32 years after 4 Raiders charged to Foxboro, their sons return
By JENNIFER GENTILE
MELROSE — For the first time in over three decades the names Mercer, Karelas, McLaughlin and Hickey return to the walls of Foxboro Stadium for the preeminent game in a high school football player’s career: Super Bowl.
It’s a true father-son act for the Melrose High School Red Raiders. It’s been 32 years since Melrose High has sent a football team to the Super Bowl and Melrose will be there on Dec. 6 when they face Dartmouth High School at Gillette Stadium in the Div. 3 Final at 6 p.m.
Perhaps the most invested fans are ones often found on the top row of the bleachers. They blend in with other Raider fans but are most unique in nature. Chris Hickey, John McLaughlin, George Karelas and John Mercer are all distinguished alumni from that MHS 1982 team. Today they have all the more reason to celebrate this trip to Foxboro – because they are rooting for their sons, senior captains Jack Hickey and Zack Mercer, quarterback Jake Karelas and brother Luke and senior Brian McLaughlin. They’ve helped lead Melrose to a 10-2 season and have swept their playoff opponents to make the trip to Foxboro. Like their dads, they’ll travel down Route 1 toward a transformed stadium, now a far cry from the old Schaefer Stadium. But the stakes are just the same. Football rivalries are timeless, especially when a Super Bowl title is on the line.
It was Dec. 4, 1982 and Melrose had advanced to the Div. 1 Super Bowl after storming through the season with a 10-1 record. Rival Natick had just graduated Doug Flutie but they had his younger brother Darren at quarterback. Natick went into the game undefeated at 11-0 and ranked #1 in New England and 23rd nationally by USA Today. In what many consider the greatest high school Super Bowl ever played at Foxboro, Melrose lost in a 35-34 heartbreaker. It was Darren Flutie who ran six yards for a touchdown and provided a winning two-point conversion with 42 seconds left to take the title from a stunned Melrose team. While it didn’t result in a state title for the Raiders, that fourth quarter alone stands as the most points ever tallied in a fourth quarter Super Bowl game in Massachusetts. Melrose also scored more points against Natick than any team all season.
Perhaps there is a sense of unfinished business for the four men, who’ve watched their sons lead a team in a Cinderella season, despite being left off virtually all pre-season polls and picked against by pundits during their playoff run. If their boys pull it off, this will be Melrose’s first state championship in football. Melrose’s most successful football team to date, their 1946 squad, technically earned an EMass State Title, the furthest they could go in high school playoffs at the time. That title earned Melrose a trip to represent Massachusetts in Florida but the Raiders canceled due to the death of MHS player Fred Green, who died after an injury sustained in a game. Representing Melrose in its place that year was Lynn Classical, who rostered a young Harry Agganis.
There is a sense of creating history for this team but on the field it’s all business. The Raiders play with little nerves or pressure and have sprinted through a season in which nearly everything has gone right. Frayed nerves can be left to their fans, including the 1982 Raider fathers who once had a state title at their fingertips. Being the player on the field at Super Bowl and being the father of one are two very different experiences, one they talked about with the Melrose Weekly News Sports.
“I think I’m more nervous then he is,” says George Karelas, father of Jake and Luke. “Jake, being the quarterback, has a tremendous amount of responsibility on his shoulders and as his father watching, let’s just say the stress level is on the high side.”
“I think its harder to be a parent,” agrees John McLaughlin, father of Brian. “Once the game gets going the kids are fine but, as a parent, your heart is in your throat until the outcome is determined.”
John Mercer, former inside linebacker for the Raiders, has spent the last few years watching two outstanding Melrose players fight for Super Bowl rights with sons Eric Mercer (MHS 2013, now playing for St. Anselm) and this year’s defensive whiz, Zack. As a father he has experienced two times the amount of joy and uncertainty. “It’s harder sitting in the stands. As a player you focus on your job on the field. As a parent you go along for the ride and try to enjoy the moment.”
Chris Hickey was a standout tailback and defensive back for that 1982 team. He’s watched his son Jack excel on the field all season. “I think playing is easier as you have some level of control over what is happening on the field,” says Hickey. “There is a high level of helplessness when your role is the observing parent on the sidelines. However my confidence level has been growing each game and I think they have what it takes to win it all.”
One thing these men know is that moments like these should be treasured, no matter the outcome. Says Karelas, “We’ve talked about not taking it for granted and to soak in every minute of it. I think it has become a little family competition for them to win because my team didn’t.”
Mercer points out that nearly every team is compared to the 1982 team since that Super Bowl appearance. “I think every team wants to leave it’s mark in MHS history. We have had a great run the last few years. And if they win it would be a great accomplishment for the team, the program, the school and the entire city.”
These former Raiders note the unbreakable bond the players will have in life. “There’s just something about playing football for the Red Raiders that binds Melrose kids together,” comments McLaughlin. “I think the opportunity to be the first football state champs in Melrose is something they are aware of but these kids don’t need any outside inspiration.”
Indeed, getting to this day in December 2014 was no fluke. As middle school players the collection of athletes focused on that date like a target. “When Jake was in the eighth grade, one of his coaches gave him a motivational print out with a caption on it says, ‘If we stick together and we work hard enough we will win this on Dec. 6, 2014.'” The quarterback has had it on his wall since it was given to him in 2010.
Mercer credits these three-sport athletes for their work. “They made a commitment to stay at MHS to train and play together. I thought we had a great chance to go to Gillette last year and we made it to the semis. I knew this group could get there if they stuck together and stayed healthy.”
That day is now. It’s nearly mission complete for the Melrose Red Raiders, who seem on a path of glory, having rolled through playoffs taking out highly-touted Woburn and Concord Carlisle, both unbeaten and top ranked teams. By shocking state champ Tewksbury on Nov. 22 they’ve done what no other team has done in over 30 years. On this road to Gillette there really seems no clear roadblock ahead. Melrose was the dark horse of the playoffs and seem perfectly OK with that role.
“As Jack would say, It would be ‘euphoric’ if they won,” says Hickey. “My team came so close and there has always been little emptiness that comes with a such a heartbreaking loss. But a win by Jack’s team would go a long way in filling that empty space.”
“They a’re a group of throwback kids,” says McLaughlin. “The journey has been significant, the Super Bowl victory will just be the icing on the cake. They probably don’t understand that now, but when they’re out of high school for 30 years like us, they will.”
Mercer summed it up. “Over the years the wins and losses kind of fade. The one thing that remains are your teammates. Those guys will be your best friends for the rest of your life.”