History-makers filled a void and created memories
By JENNIFER GENTILE
MELROSE — Often when a playoff season ends, a player or coach might shake his head and lament that his team had “one more game” in them. That’s not the case for the Melrose Red Raider football team. Melrose had no games ahead of them whether they won or lost on Saturday, Dec. 6 at Gillette Stadium. They had reached the finish line the minute they pulled into the venue.
Think about it. Out of 313 Massachusetts high school football teams only 12 muscled their way to Super Bowl. Melrose went as far any team could go in Division 3, not bad for an average-sized team who made no top 20 lists in September. But as the season progressed, fortune seemed to be on its side. It coasted to playoffs in dramatic fashion, coming up with the big plays and then shocked everyone by getting to Gillette. The significance of that alone can’t be overstated. So, as players hang up their football equipment for the last time – or until next August – here is something to consider.
Fortune hasn’t always been on Melrose’s side. There are those in town who still remember Fred Green, for whom our football field is named. The boy was 17 when he died from an internal injury after playing for EMass Champ Melrose High in the final football game of 1946. Melrose did not win a state championship after this, though they came close. In 1982 Darren Flutie of Natick ruined any chance with a touchdown and two point conversation in the waning seconds of the Natick vs. Melrose Super Bowl at Schaefer Stadium, stealing a 35-34 win. The loss still stings. Melrose also endured the coin flip of 1999, that tie-breaking, MIAA-imposed farce broadcast in front of Boston media to determine if Melrose or Wakefield would advance to Super Bowl contention. Every Melrose fan would like to put that memory to rest, because it landed on tails and they lost and Wakefield went on to win the whole thing. Left behind in its wake was an especially talented 1999 Melrose squad wondering what might have been. It’s also worth noting that in preparation for this year’s Super Bowl, the MIAA requested every team participating provide a shirt to be displayed in their Hall of Fame at Patriot Place should it emerge the Super Bowl winner. Melrose’s shirt was supposed to be a replica of the one once worn by former Raider Ray Rocha (MHS 1990), #17, who died in the Sept. 11 attacks. Instead, Dartmouth’s shirt will be hung for the next 12 months.
It’s fair to suggest there have been moments in the past that have instilled in local football fans a Calvinist belief that somehow Melrose football ultimately ends in disappointment, as if we’re Charlie Brown whose football is forever pulled away by Lucy. It may have even given us a little bit of an inferiority complex, let’s be honest.
And then 2014 happened.
To quote Red Raider Jack Hickey, Melrose “punched their opponents in the mouth” this year. It shut up skeptics. It avenged last year’s loss against Tewksbury. It brought the fathers of the 1982 Raiders back into the spotlight. It beat Wakefield not once, twice but three times. Melrose tore apart undefeated, top 10 teams in playoffs and then knocked out a state champion for a trip to the Super Bowl. It did this without even winning its league. A win at Gillette, obviously, would have been the perfect ending. Storybook when you consider many of these players were sons of that 1982 Raider team. And it certainly wasn’t easy accepting the runner up trophy on a podium in the rain, in front of a celebrating Dartmouth team singing their fight song, but it’s moments like this that built character, the kind that will serve tough boys like these in their road to adulthood. In the end we can all be thankful because the 2014 Raiders woke a legion of Melrose football fans who got back on the bus, traveling en masse to the greatest football arena in New England, hoping for another shot at the brass ring. That is not nothing.
It’s over and most of these talented athletes will move on to other sports and the stakes will rise again. Another playoff appearance will be on the line, another clinched, maybe one missed. Surprises and disappointments await. The wheel of life continues. And if someday, 5 or 10 years from now, some of these players reflect on this season and begin to mentally tally the wins and losses, yards gained and trophies handed out – they might realize that, in the end, it didn’t matter. The fun was in the getting there.
Just ask their dads.