In Everett, football always on the menu


EVERETT, Mass. -- One by one, the old-timers enter Sunrise Kitchen, a breakfast spot nestled along Everett's main strip, on a crisp, sunny morning.

Some make their way around the perimeter of the restaurant, shaking hands with fellow diners in booths, a handful of "How-ya-doin's" and "Where-ya-beens." Three tables are pushed together in the center of the room to make room for six, and one by one the seats fill up.

The conversation, as is the case in many an eatery in this city of about 38,000, inevitably turns to the same topic.

"Freddy, we lost the big kid, huh?" a patron says to Freddy Merchant, 63, a retired General Electric worker and union official, and a staunch historian of the city's high school football teams.

Merchant's inquisitor is referring to Nerlens Noel, the highly touted 6-foot-10 forward/center for Everett's basketball team who transferred to Tilton School in Wolfeboro, N.H., two months ago.

All Merchant can offer is a sigh and a shrug. It's football season.

And in this thickly settled city, just across the Mystic River from Charlestown, Everett High football is king from the first practice at Everett Memorial Stadium in late August until the first weekend in December at Gillette Stadium, where the Crimson Tide are expected to play for a Super Bowl title year in and year out.

The Tide have won 14 straight Greater Boston League titles and seven Super Bowls since 1996. Everett has lost as many as two regular-season games in a season just twice during that span. Coach John DiBiaso regularly sends players to Division I colleges, with two of them (Omar Easy and Diamond Ferri) going on to careers in the NFL.

For almost a century, Everett football has been the heartbeat of the city, a unifying thread that is increasingly connecting more and more cultures. Once dominated by Italian and Irish bloodlines, Everett now is home to folks with a wide variety of ethnicities -- Haitians, Jamaicans, Brazilians, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Albanians, Vietnamese.

"Everett is football. That's it," says Frank Nuzzo, 76, a former foreman for maintenance on the Tobin Bridge and grandfather of a string of Nuzzos who have dazzled on the gridiron over the past decade -- first Matt at quarterback and Frank at running back, and Brian more recently at linebacker.

When Manny Asprilla, a senior captain on this year's squad who recently committed to Boston College, moved to Everett from Cambridge, he knew only one thing about his new home.

"Football, that's it," he said. "Didn't matter what else is going on in the city. When you hear of the city, you don't think about basketball, nothing. Just football."

Monday mornings after a loss can be unnervingly quiet around Everett. So what of the Monday after this past October's 47-14 drubbing at the hands of Dracut, the Tide's worst loss in nearly two decades?

"It was quiet," Asprilla recalls. "Nobody was really talking; you can't really say anything. You say anything, someone's bound to snap. Nobody's saying anything to you in the hallways. They just look at you and say [with their facial expression], 'How?' Not even a real nod.

"You try to end the conversation fast and not start any. You avoid kids in the hallway. It doesn't hurt just us, it hurts the whole neighborhood, the whole city."

But, he adds with a laugh, "The haters obviously had something to say."

Expectations are high every year, and kids are taught early on the importance of the sport in the city. And just in case current players forget, there are plenty of former players walking the streets who think nothing of stopping them and offering reminders: "Last year's team was better" or "We wanted it more than you do" or "You guys have it easy nowadays."

And that says nothing of people like those gathered at Sunrise, lifelong Everett residents who have been going to games for nearly a half-century. Merchant remembers his first experiences, back in 1955 as an 8-year-old, a contest between the Tide and Chelsea. Bob Caramanica, 83, was a 9-year-old with his right foot in a cast the first time he attended a game in 1936.

Butch Hooley, 72, a retired barber, estimates that his first trip was in the 1940s.

The 83-year-old Jack McGrath? "1908," he cracks.

They'll joke that in those days at Memorial Stadium, which is packed in amid rows of triple-deckers and the congested Revere Beach Parkway, you had two options for getting in: Pay up front at the ticket booth or wait for the police officers to stand at attention and face the flag during the national anthem, then hop the fence.

Did they miss any games?

"Oh, God," Hooley said. "I can't remember, maybe a few here or there. Let's put it this way, it's not that many."

Merchant remembers the last game he missed. It was November 2005, after Thanksgiving, and the Tide were in a playoff battle with Xaverian at Brockton's Marciano Stadium. The game was at 4 p.m., and Merchant was stuck in an arbitration hearing as part of his duties on the executive board of IUE Local 201. ("That's why I was so freakin' ticked off," Merchant muttered of the game time.)

Everett lost in a memorable battle 20-14, one that many remember for the stop made on Jeff Enayo near the goal line that would have won it for the Tide. Some believe Enayo was in. Others, like Hooley, offer a sigh of concession.

"Half-yard short. Great hit," he says.

The last game McGrath missed? Everett's last Super Bowl win, a 36-34 overtime thriller over Dartmouth in 2007, the first year of Super Bowls being played at Gillette. "Coldest night of my life," said the few at the table who gutted it out that December night.

The greatest game they ever saw? There's plenty from which to choose, from Sandro Colarusso's 324 rushing yards against Malden Catholic in 1993 to the many grind-it-out, one-score battles with the likes of Arlington, Peabody, Malden, Somerville and Waltham to some of the epic battles with Brockton of the past 10 years. ("Those are always the best," Holey says.)

Merchant points to the Tide's 2002 Super Bowl win at Marciano Stadium over a heavily favored St. John's Prep squad that sent five players to major Division I colleges (three in football, one in baseball, one in hockey). Everett natives still rave about the heroics of linebacker Adam Arsenault, broken ribs and all, dropping current New York Giant Jonathan Goff before the goal line to preserve a 13-7 victory in the deep cold.

Greatest team? Again a topic that can spark a long debate, but all six at Sunrise agree on a team they never saw -- the 1914 squad, which captured a mythical national title by defeating Oak Park (Ill.) 80-0 and outscored the opposition 600-0 on the year. Seriously.

Greatest player? You might have an easier time fixing the economy. Names rattle off tongues like nobody's business. There are players from the 1930s, and guys like Al Romboli and John Dell Isola.

Guys like Alex Santilli, who went on to block a punt for Fordham that rolled through the end zone to account for the only points in the Rams' 2-0 victory over Missouri in the 1942 Sugar Bowl. Santilli enlisted in the military soon after and was killed by a sniper in Saipan, Japan, in 1944. A bridge in Everett is named in his honor.

Then there are the days of the Brickley brothers, Pat Hughes, Dan Ross, Gerry Grasso all the way up the recent era of dominance, from NFL vets like Easy and Ferri to grinders like Al Sabella, Mike Borgonzi and the Nuzzos to more recent times, dominated by the likes of Walter Fallas, J.R. Suozzo, Isaac Johnson and brothers Jim and Rodman Noel.

The six friends ramble on with names for 20 minutes and probably could go all day. But the restaurant is closing early today. The owner is trying to take a vacation, and as the patrons leave the establishment, he puts up a sign indicating it will be closed for a week.

But the doors will open again. The conversations will continue. Never dull, always colorful.

And always doused in crimson.

Brendan Hall covers high school sports for ESPNBoston.com.Follow him on Twitter.