Playing for Jason
Although student lost battle with leukemia, teammatesfind inspiration in his memory
Jason Farwell will be with his teammates this morning, when the Southeastern Regional Vocational Technical High School Hawks take the field against Blue Hills Regional in Canton.
Farwell has been with them all season: When they didn't score a single point in their first two games, and when they lost to South Shore Vocational by one point on the final play of their third game.
And he was there when the Hawks then went undefeated in the Mayflower League's small-school division, winning the league championship and earning the first Super Bowl berth in the history of the Easton school (which also draws students from Brockton, East Bridgewater, Foxborough, Mansfield, Norton, Sharon, Stoughton, and West Bridgewater).
"Everything we do this year is with Jason and for Jason," said team cocaptain Kevin Hart, a linebacker from Stoughton. "He's a part of this team and always will be. Whatever we do, we do for him."
Farwell died at age 17 in July after a nearly yearlong battle with leukemia, two months before what would have been the start of the Brockton teenager's senior season.
Football was Jason's passion. He earned a spot on the roster as a freshman and impressed his coaches as an up-and-coming linebacker in his sophomore year. Last year, after spending the bulk of the fall in a hospital bed, Farwell had one goal -- to be with his team on Thanksgiving when it played Blue Hills in Easton.
"We didn't know he was going to be there," said Ron Thomas, the team's star running back, who began playing football with Farwell when they were fifth-graders in Brockton. "Before the game, there was a knock on the dressing room door. We opened it and he was standing there, smiling, in his No. 61 [uniform jersey]. I'll never forget that moment."
Farwell accompanied his teammates onto the field for the opening coin toss, and stood on the sidelines with the team during the game. It would be nice to say the Hawks won, but the end result was a 14-8 loss.
"Jay was the happiest person in the world that day," said Hart. "I was so embarrassed we lost with him on the sidelines, but he would not stop smiling. He told us it was the best football game he'd ever been a part of. That's good enough for me."
It was the last time Farwell would set foot on Southeastern's football field. His condition deteriorated for months until he lost his brave battle.
A wooden sign honoring his memory now stands at the football field's entrance.
"It was tough, but we knew we had to move on," said Hart.
Interest in football fluctuates year-to-year for schools in the Mayflower League. Along with the Boston City League South division, it features the region's smallest gridiron schools. There's no artificial turf, fancy press boxes, or television appearances like the big schools enjoy. Sometimes schools can't attract enough players to field a team, as happened to Old Colony Regional in Rochester last year.
So everyone, from players to coaches, makes do with what they have because they love the game. Southeastern coach Ned Scaduto had just 32 kids suiting up this fall, meaning most have to play both defense and offense. He has a full complement of volunteer coaches -- John Sawyer, Derek Nichols, Bill Clifford, and Jeff Cziska -- the first time in his three seasons he's had a complete crew.
"You take what you can get at this level," said Scaduto. "No one here is going to get famous, and we had one player go to the NFL," former Washington Redskin and Arizona Cardinal Chris Williams, "but that's a long shot. Everyone here just loves what they do."
Sawyer implemented a new offensive format this year. It took time for the kids to grasp it, resulting in a 0-0 tie in the season's opener and a 14-0 loss the following week. The Hawks lost four and tied one before earning their first win.
Each week, Hart visits Farwell's grave in a Stoughton cemetery. He and his teammates leave notes, telling Farwell how the team is progressing, telling the truth when things weren't going well.
"I remember crying once, because I felt bad we weren't winning for him," said Hart. "But every time I left there, I was more determined than before to go out and win."
Eventually, the Hawks' offense came around. Victory No. 1 came on Oct. 15, a 34-12 win over Holbrook-Avon in the Mayflower Small opener. In rapid fashion, St. Clement's, Tri-County, Old Colony, and West Bridgewater all went down to defeat, with Southeastern rolling up 118 points.
The miracle month earned the team a championship with a 4-0 league record (St. Clement's was a nonleague opponent), and a Super Bowl slot against Hyde Park High on Dec. 4.
"Watching this team 'get it' is one of the most exciting things I've ever been a part of," said Cziska, whose playing days at the University of Massachusetts at Boston were cut short by a neck injury. "This is my first year here, but they obviously believe they're really being watched over."
The Hawks' work is not finished. They're a decided underdog today against Blue Hills, a much larger school that has won all 10 of its games this season. The fairy-tale ending to this story would be a Hoosiers-style win over the Warriors today, followed by a Super Bowl victory.
But the Hawks say they have a firm grasp on what's most important.
"Jason told us how proud he was of us last year, after we played one of our worst games," said Thomas.
"What's happened for us on the field has been fun. But what Jason went through is tougher than anything we'll ever do. As long as we honor him, we can hold our heads up high."