The best football team in Manchester’s long and glorious gridiron tradition?
Let’s end the mystery right away.
It says here that the honor goes to Central High School’s 1966 squad, but before you choke on your Bloody Mary and panic the crowd at Sweeney Post in advance of the Turkey Bowl next week, let us analyze the evidence.
No, I haven’t forgotten about the earlier powerhouse Central clubs of Hubie McDonough, or about the brilliant ’65 and ’71 Memorial teams coached by Bob Chabot, but Willie Hall’s ’66 club tops them all.
And by the way, gentlemen, happy anniversary.
Come Nov. 24, it will have been 50 years since the Little Green closed out their storybook season with a resounding 28-12 victory over Haverhill before 7,000 fans at what was then known simply as Manchester’s Athletic Field.
Today, we know it as Gill Stadium, but for the 1966 season, it probably should have been called ”Fuller Forum,” since it served as a showcase for Dick Fuller, who – even after 50 years – is still in the discussion regarding the best running back ever to come out of Manchester.
Like all cross-generational arguments, this ”best team” stuff is fraught with danger, and not just because people are going to curse my name and vandalize my car. It’s just that the ages are hard to compare.
Were the ’66 Packers better than the ’85 Bears?
Could the 71-72 Lakers take the 85-86 Celtics?
Do you like the ’27 Yankees or the ’61 Yankees?
See what I mean? But I started this, so I guess I have to see it through.
Let’s start with some of the other teams we’ve considered.
* There were McDonough’s three unbeaten teams from the 1920s, but I’m going to go scientific and say teams of more recent vintage have an advantage because of superior conditioning, nutrition and strategy.
* Then there was Bishop Bradley’s 1960 team, which featured seniors like Bobby Kerrigan, Paul Houle, Roger Cloutier and Jean Beliveau and underclassmen like Paul Lavigne, Dave Wenners and Dick Powers. Problem is, they went undefeated until the last game of the season when the Pioneers fell to Archbishop Williams and wound up 9-1, and that’s not perfect, is it?
* Another near-perfect team was Bradley’s 1956 club, with players like Lou and Richie Kirouac, Gary and Donny Palmer, Bobby Rivard, Frank Faggiano and Paul Martineau. The flaw? Their season was blemished by a 7-7 tie with St. John’s of Worcester.
* Chabot’s 1965 Memorial club was a brilliant collection of strength and skill. Running backs like Mike Shaughnessy and Ken Thomas provided the speed while Mike Bradley offered incredible versatility. Meanwhile, horses like Butch Psaledas and Ray Sarette opened holes at will en route to a 9-0-0 season, the first perfect record compiled by a Manchester club in 37 years.
* Then there was the 1971 Crusader club, a 10-0-0 team (in the midst of Memorial’s 27-game winning streak) that featured the magnetic offensive talents of Marty Foye, Gene Brown, Tom Kathan, Skip Sinclair, Dave Croasdale, Larry Bournival and Rick Durand, winners of the 1971 Snow Bowl over Trinity. Still others would argue that Memorial’s 10-0-0 team in 1972 was even better.
But I’m still going with Central’s class of ’66. Here’s why.
If the ’65 Memorial club had strength and skill and the ’71 Memorial team boasted speed and athleticism, my perspective says that the ’66 Central club had all of those attributes. And it had Fuller.
It’s difficult to discuss Fuller’s strengths without comparing him to other great running backs from Manchester’s past, but put him up against some of the best – Darrell Buck, Billy Pappas, Steve Schubert, Gus Giardi, Mark Telge, Danny Duval, Stan Pinkos, Sonny Cronin and Les Wolfgram, as well as Bradley and Croasdale – and Fuller still comes out on top.
He was a 225-pound workhorse, a punishing tackler who got better as the game went on, as evidenced by the four touchdowns he scored in Central’s final win over Haverhill, one on a two-yard run expected of power backs and the others on jaunts of 49, 36 and 23 yards.
A ’66 Central club without Fuller would still be a formidable entry here, since his two backfield mates – Steve deGrandmaison and Dick Bozoian – were top-shelf backs in their own right. While Fuller went on to big-time Division I football at Arkansas, deGrandmaison and Bazoin only went on to stardom at Purdue and Wake Forest.
If cerebral quarterback Mike Murphy had an innate calm on the field, it was only magnified by the security afforded by an offensive line that was massive long before the advent of anabolic steroids.
Junior center Bob Camirand was flanked by co-captains Ronny Lavigne and Dennis Richmond, while tackles Bill Smagula and Bill Purdie allowed ends Phil Peters and Robbie Swift to focus on the occasional pass routes allowed by Hall.
Their bread-and-butter offense – including a student-body sweep straight out of the Green Bay Packers playbook – struck fear in the hearts of opponents up and down the Merrimack Valley. Others noticed it too.
”I reffed some of those games,” former city athletic director Butch Joseph once told me, ”and whenever Richmond and Lavigne came pulling my way, I’m telling you, I backed out. They just mowed everyone down in their path, and if they didn’t, Fuller did it himself.”
For a bench, the Little Green could go to the likes of Steve Larkin, Ted Gatsas, Steve Swift, Jack Frain, Donny Winterton, Art Vailas, Scott Pappas, Dick Boisvert, Chuck Elwell, Lloyd Dolleman and Schubert for good measure.
It’s that kind of power and balance that allowed the ’66 Central club to beat Memorial for the first time ever, break an eight-year jinx against Nashua, upset Lowell and Lawrence and wallop Bradley, West, Portsmouth, Concord and Dover before toppling Haverhill at the end.
It was the kind of team that lifted Fuller to All-America status, and made him the first schoolboy ever to score 300 points in his career.
It was the kind of team that prevailed in a mythical match-up against the 1965 Memorial team in a game played out solely in the imagination of one of my journalistic predecessors – the late Ty Abate – who envisioned Central ’66 posting a last-second 18-17 win over the ’65 Crusaders.
Fifty years later, to my mind, the only thing that’s changed in that mythical match-up is the opponent. I see Central ’66 taking on Memorial ’71.
And Central still wins.