“When you live in a small town that sometimes feels as if it belongs more to outsiders, you hold on tight to traditions that define local pride.
In late November, on Thanksgiving Day, on high school football fields across New England, a unique kind of community gathering takes place as traditional rivals face off in the most recent chapter of a long running story.
These are battles of will and strength, of course, but deeper forces also collide. For those two hours it can seem as though a community’s identity hangs in the balance. Nostalgia sweeps through the stands like a comforting summer breeze, and around the scrum of tackles missed and tackles made, talk rises of that was, what is, what should be.
These games are an expression of continuity. Boys don uniform colors that their fathers and grandfathers once did. Stories are handed down,too. At dinners, holidays, and birthdays, old plays are described as though they are happening in real time. That fumble! That touchdown! That game saving interception!
An extension of the continuum also plays out on the field. Seniors take their final snaps, while freshman are baptized in a ritual that their own replacements will one day inherit.” – Ian Aldrich
Writer’s Note: The author of the story “The Brush” was lucky to be involved when Thanksgiving Day meant taking on the Brown & Orange Skippers of North Kingstown High (Fordwick Schooners in the story). It was a bitter rivalry pitting a small school, EG, against a school three times bigger. Surprisingly, the smaller school usually won. Then newcomers got into the picture and changed it all. NK even changed their colors. The writer says bring back the old TGD game. Let EG take on NK once again. Let Narragansett play Exeter-West Greenwich and Chariho play South Kingstown. Back in the day, Rhode Island high schools also used to play on Columbus Day. The crowds were almost as big as Thanksgiving Day. Progress, which is NOT always good, has ruined a good thing. Sigh!
This story deals with high school football here in EG during the ‘50s. I will retreat to my mythical Greenwood Cove for this story to protect whomever needs protection. The story is true and those involved will figure it out. The rest of you can project, I am sure. And, with no further ado, I give you “The Brush.”
When summer starts to wane and the weather starts to cool, when the leaves start to turn and Indian summer rears its golden, rustic head, it can only mean one thing. Here in New England it is the start of the fall ritual known as high school football.
In a book titled “Bleachers,” by John Grisham, and the movie, “Radio,” the focus was high school football. And high school football is taken much more seriously in other parts of the country, particularly Down South and in the Southwest and West –sometimes bordering on religion – where stadiums are the shining jewels of the community and the whole town shuts down on Friday nights to attend the games. Still, back in the day, it was no less important to Greenwood Cove boys, who had the gleam in their eyes and the dream in their hearts.
In tiny Greenwood Cove, home of “The Hauggers,” almost every young boy who could walk, talk and chew gum at the same time, yearned to don the Crimson and White, and play for legendary coach, C.A. “Bull” Cherry.
The Bull was a legend in Greenwood Cove. After starring at Holy Family H.S. in the big city, he went on to stardom at The Catholic College, back when that Dominican institution had football. After a three-year stint with the New York Giants, he gave professional wrestling a try. But that nomadic life soon became dreary and The Bull decided to pursue his first dream of coaching young, impressionable high school boys, and forging them into men.
A job as a high school math teacher and combination football and basketball coach was offered to him at Greenwood Cove HS, the smallest high school in the smallest state, in what was then the greatest country on earth. It was going to be a real challenge, so Bull took the job, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Until 1942 there was no Greenwood Cove High School. Rather, the town’s center of learning was Greenwood Cove Academy, a religious institution, that charged tuition. Students from town could attend the Academy and the town picked up the cost or they could go to neighboring high schools, or even to the big Catholic schools in the city, with the town picking up the costs.
However, in 1942, the town fathers decided that the local kids needed a school of their own and purchased the Academy from that august body, renaming it Greenwood Cove High School and giving the town’s teens a chance to stay at home to attend high school. The new high school took on the colors of the old Academy, and even a lot of the beloved traditions.
It was to this town that C.A. Cherry (C.A. standing for Conrad Albert) came to make his mark in high school football, and put his personal stamp on the young men of Greenwood Cove. It would be a tenuous stamp, and one that would not reach fruition for 13 years of struggle. But, destiny would strike for the Greenwood Cove Hauggers, when Coach Bull met up with a prodigious farm boy from the Huguenot Village section of town, the soon to be famous, Ronald “Quackers” Littell.
For the first 13 years at GCHS, Bull Cherry struggled. The small town high school played in the old Class C Division, made up of the so-called smaller high schools in the state. Still, most opponents had student bodies two to three times that of Greenwood Cove. So, the Hauggers, almost always outmanned and outnumbered, usually ended up on the short end of the score. A 5-4 season was considered a success and ties were celebrated liked wins with sock hops in the school gym. Being .500 was usually the season’s goal. That is, until Quackers emerged on the scene.
