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Tuesday, December 21, 2010
One last pigskin roundtable on Main St.

By Brendan Hall



EVERETT, Mass. -- "Butchie, you know what my father used to say?" yells Freddy Merchant, 63, to Butch Hooley, 72, as he enters the establishment, three blocks up from the breakfast place we met several months ago.

"When you stop getting older, you're dead!"

Merchant, if you can recall, grabbed five of his friends and joined ESPNBoston's high school staff for breakfast in August to discuss what football means to this condensed working-class city, and why he and his friends have missed maybe a handful of games combined over the decades. With the high school football season over and the Tide completing a season for the ages -- winning the Division 1 Super Bowl, finishing No. 1 in ESPNBoston's final poll and becoming the first Massachusetts squad since 1998 to crack the final USA Today Super 25 -- we decided to check in again with the retired General Electric worker and union official, along with his his compatriots.

Donning a green jacket with the GE logo stitched onto its left breast, Merchant leads everyone around the corner, past the grills, down the hall past an empty bar, to the back room, where everybody can spread out and reminisce on the season, and of course the good ole days.

Everett head coach and athletic director John DiBiaso was supposed to join, but is caught up at the moment (it is a school day, after all). The gang's all here -- Jack McGrath, 63, Bill Caramanica, 75, Bob Caramanica, 83, Butch Hooley, 72, and Frank Nuzzo, 76 -- along with some new blood. Sonny Harper, 72, a retired firefighter, has a couple things going against him.

"Worst thing about him, he's originally from Brockton," Merchant cracks.

"And he's got a glass jaw," adds Bob Caramanica.

But as always, the conversation never sways too far from the hottest ticket in the city, the pulse and the bloodflow of scores of residents -- Everett Crimson Tide football. Bob Caramanica is poring over a high school yearbook from 1946, sparking colorful memories of the decorated 1945 squad.

The conversation casually drifts to two of the North Shore's greatest high school pitchers of all time, Salem's Jeff Juden and Peabody's Jeff Allison, and their occasionally hostile mannerisms. So naturally, Bob asks aloud, "You remember that fight in the Malden game in '45?"

Merchant does one better, recalling an upset by Chelsea in 1955 at Everett Memorial Stadium that ignited a brawl when a storm of Chelsea fans tried to tear down the goal posts (the Chelsea fans, with strength in numbers, eventually achieved their goal).

Not to mention, Merchant adds, former Everett great and NFL vet Diamond Ferri -- who briefly dabbled in MMA, before his current employer, the CFL's Montreal Alouettes, told him no more -- used to live above this very restaurant.

I casually bring up that I saw one of the Tide's chief basketball rivals -- Cambridge Rindge & Latin -- last night, and came away impressed with Lance Dottin's squad. So of course, the folks remind me that Isaiah Dottin would never have led the Falcons to an upset of the Tide on Thanksgiving in 2001 (their last Greater Boston League loss) had Gennaro Leo been available in the second half -- "Coach wanted to rest him for the Super Bowl," McGrath says.

Talk strays to Andover's surprise run to the Division 1 playoffs and what an impressive game plan head coach E.J. Perry had for the Tide in the 21-0 playoff win for Everett -- "Hell of a job, damn tough to coach against," McGrath says.

And in spite of the Tide's dominant 31-7 Super Bowl victory over St. John's Prep, some are still bitter about the way Shaquille Taylor, an ESPNBoston All-State defensive tackle, was taken out of the game on the first play with a broken leg.

"What a (expletive) cheap shot. Chop block from behind, I've watched it five or six times", Merchant grumbles. "I heard he had to have a six-hour operation, putting in screws, all kinds of stuff."

"Hey, did you write anything this year about Bill Tighe?" McGrath asks me, inquiring about his fellow octogenarian who just stepped down as Lexington's head coach. (Sure did, and several times).

And that, of course, inevitably leads to talk of Tighe's first season at another Tide archrival, Malden, back in 1964. Merchant says the Malden-Everett game that year was the biggest crowd he'd ever seen for a game at the Tide's stadium, which at the time had additional seats behind the end zone facing Revere Beach Parkway.

"People were in the aisles, up on the hill on Chelsea Street, on back porches, on rooftops, nowhere to sit," Merchant recalls. "Must have been 20,000 there, and the place only seated what, 13,000?"

"Ten-five," Bob is quick to correct.

Tighe, known for his trickeration, struck first on the second play of the game, when a tackle-eligible took off, Dan Connolly-style, for a 75-yard touchdown run. Everett responded with 38 unanswered points to take the game handily.

But after more than an hour and half of reminiscing over eggs and hash browns, it's time to look to the future. The MIAA football re-alignment for the 2011 season has the Greater Boston League dropping from Division 1 to Division 1A, to the disgust of all parties involved with or following Everett football. The league voted 3-2 in favor of upholding the re-alignment, and so there is nothing left to do but frown and gripe.

Some even called it a conspiracy.

"It's a joke," Merchant says boldly. "It's a joke, that's what it is. And it's a joke that they're moving Gloucester down to Division 2A, too."

He adds, "They think by moving Everett down to 1A, that Everett's either gonna leave the Greater Boston League, or DiBiaso's going to quit coaching. And neither one of those two things are gonna happen."

Not that expectations have lessened, though. No, if anything, fans will accept nothing less than a Super Bowl victory next season, what with the amount of talent returning -- seven starters on both sides of the ball, including quarterback Jonathan DiBiaso and linebackers Vondell Langston and Buck McCarthy -- and the lack of quality competitors. Bridgewater-Raynham will challenge for sure, but gone are the foes from the Big 3, Catholic Conference or Merrimack Valley.

Jonathan, with 59 career touchdown passes (including a record 43 this season), has a chance at breaking the state record of 85 set by Brockton's Tom Colombo, provided he stays injury-free in 2011. The Tide lose two of the state's top receivers in Matt Costello and Manny Asprilla, but the gang expects sophomores Kenny Calaj and Jakarrie Washington to fill those roles adequately. Plus with four starters returning on the offensive line, and the bruising Langston expected to have a breakout senior year on the offensive side of the ball, it's a lock the Tide will return next August ranked in the top five of many state-wide polls.

"Super Bowl, nothing less," Bob says.

"The only team that can beat Everett is themselves," Merchant adds.

At 12:07 p.m., some two hours after we initially sat down, McGrath grabs his coat. He's got to be at City Hall for 2 p.m., and that's everyone's convenient cue to grab their stuff and take off. But not before the gang offers predictions on next month's BCS title game between Oregon and Auburn.

Naturally, of course, the conversation devolves into where Chip Kelly's from, and some heated debate about whether Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly is an Everett guy or a Chelsea guy (Brian, a St. John's Prep grad, was born in Everett and raised in Chelsea).

It's always football season around here. And any excuse to talk Everett is a good excuse.