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Football Coach, Seniors Reflect on Thanksgving Comeback

Action from Reading's playoff game against Cambridge.  Phot byLiz Connery.
Action from Reading's playoff game against Cambridge. Phot byLiz Connery.

By Drew Johnson ('15)  

          People have built walls for millennia. There are the necessary walls like the ones in your house, your office, or your classroom. There are famous walls such as The Great Wall of China and the Berlin Wall. We even have a Wall Street. There are also the personal walls. The walls you build to protect yourself from fear and danger. And lastly there are the imaginary walls. The walls you build to make sense of things. To separate things. And for millennia when an army has come upon a wall, what have they done? They grab a battering ram and plow through it.

            This season, the Rockets of red and black soared through a wall and saw it crumble. The wall people build between sports and life. And on Thanksgiving, the seniors, who were playing in the last high school game of their careers, walked through the rubble.

            “I just told them it’s the last time they’ll get to wear our uniform,” Coach John Fiore told me on the Monday after Thanksgiving as he sipped a late-morning coffee. “I told them that they’ll always be a Rocket, but it’s the last time they actually get to put the jersey on and the pads on and play a game on our home field, so make it the best they’ll ever play. Leave no regrets.”

            On a frostbitten Thanksgiving morning, Reading Rocket fans came to watch their team play it’s bitter rival Stoneham. In recent years, Reading has dominated the annual Thanksgiving matchup, so when they went down early it sure was a shocker. Coach Fiore tipped his hat to Stoneham’s strong start and admitted to the Rockets having yet another slow one, although it wasn’t anything they weren’t used to. I asked him about a couple of calls by the officials at pivotal points of the game and he responded “I thought there were some calls that the officials would like to have back,” and with a chuckle he added, “I’ll leave it at that.”

            If you attended the game, there’s a good chance you left early. I remember watching as what looked like more than half of the crowd get up and leave the icy bleachers at the end of the third quarter. “We didn’t give them a reason to stay,” Fiore said with a laugh. He was right. The Rockets trailed Stoneham 30-6 going into the fourth quarter.

            But there was something about this 2013 squad that willed me to stay. All season the Rockets have lived by the famous Vince Lombardi motto; “Winners never quit and quitters never win.” I remember my father and I debating on whether or not to leave and prepare for the day’s festivities. “If they don’t score on this drive, we can go,” I said. They scored. “If they don’t recover this onside kick, we can go,” my father said. They recovered it. We had decided to stay, we sensed something was about to happen

            “Those last six minutes,” the coach said, bewildered. “Where do you begin?” You’ve heard the legend a dozen times by now, I’m sure. Reading climbed back from 24 points down in the last six minutes of regulation. Quick strike after three-and-out after quick strike led them all the way back to tie the game. They would then win it in triple overtime.

            “I can’t say enough about our players and the poise they had, the toughness they displayed and the fact that they weren’t going to give up on each other,” Coach Fiore said “It sounds like every cliche in the book but cliches are real and those are the best cliches you get to enjoy.”

            I was fortunate enough to talk to nine of the seniors who just played the last - and greatest – high school football game of their lives. I think it’s safe to say there were some mixed emotions:

            “It's definitely sad but it was great to go out the way we did.” captain Drew Belcher told me.

            “What a way to go out,” said captain Jimmy King. “All year we worked for one goal, and that was to get better. We collectively did that and I'm proud to be able to say that I am a Rocket.”

            “You make such a strong bond with your team mates and coaches throughout the seasons,” captain Liam Keneally told me. “And it's something we will remember forever. It still hasn't hit me yet, but it just feels so odd thinking it's all over.”

            “Playing my last high school football game was very emotional,” I was told by captain Rob DiLoreto. “I put my heart and soul into the team and it was sad to put on that jersey for the last time but it's time to move on to the next chapter in life.”

            “Playing my last football game was unreal,” said Max Mavropoulos. “I woke up that morning knowing it was my last time strapping up my helmet with that team. That feeling was awful.”

            “It's really sad that's it's the last time I got to strap on the pads and run on the field,” Zach Face said. “It's an amazing family that we had and to think it's over is depressing. The four years flew by and I can't believe it's over.”

            “The hardest thing for me is knowing that I need to find a new passion,” said Joe Merullo. “Reading football is such a huge part of me and I had the time of my life strapping up the pads and playing with my best friends. I’ll never forget what it means to be a Rocket. I’ll always bleed red and black.”

            “It's sad because it’s something you take pride in and work so hard for all year round,” Will Druid told me. “It's defiantly going to be hard to let go of football but we had a great run and I am honored that I got to wear ‘Rockets’ across my chest.”

            “It was bitter sweet. That's the easiest way to put it,” Eric Johnson told me. “It was emotional since it was our last game, but the fact that we went out with a bang and came back from a 30-6 trail in the fourth quarter made it one of the best experiences of my life that I know I will never forget.”

            I asked Coach Fiore what advice he would give the seniors who will be moving on next year. He responded “[I would tell them] all of the things that we’ve been about for four years. Improve everyday, improve every situation. You can always be better and you can always work to get better. It’s going to a take a team effort at some point in your life; you’re not out here on an island. We need each other. Hopefully that’s what they leave with.”

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