Quackers got his name as a young man on his farm where he used to chase the chickens and ducks around the barnyard trying to tag them, or catch them, for purposes known only to him. Though it may have seemed like an odd pastime, it helped young Ronald develop a certain kind of quickness, and a unusual running style peculiar to him.
Ronald burst onto the scene in 1952 as a short, squat farm-tough eighth grader. He made an impact almost immediately, as eighth grade boys who were good enough, or big enough, were allowed to play on the varsity team. Seeing as most GCHS squads only had 20-22 players, Quackers was given a uniform and a chance to play immediately. He played an unusual and interesting combination of positions – running back on offense and nose guard on defense.
Though he didn’t start that first year, he got into action on special teams and late in most games, and watched and learned as Greenwood Cove suffered through a 2-7 season.
In 1953, now a freshman, Quackers earned a starting spot. He was a solid contributor as the team went 4-5. The next year he made even more of an impression and the Hauggers upped that mark to 5-4.
But, in his junior year, Quackers really broke out, leading the Crimson & White to a 7-1-1 mark and a share of the Class C title. The town reveled in the accomplishment of the team and it gave Greenwood Cove a breath of life and a swagger it has not seen in years.
But 1955 was only the harbinger for the future as 1956 would be The Season in Greenwood Cove for years to come, and Quackers would make himself a legend to be talked about long after the games and scores became just a sweet memory. In that hallowed season Littell led the team to their first unbeaten, untied campaign, and the undisputed crown as Class C king!
Along the way he became the first Haugger to make All-State, and the only athlete from the state to ever be given a full football scholarship to a Pac-8 school, when he inked a letter of intent to play for Oregon State University.
It was a season of dreams, a season of brotherhood and bonding and untold rewards. Roasted and toasted, C.A. “Bull” Cherry was in his glory, as was the whole town. And though Quackers was graduating, there was a whole slew of players coming back for the next season, with promise of more success ahead. Everyone was eagerly looking forward to the future and what was to come.
Unfortunately, you have to wake up from dreams. We did not know it then in our revelry, but as the gods of sport giveth, so do they taketh away. We unknowingly looked forward to that next season. The season, that in the minds of those closest to it, would forever be known as “The Season of the Brush.”
At first, the 1957 season opened with a lot of promise. Though fall is the time for games, the time for preparation is the long, hot days of August. Brian McCormack and his buddies were looking forward to contributing this season to more Haugger victories, and more recognition from the town and the state.
Every athlete has his superstitions, and the young Hauggers were no exception. Before the start of practice for the ’57 season, Brian and his buddies, Nunzio Grazano, Vinny Venuto and Gil Barker had taken a brush, put it in a wooden box, and buried it in the wall that ran along the front of Greenwood Cove High.
This was no ordinary brush. It was the one that the players from the previous year’s unbeaten team has used to brush their hair and style it after a hard practice and a hot shower.
Practicing and playing football were one thing; looking good for the chicks afterwards, was another. Anyway, in the convoluted thinking of teenage boys, The Brush had taken on magical powers, and revering it would become their ritual, and hopefully, give them the luck and success needed to have another great season in Haugger land.
The four would-be stars used to walk to school passing The Brush on their way to the locker room. So, each day they would stop and offer up their prayers for success in the upcoming season. After practice they would stop on the way home and repeat the ritual, asking for personal success, team success and success evermore.
The Bull knew success would come from practice, practice and more practice. He, and his two assistants, Enzio “Ironman ” Zaccanazzi and Pat “Hardcore” Hollister, drilled the team hard and endlessly on fundamentals and plays and threw in conditioning and turns on the hated “bucking machine,” a medieval torture rack for blocking made up of two-by-fours with a thin padding of fire hose to “protect” the boys. Brian hated the bucking machine and a few years later would exact his revenge on that enemy ( another story). The device was made by Coach Cherry because the school could not afford the nice football equipment seen in many sports equipment brochures,
Nunzio earned a position as starting halfback and Vinnie, known as V-Volt to his friends, would be starting at offensive tackle. Brian and Gil had back-up roles with Brian getting sub duties at halfback and defensive back and Gil as offensive guard. Things were ” looking good” as the boys would say, as they perused the upcoming season’s schedule.
Little did they know what lie ahead. Fate was about to rear its ugly head, and that would not be beneficial to the hopes and dreams of the GCHS “Boys.”
End of Part One.
Great tales, Bruce….thanks for taking the time to jog our memories!
I agree, Mark. I particularly love imagining those Italian women picking dandelions from the football field!
Never had dandelion wine and can’t help but wonder what it’s like. However, with all of the pesticides in use today, also can’t help but wonder about the possible dangers that may lurk.
ALWAYS nice to read Bruce’s very interesting stories from a new comer’s point of view (I’ve ONLY been here 47 years) but also nice to know that Mark T. is keeping a watchful eye (you can take the “boy” out of EG but you can’t take EG out of the “boy” !) .