School of hard knocks
Undermanned English may be winless, but it’s not a beaten team
“Why aren’t you practicing?’’ Chris Boswell asks one of his street-clothed players.
“My mom won’t let me,’’ he is told.
“He’s starting two ways,’’ Boston English’s rookie football coach murmurs to a visitor. “I’m in trouble.’’
How much more trouble can the Blue and Blue be in this autumn? The Bulldogs are enduring their worst season since they first picked up a pigskin in the 19th century. They’ve lost all 10 of their games. They’ve been outscored, 323-6, and the player who managed their only touchdown — on the opening kickoff against Latin Academy two months ago — quit the team.
Only three of the players were on last year’s varsity, and six of the starters are freshmen. Leshawn Harris was 13 when he stepped in at quarterback after the regular went down. On Monday, EHS had only 14 players practicing for tomorrow morning’s Harvard Stadium showdown with archrival Boston Latin, which has won their last 12 meetings and 41 of 43.
“It’s David versus Goliath,’’ acknowledges cocaptain Richard Monteiro, whose teammates were toddlers when English last won in 1997. “We’re underdogs and we’re hungry. We want to earn our Thanksgiving plate.’’
If the Bulldogs win the 124th edition of the country’s longest continuous high school rivalry, it’ll be the biggest upset since the series began in 1887 on Boston Common.
“I just want to go out as a whole team and fight for it,’’ says cocaptain Jonathan Pena. “We’re not going to expect a win out of nowhere.’’
Last year’s 27-16 loss was the closest that English has come to victory since its unbeat en Super Bowl champions held off Latin by an 8-6 count. Since then, Latin has cruised by scores like 46-6 and 36-0, and while the Wolfpack have won only three games this season, they are a deeper and more talented squad that has played a more demanding suburban schedule.
“English just doesn’t have the talent right now, and they don’t have the numbers, and you need one or the other,’’ says West Roxbury coach Leo Sybertz, whose team blanked the Blue and Blue by 32-0 counts in both their first and most recent games. “They’re not quite ready for prime time. I feel very bad for them because English High School has a great tradition.’’
Daunting job for coach For the first 75 years, English literally was dead-even with Latin, with 31 victories and 13 ties. Between 1961 and 1966, the Bulldogs won four of the six games, whacking the Wolfpack by 39-0 and 32-6 counts consecutive years. But busing and demographic changes driven by immigration wreaked havoc on the football team just as they did the hockey team, which went from co-champions of the City League to the bottom of the District League in eight years.
“I’ve got a League of Nations, but no hockey players,’’ observed legendary coach Bill Stewart, who had players nicknamed Zorba, Goober, and Pumpkin on his 11-man squad that was mired in a lengthy losing streak in 1974.
During all of the ’70s, the football team managed only 28 points against Latin and didn’t win another meeting until 1981. It was another 16 years until the next victory, and there hasn’t been one since.
“English has a truly storied history,’’ says Latin coach John McDonough. “But it’s changed as the public school system has changed.’’
English has fewer than half as many boys as Latin, and many of them were either born abroad or have immigrant parents who come from countries in Africa and the Caribbean where children do not grow up playing with a pointed ball.
“It’s a crazy mix,’’ says Boswell, whose roster includes players from the Ivory Coast, Cape Verde Islands, Jamaica, and Haiti.
Boswell, who has been teaching in the Boston school system for 16 years and was an assistant coach for 14 at Thayer Academy in Braintree, had no illusions when he signed on after predecessor Keith Parker stepped down after three decades.
“One guy warned me,’’ he says. “He said, ‘Don’t take something where you’re going to get set up for failure. Don’t take a job just to take a job. Know what you’re getting into.’ ’’
The lure, though, was strong. Boswell grew up in Roxbury, played football in Marblehead on the METCO program and then at the University of Maine. He lived right up the street from the school and identified with the students.
“I’d been wanting to try to get hold of these kids,’’ he says.
But the reality, Boswell says, was three times more difficult than he’d expected.
He barely had enough bodies for a scrimmage. Most of his players, some of whom attend New Mission HS, hadn’t played the game before high school and didn’t understand basic terms such as “stunt’’ and “blitz.’’
“I was using commonplace words,’’ says Boswell. “But they were over their heads.’’
The coach who had hoped to run a spread offense quickly realized that he and his assistants had to go back to the most basic of the basics.
“I decided that I had to back up,’’ he says. “Start with pages that don’t even have numbers on them. The ones with Roman numerals.’’
The more demanding tutorial was conducted on the field, where the Bulldogs, up against older, bigger, stronger, faster, and deeper teams, got their heads handed to them by 30-plus points a game. In the opener against West Roxbury, the contest was called midway through the fourth quarter after English had four players injured, including Pena, who suffered a concussion.
“We have a freshman team playing a varsity schedule,’’ says Boswell, who reckons that almost all of his first-year guys perform on both sides of the ball.
What originally was a 28-player roster has dwindled to little more than half that from injuries and disappearances.
“For whatever reason,’’ says Boswell. “Academics. Lost the flavor. Skins weren’t thick enough. We had six or seven kids just stop showing up. Never said anything.’’
Those who remained have taken weekly lickings and yet come up grinning.
“We lose,’’ acknowledges Pena, “but we bounce back from it.’’
Still game for rivalry Given the Bulldogs’ skeletal roster and their obvious inexperience, rival coaches generally have tried to keep margins modest, with nobody scoring more than 38 points.
“Nobody would run up a big score against a team like that,’’ says Sybertz. “Because that could be you someday.’’
For Latin, whose players still consider the English game the highlight of their season, finding a sportsmanlike balance can be a delicate undertaking.
“Certainly we’re sensitive to their issues,’’ says McDonough, whose winless varsity battered the Bulldogs, 36-0, two years ago. “But at the same time, I can’t tell them to fall down every time we get the ball. It’s a precarious position for us to be in.’’
For years now, the concern on Avenue Louis Pasteur has been not that its former neighbor might pull out of the rivalry but that the school might be shut down after underperforming for years.
“I can’t fathom how the city could let the oldest public high school in the country close,’’ muses McDonough.
The doors on McBride Street in Jamaica Plain still are open amid “turnaround’’ status, and the football team will pad up again against its purple-hued rivals despite the odds, which have been daunting for more than 40 years.
“This game would mean the world,’’ says Pena. “All the losses would mean nothing.’’
Last year’s 16-man squad hung in gamely, scoring the most points against Latin in a decade.
“I knew everyone on our team was exhausted,’’ says Monteiro, whose mates led, 8-7, before getting worn down. “Numbers came into play.’’
What Boswell and his assistants are hoping is that their winless wonders will return next season and that their numbers will grow.
“My goal is to build a four-year program,’’ the coach says. “We want a JV team, 40-60 kids. We want to develop a program where we’re sending kids to the next level.’’
Right now the Bulldogs still are learning about their own level, which is why Boswell took them to watch Latin play and plans to bring them to the Super Bowl, which English won twice in the ’90s.
“I tell them, ‘This is what a good team looks like,’ ’’ he says. “ ‘This is what good players look like. This is what good players do.’ ’’
Tomorrow morning his players will strap on their blue helmets, jog into Harvard’s ageless horseshoe, and take on John Hancock’s old school with only a handful of supporters on their side of the field. Though defeat is likely, one thing is certain. These starving Bulldogs will have earned their Thanksgiving plates.
“With heads held high,’’ vows Pena.
John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.