Buckley: Perfect sendoff for Woburn’s Rocky Nelson
WOBURN — Rocky Nelson stood in the middle of the room, motionless, save for an occasional shake of the head as he looked down at the floor.
It looked, at first, as though he was searching for the right words
He was searching for the right moment. And so he waited, and he waited some more, waited for every player on his Woburn High football team to merge into a solid, teenage block of oneness.
Now they all were quiet. Now their eyes were fixed on the old coach. Now they were one.
Now was the moment.
He asked everyone to take a knee. They did. Rocky got down there with them, draping his right arm over the shoulder of senior captain Dave McNeil as his knee met the cement floor.
He used the word “prayer,” and, OK, there’s a line in the handbook that says you can’t really do that anymore, except that it wasn’t really a prayer. It was, instead, a roomful of teenagers with their heads down, bundled together, holding hands, silence, silence, silence, for exactly 20 seconds.
Slowly, perhaps a little achingly, the 72-year-old coach stood up. He looked around the room for a moment, looked at the bowed heads, waited another second or two, and then . . .
“The first thing I want to remind you is this is not about me,” he said, his voice so loud that it’s entirely possible he was being heard as far away as the Montvale Avenue exit on Route 93.
“It’s about you!” he went on. “It’s about you, seniors! The last time you wear this uniform! The last time you take that field! In this great stadium! Representing this great program!
“You have done everything right! We’ve come from 2-5 to 5-5! Finish the deal!’
The old man with the leathery face and the full head of blinding white hair went on for another minute or so, his words clanging off the walls and denting the metal lockers. It was powerful, old-timey stuff, perhaps stuff that Rocky Nelson, Woburn High class of 1962, learned from his own days playing for the Tanners.
Turns out that’s not accurate. Rocky’s high school coach, the late, great Walter White, so the legend goes, was low key, measured. What we were seeing yesterday morning, then, was an original Broadway production, with an assist going to Dick MacPherson, who, long before he would coach the Patriots, recruited Rocky to play college ball when he was an assistant at the University of Cincinnati.
“Overcome adversity, because there will be adversity,” Rocky continued, and then he paused again before sealing the deal:
“ARE WE READY?”
“ARE WE READY?”
“ARE WE READY?”
Yes, they were ready. And, yes, just as Rocky had warned them, there was adversity. For while the Tanners went out and played some great football yesterday morning, so, too, did their opponents from Winchester High. With the Tanners holding a 22-15 lead in the game’s last seconds, Winchester quarterback Liam Fitzpatrick’s laser beam of an arm took the Sachems down the field in a hurry, and the senior captain scored on a 1-yard run to make it 22-21 with 33 seconds remaining.
The Sachems then made the gutty call, the right call: They went for the win. But the two-point try was snuffed out, and Woburn came out of it with the 22-21 victory, and suddenly Tanners fans were simultaneously cheering and crying — happy for the win, sure, but confronting the reality that ol’ Rocky was hangin’ ’em up.
He had returned to Woburn after his college days, starting out as an assistant in 1970. He had been head coach for 31 years. That’s a lot of years. That’s a lot of speeches.
“I have nothing but pride,” he said after the game. He thanked his current players. He thanked his former players. He thanked his coaches — all of them, even MacPherson, who, he said, “was willing to take a chance on a kid from Woburn.”
A collection of former players from the class of 2016 — Ryan Allen, Justin McGray, A.J. Crawford, Aaron Thompson — saluted Rocky as he came by.
“I wish I could put into words how much he did to prepare us for what’s next,” offered Thompson, now a freshman at Becker College.
The current players lifted Rocky up and literally carried him around. Imagine that: a 72-year-old man inspiring a bunch of high schoolers to act so.
“It’s because of how much he means to us,” said senior quarterback Jake Bridge. “When I was 5 years old I dreamed of running on this field with him.”
Jake realized that dream. And yesterday, he ended the dream by helping to carry Rocky off that field.