breaks this record. Records get broken.’’

Colombo isn’t involved in football these days. He owns an office supply company, Universal Business Equipment Corp., with his cousin, Stephen Marciano. That, and his four children, keep Colombo and wife Juliann busy. But with his brother, Peter, coaching the Boxers, and with his father Armond the winningest football coach in state history, the game is never far away.

Calling himself, with a smirk, “the classic 5-foot-5 dropback quarterback,’’ Colombo said the touchdown passes are easy to explain.

“We had a lot of very talented receivers,’’ said Colombo, the youngest of Armond’s six children. “Greg McMurtry [Michigan], Peter Marciano [Iowa], Sherrod Rainge [Penn State]. We had a lot of talented running backs. Odell Wilson went to Penn State, and we had a great coach.’’

It also helped growing up with a good after-school program.

“After school in kindergarten, I wouldn’t go home, I’d go to my dad’s practice,’’ he said. “I was always around football. My after-school program was that I was a water boy for the football team.

“I was exposed to football when I was a baby. I got it. I understood football. I understood the concept of it. And that’s ultimately what led to my success. It was in my blood.’’

Much the same can be said of Crook, DiBiaso, and LaSpada.

D.J. Crook 65 career TD passes November hasn’t been kind to Barnstable football. Two years ago, the Red Raiders finished in a three-way tie for first place in the Old Colony League. The tie was broken by a coin flip inside a Friendly’s restaurant, and Bridgewater-Raynham represented the league in the Division 1A playoffs.

Last November, a Thanksgiving week incident left coach Doug Crook suspended for the annual game against Falmouth. The season ended, and Crook and the football program went separate ways. He remains a chemistry teacher at the high school.

After three record-breaking seasons starting at quarterback under his father, D.J. has a new coach, Chris Whidden. But what could have been uncomfortable has been anything but. Whidden was an assistant under Doug Crook, and the two remain friends.

“We get along fine,’’ said D.J., an 18-year-old senior who had 33 touchdown passes last fall. “I’ve known him since my dad first started coaching there, under [Paul] Demanche. I think everything’s going to be all right. The hard part is over with. I feel like a new player.’’

To prepare for this season, the 6-2, 195-pounder spent the summer going one-on-one with some of the toughest, meanest people in the state: Cape Cod tourists.

Crook split time working at two restaurants, Fresh Catch in Hyannis and Mattakeese Wharf on Barnstable Harbor. And the best thing about the fall, other than football, is that there are no tourists.

“Exactly,’’ he said. “I mean, I haven’t even been to the beach yet. It’s not what people who actually live there do.’’

When he wasn’t going to work, he was going to camp. Crook attended football camps at Dartmouth, Brown, Penn State, Connecticut, North Carolina State, Elon, and Temple twice - “just to get my name out there.’’

He isn’t sure where he’ll end up next fall, but he expects to graduate early and ideally would like to be eligible to play spring ball.

“I’m just waiting to see what happens,’’ he said.

And the record?

“Honestly, it’s in the back of my head,’’ he said. “If it happens, it happens. My main concern is going out there and trying to win football games - getting into the playoffs, win the OCL, not having a coin flip.

“The past two years, we’ve been so close to making the playoffs. This will be the strongest team I’ve ever played with. I’m feeling pretty confident about this.’’

Jonathan DiBiaso 59 career TD passes The 17-year-old son of Everett coach John DiBiaso spent last fall cleaning up on the football field, leading Everett to an undefeated season and a Division 1 Super Bowl title, while earning recognition as the Globe’s Division 1 Player of the Year. And this summer, he cleaned up elsewhere, working as a custodian at Everett High School.

After working at the school, he worked out with teammates, then helped at Pop Warner practice, meaning there were more than a few 12-hour days. Summer vacation was anything but.

“I know, it’s been rough,’’ he said.

In addition to the team’s success last fall, DiBiaso broke the state’s season touchdown passing record with 43. He is aware of Colombo’s record, but it’s secondary to a season he’s been looking forward to for a long time.

“Being an Everett kid, and my dad being the coach, growing up I’ve always been looking forward to my senior season and my last time playing in Everett,’’ said DiBiaso, who has grown from a 5-11, 145-pound freshman, into a 6-1, 200-pound senior. “So to go undefeated this year is really my goal. And most importantly, that last game being a good note.’’

Being the coach’s son has been its own education.

“He’s not bad,’’ said DiBiaso. “He’s tough on me but not as bad as people say. Bumps in the road sometimes, but I benefit from it because he’s just as hard on me, if not more so, than other kids. We still have our arguments, but it’s the usual.’’

College seems a long way off.

“I’m just going to see how the season goes,’’ he said. “Right now I’m sticking with the Ivy Leagues. If something pops up with Division 1 I’ll jump on it, but if not, maybe prep school. Whatever’s best for me.’’

Nick LaSpada 57 career TD passes A player once compared to another Billerica great, Tommy Glavine, has a huge test this fall, and it doesn’t involve Andover, Chelmsford, or any other Merrimack Valley Conference opponents. It’s the ACT test this month, and if he scores well, he hopes to be a member of Harvard’s Class of 2016. And if Harvard doesn’t work out? He’s also looking at Princeton and Columbia.

It’s a high-pressure test, and right in the middle of the football season.

“Yes, it is,’’ said LaSpada, who celebrated his 18th birthday Tuesday. “But you have to take it one day at a time. I’ll have the game Friday night, go to bed right after that, and prepare for the test on Saturday.

“Just have to get through it, take it like a game, take it play by play, question by question.’’

Why Harvard? Why not some football power?

“Why not Harvard? It’s one of the best schools in the country,’’ said the 6-1, 190-pound quarterback. “Academically, it’s definitely something you can fall back on, other than the football aspect.’’

And there are always the skills he’s learned this summer. For four days a week, LaSpada worked for his father at Plating for Electronics in Waltham.

LaSpada would arrive at 6:30 a.m., he said, and work “with liquid metals, acids, and different chemicals.’’ Did that pay better than his last job, at the drive-thru window at Dunkin Donuts?

“Definitely.’’

LaSpada, who was named the Massachusetts Gatorade Player of the Year after his sophomore season, wasn’t sure how many touchdown passes he has. That’s up to his mother, the keeper of all things Nick.

“She has all the articles,’’ he said. “She takes care of all that stuff. I’m more worried about this upcoming season. I like to know what my stats are during the season but it’s not something I really focus on.’’

Billerica struggled last year, especially on defense, giving up 24.2 points per game. That number was a big reason the team finished 5-6.

LaSpada, who expects to concentrate on safety in college, played some defense last fall, but in an effort to keep him healthy, defense was a part-time gig. It should be more of the same this fall, but with the entire defensive line returning and a more experienced team, his expectations are greater.

“We’re going to be strong,’’ he said. “I think we lost only six seniors, compared to 22 the year before.’’

Along with football, LaSpada has an interest in studying criminal justice in college, then “maybe law school.’’ He is a fan of the many crime shows on television.

“Yeah,’’ he said. “CSI, CIA, things like that.’’

But first the ACT.

If one of the three is on the verge of breaking his record, Colombo hopes to be there. And he’ll be leading the applause.

“If it’s going to be broken, I’d like it to be broken by these three guys,’’ he said, “because they seem to match what I think a high school athlete should be - good student, respectful, they win a lot of games . . . that’s a good thing.’’