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The Merrimack River that flows through Manchester, N.H., is a city river.
Water with an attitude, home to pissed-off geese and crows that will stare you down over a meal of dead squirrel.
Along a stretch of dandelion-riddled banks stands a portable toilet inked with an 800 number, next to a sloping cement boat launch.
Welcome to the home court of the Manchester Central High School crew team.
Where River meets Street.
Manchester Central, founded in 1846, is the oldest public school in New Hampshire. It is also the most diversified public school in the Granite State, with students from 60 different countries, speaking 30 different languages. It also fields a rowing team.
They're taking on the rich New England prep schools.
And they're doing it in borrowed boats.
Public vs. Preps
Manchester Central has 2,400 students and 11 parking spaces. Tenement buildings surround all four corners of the school.
"There's no other school like Central in New Hampshire," says the guy who knows, principal John Rist.
"We are considered a school in need of improvement." That's Fed speak for a whole bunch of kids being left behind.
"Well over 20 to 25 percent of our students who begin as freshmen don't make it as graduates," says Rist. "We send a lot of our children to the military. Probably more than other schools. It's a big thing here." One-tenth of Central students can't afford to buy lunch, so it's free or subsidized.
Out of this comes a rowing team, 70 strong, three-quarters girls, freshmen to seniors taking up oars.
Here, you must pay to row. "It's a club sport, meaning the city does not fund it. Each child is charged a fee to participate," says Rist. The fee is $250 bucks a season, fall or spring, $500 for the year.
For that money, the kids on the inner-city crew team get to race against opponents like Phillips Exeter Academy, a school with the largest endowment of any secondary school in the United States, valued at $706 million last June.
Phillips Exeter Academy -- abbreviated PEA to save word count -- has been around since 1781 and rowing since 1864. Central has had a crew team for only four years.
Traveling east out on Route 1-oh-something, it takes about 50 minutes to get to Exeter, N.H., from Manchester Central. There, the average class size is 12; Central, double that. Student-to-teacher ratio is 5-to-1 at PEA, 19-to-1 at Central.
PEA's endowment averages about $600,000 per kid. Central's school district says it spends $5,224 per kid, per year. Of course, you can send your child to Central for free, while PEA will cost you $33,000 per year. According to the census folks, the median earnings for a male in Central's zip code is $34,287, female $26,584 -- making it a little tough to come up with that $33,000 to attend PEA.
PEA's long list of alumni include a president (Franklin Pierce), senators, congressmen, judges, writers and a bunch of rich people. Central boasts its own famous five: Bob Montana, who created the Archie comics; Charles Revson of Revlon, the cosmetics company; sportscaster and ski coach Bob Beattie; Rene Gagnon, one of the guys who raised the flag on Iwo Jima (although he didn't graduate, according to Rist); and comedian Adam Sandler, class of 1982.
"I think it's a great character builder to be humbled," says Rist, who doesn't actually have to row the boats. "Yeah, if we can win, that would be nice, but we're certainly at a disadvantage.
"I think it's good that we get to compete against the likes of PEA and St. Pauls. They get to meet some other kids, kids they normally wouldn't meet, expand their horizons. It's not a contact sport, it's nice, it's not where people sit on two sides of a gym and yell back and forth at each other."
Rist, while saying the sport is "wonderful" for the school, does qualify his enthusiasm as only a principal can:
"But no kid's going to drown playing on the basketball court."
Not that you'd want to steal them, but Central's boats are locked up behind a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. It shares its "boathouse" with two other schools. Its other boats are also locked up behind fence and wire, stacked next to an abandoned blue railroad boxcar.
Phillips Exeter's boats are stored in a multimillion dollar boathouse, surrounded by nicely trimmed bushes and a white picket fence. It has two locker rooms, one each for girls and boys. The Central rowers use "Dave's Porta Potti" to change clothes; some kids change behind a shower curtain hung in the middle of the boat bays.
PEA has two rooms for the kids to practice rowing on ERGs. Central's kids practice on their ERGs in the middle of the school hallways. Other students walk by them while leaving school.
Then there are the boats. The average cost of the boats Central bought used are $4,000 to $5,000 each. Phillips Exeter's boats, bought new, cost $25,000 to $35,000.
To launch them, PEA has a dock that seems to go on forever. For the Central kids to get their boats in the water, they have to roll up their pants and wade into the river. Then they steady the boat and climb in.
Try that in 40-degree spring weather. The captain of the boys' team goes back to shore, picks up the tiny female coxswain and carries her to the boat. Don't want the boss of the boat cold and wet.
These are bake-sale boats. At Central, you have to pay to row, which means you have to buy your own boats. And oars. So the kids have candy sales and garage sales, and when a local merchant donates something, a raffle can bring in $2,000 -- enough to purchase enough oars for an eight-man boat.
|Help Out Manchester Crew|
|You want to buy some cookies or brownies? It's baked goods, candy and garage sale fund-raising season for Manchester Central High School Crew. The team is trying to buy a trailer to get the boats to the race ... and maybe a boat made this century. Go to www.centralcrew.org to help.|
Sixty-three teenagers with hormones racing -- giggles, strutting, hats on backwards, tops tight, pickup trucks everywhere.
