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In Everett, a long, storied DB tradition

12/4/2014

It’s been 15 years since Steve Addazio followed Diamond Ferri on the recruiting trail, and the memories of one of the most unforgettable backs to ever come through storied Everett High still linger like the morning dew. Something about those piercing eyes.

"He was bright-eyed. He loved football," the Boston College head coach fondly beamed following a practice earlier this fall.

Stories about the dazzling playmaking skills of Ferri -- who has bounced around the CFL for most of the last decade after cups of coffee in the NFL and even a stint on the MMA circuit (he was most recently signed by the Saskatchewan Roughriders on Oct. 9) -- are legion, still resonating loudly through the proud, football-mad city of Everett.

In an era of three yards and a cloud of dust, Ferri was a sports car among pickup trucks. In many eyes, he was the total package -- tackling, catching, blocking, speed, agility, hitting -- and it showed with every turn on a dime from his nimble feet. Never had such deliberate, one-cut downhill running looked so graceful on those Saturday afternoons at Everett Memorial Stadium.

Everett head coach John DiBiaso calls Ferri "the most complete player we’ve ever had." BC defensive back Manny Asprilla, an ESPN Boston Mr. Football finalist at Everett in 2010, fondly recalls hearing those stories of Ferri even before he first moved to Everett as an eighth-grader, then rummaging through old YouTubes to see if he was as good as the mythology suggested.

Oh, he sure was.

"He flew," Asprilla said. "I wanted to be like that. I wanted to be able to go untouched through holes. I just wanted to be like that."

Prized and Proud

In the city of Everett, a working-class suburb just across the Mystic River from the Boston neighborhood of Charlestown, football has forever been king. Its rich history is a century old, producing national champions at the turn of the 20th century and sending a handful of players to the NFL, including legendary former Cincinnati Bengals tight end Dan Ross. After some lean years, the Crimson Tide program has experienced a volcanic resurgence over the last two decades under DiBiaso, winning 20 straight Greater Boston League titles and 10 MIAA Super Bowl titles since 1997.

That late-90’s run with Ferri has kicked off a decade-long run in Everett in which the Tide are now annually sending defensive backs off to Division 1 FBS schools.

Outside of the Everett sphere, Ferri is generally known best for being the only player in Big East history to win both Offensive and Defensive Player of the Week in the same week, after a memorable 2004 victory over Boston College in which he recorded a pick-six at safety then scored two rushing touchdowns in taking over for the injured Damien Rhodes.

Addazio helped recruit Diamond Ferri to Syracuse, along with then-defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro, but took off for Notre Dame before Ferri arrived on campus.

"Tough program, there’s toughness there. There’s a skill level, and then there’s toughness, and Diamond was one of those guys," Addazio said. "He was a tough guy and he always had a smile on his face. He had a good look about him, that look in his eyes, that you could tell that he loved football."

Fifteen years after his run at Everett, winning two Division 1 Super Bowls, Ferri’s eyes now looked across the field as the Tide warmed up for a preseason scrimmage in Lynn, volunteering his time as an assistant coach for players who first heard his story years ago.

"When you look at Everett, and Everett football in particular, there’s major history," Ferri said. "Everett has changed multiculturally in the last 10 to 20 years. Before it was all Irish and Italian, and now it’s all Haitian, Puerto Rico and Brazil, just a lot of kids from other countries. And I think they just see all the kids go and they follow."

True, a lot has changed in Everett over the last 20 years -- a 2010 U.S. Census estimated one-third of the city’s residents are now foreign-born, nearly a 200-percent increase from 1990 -- but the football culture has remained the lifeblood. And the kids, they certainly follow.

Before Asprilla was running wild in BC’s secondary, he was watching former Eagle Isaac Johnson lead the Tide to back-to-back Super Bowl titles in 2006-07.

Before Nerlens Noel was an NBA lottery pick, he was a scrawny 6-foot-9 freshman idling on the Tide sidelines, watching his brothers Jim (BC) and Rodman (NC State) hover the secondary before moving on to ACC schools.

From the first wave of Everett stars under DiBiaso -- from Omar Easy to Ferri and Frank Nuzzo -- to the present day, where the Tide now turn to Boston College-bound cornerback Lukas Denis, athleticism has never been lacking. But over the last decade or so, more and more colleges have begun flocking to Everett to check out their defensive backs -- and more often than not, they have liked their returns.

One month before National Letter of Intent Signing Day in 2013, a chance encounter at a Walter Camp Award dinner in Connecticut led Wisconsin defensive backs coach Bill Busch to lightly-recruited Everett athlete Jakarrie Washington, who had no scholarship offers but clocked sub-4.5 speed.

"I know this, I sure as heck would love to come back -- I'm sure impressed," Busch told ESPNBoston.com in February 2013, after signing Washington to the Badgers’ recruiting class. "There are kids in the city that are tough as heck."

True to his word, he came back, signing safety Lubern Figaro to the Badgers’ 2014 class last February. And just like Washington, Figaro got on the field as a true freshman. He made his first start in the Badgers’ first game of the season; headed into this weekend’s Big Ten Championship, Figaro has made five starts, recording 19 tackles, a forced fumble and an interception.

When Denis arrives in Chestnut Hill next fall, he’ll be Boston College’s fourth defensive back recruit from Everett since 2008. But what was once primarily a pipeline for northeastern colleges now fields inquiries from FBS schools all over, from Gainesville, Fla. down to Lubbock, Texas, all the way up to Pullman, Wash.

"Some of us defensive backs weren’t the biggest but we were all fast," Asprilla said. "But just being in the right place at the right time and flying around on the field is what distinguishes us from other defensive backs.

