Friends in life, foes for a day
Former Pop Warner teammates find themselves playing on opposite sides in season’s biggest game
Their memories are vivid: the wake-up calls before dawn on game days, the laughter in the huddle, the feeling of carrying a ball for the first time. For three young boys, the road began in Pop Warner football, the start of a journey that will come full circle this morning.
Four years ago, JC Reynolds, Sean McCusker, and Gio Ortiz were teammates in the Watertown-Belmont Pop Warner program.
This morning at 10, the trio will take the field as captains for their respective teams on the new turf at Victory Field in Watertown, Reynolds playing for Belmont, and McCusker and Ortiz for the host Red Raiders.
In all likelihood, the annual Belmont-Watertown Thanksgiving Day game will be the last organized football game they will play.
“Back then, when you’re young, you never really think football can end,’’ said Reynolds, a 6-foot, 170-pound tailback and linebacker who earned all-Middlesex League honors for his defensive prowess. “But now it’s ending for us, and it’s really cool because it all started on Victory Field, practicing when we were little kids. Now we’re playing our last high school game, our senior year on the same field. It’ll be something I always remember.’’
Watertown (6-4) and Belmont (2-8) have each dropped four straight games, so this matchup will be all about pride. But don’t tell the players that it’s inconsequential. This is a 90-year-old rivalry that never goes stale. Year after year, former Pop Warner teammates square off, putting old friendships aside to play for their towns.
What’s more, the all-time series is tied at 42-42-5, and the tie is waiting to be broken.
“This is the biggest thing that’s ever come up in my life so far, pretty much,’’ said McCusker, a 5-foot-10, 190-pound defensive end. “Ever since I’ve played Pop Warner, I’ve been looking forward to this day.’’
And if Watertown is going to be successful, he and his teammates must stop Reynolds, one of McCusker’s best friends since childhood.
In Pop Warner, McCusker was the quarterback, and Reynolds his center.
They developed a chemistry that went well beyond the football field, from hanging out and playing video games to attending college sporting events together with their fathers.
Now, McCusker is thinking up ways to contain Reynolds. And he doesn’t plan on going easy on the Belmont back.
“It’s Thanksgiving,’’ McCusker said. “I have to run through him, right?’’
The feeling is mutual. Reynolds will have no qualms trying to take down his pal McCusker, a fullback on offense.
“You don’t want to do anything illegal,’’ Reynolds said. “But as long as it’s within the rules . . .’’
The game has always been passionate.
McCusker said he plans to play despite what he believes may be a sprained knee. (He put off a doctor’s appointment until after the game.) In a recent encounter with Reynolds, he didn’t mention the injury, not wanting to give away sensitive information.
“It’s intense,’’ said Watertown coach John Cacace. “Some of these kids have played together since they were 8 years old, and now they’re bitter rivals.’’
Bitter for one day, maybe, but it’s proven hard to break the bonds of friendship formed between some Pop Warner teammates.
Even after McCusker and Reynolds went to separate high schools, they saw each other at Watertown-Belmont sporting events and kept in touch via Facebook, congratulating each other after standout performances.
Ortiz recalled exchanging pleasantries before last Thanksgiving’s game with former Pop Warner teammates on the Belmont sideline.
“You’ve known each other for a while because of football,’’ said Ortiz, an all-Middlesex League selection this season after scoring 11 touchdowns as a kick returner, running back, receiver, and quarterback. “Those become some of your best friends because of that brotherhood.’’
Belmont coach Kevin Gildea agrees.
A Watertown native, Gildea played in the Pop Warner program; it’s where he met Dean Sacca, who is now an assistant coach with the Marauders.
“You hear about the lessons that football teaches you, but you don’t realize you’re meeting lifelong friends right now, too,’’ Gildea said. “JC and Sean? They’re going to be friends forever. They’re going to have this bond that not many kids are going to have.’’
Though Reynolds may not be shaking hands with McCusker and Ortiz until the final whistle blows, all three respect each others’ work ethic, the seeds of which were planted when they first put on pads. All three were named captains this season because of it.
“Those guys were always hard workers,’’ said Bob Hebert, a Watertown assistant who coached all three in Pop Warner. He is also Ortiz’s stepfather. “It doesn’t surprise me that they’ve had success at the high school level. They were always leaders of the team back then. I remember all three vividly. They all came to every practice and worked as hard as they could every practice.
“They’re all pretty versatile players. You could put them pretty much anywhere and they’d give you 100 percent.’’
They have one more opportunity to give it all again.
“A game like Winchester or Stoneham, you win the game and that’s it,’’ said Reynolds. “You’ll never see those kids again. Watertown kids, you’re going to see them the rest of senior year, next summer, there’s probably a good chance you see them down the road later in life, and that senior year Thanksgiving game is always going to come up.
“You definitely want to win that, not only to have bragging rights for the rest of the year, but for the rest of your life.’’
While perpetual bragging rights may seem like a priceless commodity in a friendship, one is worthless without the other. Good thing these three have that covered.
“Once you’re friends on a football team,’’ said McCusker, “you’ll always be friends.’’
Phil Perry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.