hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

September 26, 2013

A salute to our city's fall athletes

By Tom Vartabedian
The Haverhill Gazette

---- — Here’s to all our athletes who participate in a fall sport throughout our city. Whether they compete for Haverhill High or Whittier Tech, let’s give them the encouragement they may need to become successful.

And while we’re at it, let’s also salute those who till the soil in our middle schools and even on the recreational circuit. Add it all up and you’re talking hundreds of boys and girls destined to bring pride to our city and homage to themselves and their families.

It’s not easy being an athlete these days, or cheap. The best equipment complements the long and hard hours a student must spend to make the team. In many cases, it’s the survival of the fittest.

Half my journalism career was spent in the trenches, covering the Hillies and Whittier Wildcats. We made the rounds throughout the Cape Ann League schools and Merrimack Valley. Everything got covered, whether we were physically there or relied on correspondents and coaches to get us the report.

Some of my more exciting moments were at Haverhill High freshman games. Yes, we staffed them, too. The sports pages were covered with local news, whether it was football, soccer, swimming, golf or cross country. Today, you can add cheerleading to that mix.

I’m told cheering is anything but powder puff and the tournaments can be brutal.

Sports writing was a tough job, but somebody had to do it. There was no rest for the weary — no holiday for athletics. The bus trips to road games dug into your personal life. Never mind chasing the coaches down on a Sunday morning after they reviewed the films for a comment that lasted about three minutes.

I had the benefit of covering the legendary Charlie White, Paul Ryan Sr. and Ernie DeFazio back in the ‘60s. Other coaching greats like Joe Carven came along later to keep the wheels turning. Three of the very best in the business were John Ottaviani, Dawn Caputo and Rick Battistini. “Bat” is still at poolside and his girls swim team never had anything short of a winning record.

What I had learned in the sports beat, I tried passing along to my own family. Both boys wore Brown & Gold in hockey and track. My wife and I were among the dedicated few who turned out for cross country meets. We saw the runners leave and return. The 15 minutes in between were spent chatting with the other parents and sipping a coffee.

The dual role of covering the meet and taking some pictures was compatible with providing some moral support for my kid.

One day he said to me, “Dad, you don’t have to come to every meet. Don’t you have anything more important to do?”

“No,” I’d tell him. “You’re the most important thing in my life. I enjoy watching you represent your school.”

He skated since the age of 3, worked his way through the Haverhill hockey youth ranks, right to high school varsity as a freshman. Not a bad defenseman, if I may boast. To get there at that level, he was on the ice nine months of the year, though winter, spring and summers. It was a grind for any young prospect.

Much was expected of him his senior year, a tri-captain and starter. Many of his peers were part of a championship squirt team that was expected to compete for a state title.

And then the unexpected occurred.

We were riding home from practice one day before the season started when he broke the news. Apparently, it was a long time in the making.

“Dad, I don’t want to skate anymore. I’ve had it with hockey. It’s not fun anymore.”

I nearly went off the road. The announcement was like a cancer.

“You’re quitting the team, just like that? You told your coach and your teammates?”

He broke the news to everyone. I was the last to know and possibly the hardest pill to swallow.

“So what will you do? If you leave the sport, will you find another?”

He had winter track all picked out and went on to captain the spring team and become a top performer in the distance events — all the happier and fulfilled by his decision.

There’s a moral I’d like to share with any athlete or parent reading this: It’s the kid’s game, not yours. Make it fun. Make it sustaining. Above all, let it become a complement to your academic and community world.

Enjoy your teammates. They will become your friends for life. Don’t let it over-burden your life. Always play hard and sit tight. If you’re a reserve, keep the seat warm and cheer on your mates. Your day will come, trust me.

In the end, be a good sport!

Writer and photographer Tom Vartabedian is retired from The Haverhill Gazette. He contributes this regular column.