"I feel like we’re not the best backs in the world -- I’m not trying to take it away from anybody if they’re good -- but the fact that we can go from one side of the field to the other without thinking about ‘oh I’m tired’ or ‘I don’t feel like running because it’s not my play to be made’ is what I think distinguishes us from everybody else."

A Full Court Press

The defensive backs in Everett over the years have come in all shapes and sizes. Some are long, some are compact, others are just flat-out burners.

But here’s another common thread between all of the defensive backs over the years: Most, if not all, suited up for DiBiaso’s varsity basketball squads during the winter time.

DiBiaso has had his fair share of success on the hardwood, sending a handful of players to Division 1 schools, reaching a Division 1 state final, and distinguishing himself as the only coach in state history to win over 400 basketball games and 250 football games.

In most years, DiBiaso will typically run variations of a diamond-and-one full court press, with lots of trapping and pinning the opposition along the sidelines. In a sport where power forwards are routinely making transitions from the hardwood to the Pro Bowl, DiBiaso’s unique approach to high school hoops seems to pay off on the gridiron.

"The agility you get from playing basketball by the work of having to cover people, you would never get on your own without doing covering drills as a football player," DiBiaso said. "I wish more kids would [play both sports] because it’s really helped with our younger guys coming up.

"Jakarrie was a great defender, and so was Manny and Isaac. Jimmy [Noel] would cover the high scorer. They were all good defenders, and I think they learned that mentality from basketball. They were all pretty good defenders in basketball, and they carried it over to football. I wish I could say there’s a secret formula in the water, but there’s not. I think a lot of your great basketball players in this state don’t play football, but I think a lot more would get scholarships if they did."

At Everett, basketball defense isn’t as simple as just a 2-3 zone or a man-to-man. DiBiaso likes his defenses triangular, and will often stick his best defensive back on an opponent’s best scorer, harassing the player up and down the floor.

"You have to be able to see the pick from your peripheral and be able to go over it or under it, judging on how the pick is coming on you," Asprilla said. "I didn’t really start playing defensive back in high school until senior year, until I got the [BC] offer. And now that I think about it, [basketball] helped. When you have a receiver that runs a drive route under the linebackers you have to sort your way through it. When I do it on the field, I have no fear going through that. So that helped, when I would see a pick coming to be set on me to help get their best man open, and I’d have to work around it."

Asprilla was part of one of Everett’s more high-profile teams in recent years, the 2008-09 squad that reached the Division 1 North semfinals and featured a 14-year-old Nerlens Noel. As one of the Tide’s premier defensive backs, Asprilla often played a trapper role in DiBiaso’s press.

"When you’re playing the trap, you can’t be lazy," Asprilla said. "When I say lazy, I mean being slow with your feet. When you’re out on the field, and say you’re breaking on a slant, you have to be able to keep your feet hot and be able to break on a straight line from here to there and meet him where he’s going, not where he is at the moment."

Denis, who lives about a four-minute walk from Everett Memorial Stadium, is one of the few to break canon. He doesn’t play a winter sport, saying bluntly, "Basketball is a wild sport, and it’s not like I was good at it, so why waste time?"

Each morning this offseason, he says, Denis would get up at four o’clock and find a crease in the fence surrounding the stadium, which is compacted tightly into a residential neighborhood off of Revere Beach Parkway. There, he would run stadium steps and sometimes work on 1-on-1 coverage drills when friends joined.

Literally, Denis was asked by a reporter, you’re going through someone’s backyard to hop a fence and run stadium steps at four in the morning?

"It’s worth it," Denis smiled.

One Big Brotherhood

The sense of fraternity is strong in Everett. Just as Ferri has come back to the sidelines, or how Easy left a gig with his alma mater Penn State two years ago to become a Vice Principal at Everett, few are ever truly far away.

"Competition is what we passed on. You wanted to be better than the man that was ahead of you," Asprilla said. "You didn’t want to be known as, ‘This guy was the best and you were close enough.’ You wanted to be the next guy that they would say, ‘Man, we need one of him’."

Denis still hears from graduated former teammates of his, who watch Everett games on Hudl and give him pointers. When he has Friday nights off next year at BC, Denis says he plans on making his way to see the Tide in action, watching the next generation come through.

Saturday afternoon at Gillette Stadium, the Tide will face off with rival Xaverian Brothers High for the MIAA Division 1 State Championship, gunning for a fourth MIAA title in five seasons and the 11th of DiBiaso’s tenure. They have come roaring back this fall after a disappointing end to 2013, when they fell to Central Catholic on their own home turf in the Division 1 North final.

Lots went wrong on that day, but the sight of Central receiver Cody Demers slicing in front of Figaro for the winning touchdown in the waning minutes is not soon forgotten. Even from all the way in Madison, Wisc., getting ready to play for a Big Ten Championship this weekend, Figaro has still found time to remind Denis how it ended.

"Oh God, he’ll never forget that moment," Denis said of Figaro. "He talks about it all the time. He says, ‘Don’t let that be you’."

Denis has turned in a dominant campaign this fall as the undisputed leader of the Tide on both sides of the ball, sometimes owning the game in all three phases for stretches. Last month, Denis was named a finalist for ESPN Boston’s prestigious "Mr. Football" award, given to the best overall player in Massachusetts. Another five-tool performance at Gillette could give him the edge when the award is announced next week.

Out on the turf at Gillette on Tuesday morning, greeting the media as part of the annual MIAA State Championship Breakfast activities, Denis stood out loudly from the crowd, donning a bright yellow cardigan in a sea of letterman jackets.

"When you can’t do it, you still have to do it," Denis said as he talked about his mindset going into Saturday. "There’s no other option. After the game, you’ll thank yourself."

Listening closely, you get the feeling there’s more than hardware on the line this weekend.