It's a regatta, inner-city style.
The line forms near the portable toilet. Central's best boat, borrowed from a local college, is being lifted onto a borrowed boat trailer.
A big, heavy kid is standing on the rigging, which is supposed to be straight, but isn't. A few jumps and bends and it's almost straight. Just a little crooked in spots. Of the eight black rigging bars, five have doglegs.
Icy wind races down the Merrimack River and up the concrete public boat launch. Dust blows and coats the boats. Empty water bottles drift by in the river, as crushed beer cans dance with tossed motor oil containers.
Kids on the crew team stand by the river, tossing out rocks and encouragement to their teammates. "Yeah, there's some intimidation," said last year's varsity girls captain, Jennifer Wheeler, now in college at Keene State. "But we have a lot of pride, a lot of drive to win."
Her counterpart on the boys' side, Jacob Pfaff, now a nonrower at Montana State, added, "We feel like the underdog in this situation. You're coming out of nothing, and you're going to everything."
Advantage: Phillips Exeter Academy. Or maybe not.
"Sometimes I think we have the advantage," says Central coach Ed McCormick, leaning against a 14-foot aluminum boat named the Big E -- E for Ed, Big for his penchant for bringing bags of Wendy's aboard, for himself.
"They have to earn every dollar for every boat, they have to earn the respect of the other crew. Anything they get, any success they have, they've had to earn. There are some really cool benefits in being the raw, little gutsy program that just goes out there and tries to do some damage."
Dateline: Exeter, N.H., May 11, 2005
When the people in Norman Rockwell paintings die, this is where they come. Eternity in Birkenstocks.
Off that 1-oh-something highway, the first sign you see announcing you've arrived in Exeter is a big statue of a silver Jaguar.
You drive past the car dealership, around a bend and straight ahead to the Squamscott River, a tidal river that's home to Phillips Exeter Crew.
It's a postcard. Beautiful people everywhere. Perfect hair. Picnic baskets and blankets to protect from ants -- not that any ants dare trek here. The far riverbank is lined with old mills turned into condos for those who bought the yarn, not those who weaved it.
"It doesn't really matter where you change," says Isaac LaCount, now a sophomore rower in the varsity boat, "or how much the boats [cost], as long as one of the teams is working harder than the other. Whoever works harder will prevail at the end."
Twin brother Isaiah, also a varsity rower, finishes his brother's sentence, "And sometimes when we come here, they know we've been working just as hard, and they know we know they are rich and have better clothes and better training facilities, but I guess they figure we want it more."
A final pep talk from coach Ed: "This school has been rowing for almost 150 years ... you have been doing it for four years. Go out there, have fun, show them that you know how to row."
Manchester Central won two races on this day last spring, both by the girls' crew team. The boys lost three.
"We showed we are a good, competitive team," said Wheeler. "We can race against them, even though they have been doing it for such a long time. It kind of proves we are working as hard as they are."
Back home, the city river was angry. Whitecaps punched the shore as the kids left in old trucks and jeeps.
The locker room/toilet's plastic door banged in the wind. Dogs barked and 18-wheeler trucks smothered the sound of the waves.
Crew with an edge.
An edge that took Manchester Central this fall from the banks of the Merrimack ... to the Head of the Charles.
Boston. Close your eyes ... picture all of those beautiful movie shots of rowing on the Charles River. Mist. Fall leaves. Kennedys, O'Neills and Yaz strolling the shore. (Damon stuck in Manhattan traffic.)
The Central girls fours and eights were racing in the famous Head of the Charles Regatta in two boats -- one borrowed, one old -- almost as old as the girls themselves. Every girl in the boat earned the right to row with high ERG scores, fueled by pain and tears.
On a cold, rainy Cambridge Sunday morning in October, the girls' boats slipped into the Charles, and onto crew's center stage. The eights came in 46th out of 57 boats in the Youth Eights Women race, trailing a team from Yale University by 3 minutes. The fours finished 21st out of 47, less than 2 minutes behind the winner, Northeastern University.
In borrowed boats, on borrowed trailers, a group of young women from an inner-city high school went bow to bow with the likes of Yale, Brown and Princeton.
And they didn't sink.
This winter, the ERGs have taken to the halls, sounds of the crew team's workout race through the tiled corridors, seep into backpacks, echo off the metal lockers. And crash off the concrete and pavement outside.
A few blocks away, the Merrimack hears the ERGs whirling. The river groans under the weight of the winter ice. A lonely river awaits.
For spring, and the children of Manchester Central Crew.
Don Barone is a feature producer for ESPN. You can reach him at Don.Barone@espn.com.