By Gethin Coolbaugh
WELLESLEY HILLS – More than just meals were being shared at the annual Wellesley-Needham Thanksgiving Day Football Rivalry Dinner on Tuesday night.
On a crisp November night in a metro-Boston suburb, a group of men and women alike from neighboring towns joined together to honor their gridiron greats.
For one night, the players and coaches from storied rivals Wellesley and Needham came together to share a Thanksgiving dinner at the Wellesley Community Center.
As if a night full of feast and merriment wasn’t enough, those in attendance were graced by an appearance from Boston Globe sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy, who was the evening’s honorary keynote speaker.
“You don’t get that many requests, but when you are doing something in the community, you have to pick your spots,” Shaughnessy said about his decision to speak at the dinner. “This (rivalry) has been a great tradition, and I love high schools. Every time you go out of the house, you try to justify that for the greater good, and this was one of those greater good nights.”
Following the introductory prayers and speeches, as well as a four-course meal, Shaughnessy took to the podium and delivered a powerful message to the audience regarding the importance of sportsmanship.
In his speech, Shaughnessy shared an experience from his days at Groton High School when he was a member of the varsity basketball team.
Shaughnessy and Groton were slated to play Lunenburg in the Wachusett League championships on a Monday night, but Lunenburg’s coach called and asked if the game could be moved to Friday because his team’s best player, Rick Hillman, had rolled an ankle and would not be ready for Monday’s game. In a generous move that was the epitome sportsmanship, Groton’s coach accepted.
As a result, Hillman scored 35 points in the championship game, and Lunenburg topped Groton 72-68.
“It’s not always about beating them when they don’t have their best guy,” Shaughnessy noted in his speech. “Beat them with their best. You don’t want to beat them and have some cheesy championship because their guy (because he) got hurt. I thought it was the right thing to do, and I still do. High school brings out stories like that.”
“It shouldn’t be all cutthroat and win at all costs,” said Shaughnessy. “You have to take the larger picture into mind, and I think that high school sports can do that. The closer we get to stressing that, the better.”
During his four years at Groton High, now Groton-Dunstable High School, Shaughnessy was greatly influenced by the world of high school sports.
“I played and I had three kids who played, I wrote a book about it, and it’s very dear to me,” Shaughnessy said. “One of my daughters is a teacher and a coach now at Newton North, and it’s just a passion. I find it to be very pure, I have a really good memory from those times, and it was a very important time of my life.”
Shaughnessy was unable to experience the joys of cheering for a hometown high school football team during his youth.
“In Central Massachusetts, where I grew up, we didn’t even have a football team in Groton,” added Shaughnessy. “Friday night (basketball) games were a big deal in the town. I had a brother and sister who were really good players, both older than me, and that kind of brought me into sports.”
Shaughnessy also spoke about the story of Reading High School coach Mike Boyd, who passed away after a battle with lung cancer at the age of 29 on July 28, 2009.
Boyd led the Rockets to two state championships when he was a senior at Reading High, and later returned to coach.
In addition, Shaughnessy reminisced about the times he covered both Wellesley and Needham sports, and even shed light onto why the Bay State Conference uses wooden bats instead of aluminum in baseball.
“The reason you guys play with wooden bats in the Bay State League is because Billy Hughto got hit in the face with a line drive against Walpole,” Shaughnessy noted.
Following his speech Shaughnessy fielded general questions from the audience about Boston sports, with topics ranging from Bill Belichick’s infamous fourth-and-two decision to Kevin Garnett’s health.
When Shaughnessy first received an invitation to be Tuesday’s keynote speaker from the Wellesley Rotary, which hosted the event, he jumped at the chance.
After graduating from Groton High, Shaughnessy received a Rotary scholarship to attend the College of the Holy Cross.
“When I was a senior in high school, the most lucrative scholarship that you could apply for was the rotary club scholarship. You had to write an essay, and I applied and I got it. You find out graduation night, and it was a big deal.”
“For our family, we didn’t have a lot of money, so it was a difference maker,” Shaughnessy added. “So I have always be indebted to the rotary for taking care of me in my time of need.”
There were 14 seniors invited from Wellesley’s football team, and 24 seniors from Needham. The principals, athletic directors, athletic trainers, and coaches were also invited from both schools.
Both Wellesley coach Bill Tracey and Needham coach David Duffy shared a word with the audience and introduced their players at the start of the event.
Duffy, who has been at the helm of the Rockets for 12 years, has a rich history in the nation’s oldest continuous high school football rivalry of 122 years.
“The rivalry is big in my family,” said Duffy. “My grandfather played (in the rivalry) back in 1913 and1914, my father played in 1951, and I played in 1982. It is a great rivalry as far as knowing kids and coaches from the other school.”
“It is a friendly rivalry, it is competitive, and we try the best to win,” Duffy said. “Afterward, we’ll just shake hands, go home, and have turkey.”
Wellesley and Needham have the unique tradition of joining together before the Thanksgiving Day battle, which is uncommon between high school rivals.
“I am not sure how long this dinner has been going on, but it is a nice rivalry,” noted Duffy. “They don’t hate each other, and they want to win. I think it makes it a classic rivalry, which is what we are all about in high school.”
Similar to Shaughnessy, Duffy also stresses the importance of sportsmanship in modern-day sports.
“It is the way that I was taught to coach from Roy Johan and John Freitas, who are still on the staff today” Duffy said. “They taught me about sportsmanship and how to carry yourself at all times with class and dignity. The Wellesley coaches are the same way. We continue the tradition that they have brought. Win or lose, you are still the man you are.”
As for Shaughnessy’s speech, Duffy was grateful that his players received the opportunity to hear the speech.
“It was very good,” said Duffy. “He is down to earth, and tells it like it is like he does in his columns. I think it’s great for the kids to hear him talk.”
The feeling was mutual for Shaughnessy, who had some advice for athletes as they leave high school and further their education.
“Think about picking a school based on the school so that if sports is erased, you still have a good experience” said Shaughnessy. “Also, just cherish this time that they are having now with their friends. Playing high school sports in your own town with you own friends, it really doesn’t get much better than that.”
Gethin Coolbaugh is the Associate Editor of Boston Sports U18. He is also a Sports Stringer for The MetroWest Daily News, and writes an Athlete of the Week column for The Wellesley Townsman, as well as the Medfield Sports Notebook for The Medfield Press. He can be reached at 774-279-1995 and via email at [email protected], or at his website www.gethincoolbaugh.webs.com. You can follow Gethin Coolbaugh on Twitter at www.twitter.com/gethincoolbaugh.