This past Saturday morning, on a frigid, snow-covered football field at Bentley University, I witnessed an event that I truly never imagined possible. An event so unlikely, that coming into this year (or any year), I would have guessed there was a better chance of Angola winning a gold medal in basketball, or Donald Trump getting voted into the White House.
Its an event that was, and still is, completely unfathomable. Its unable to be fathomed.
And Im sure the build up is already annoying, so Ill just cut to the chase:
On Saturday morning, I saw Sharon High School win the Super Bowl.
The MIAA Division III High School Super Bowl.
And while every Super Bowl season (regardless of the team or level) is impressive in its own special way, what makes this Super Bowl so impressive is that for the last 20-plus years, Sharon High School has been one of the worst football teams in the state. Thats not an indictment on the character of the students who have suited up over the years, or the coaches and administrators who have given their time to keep it all together, but in pure football terms, theres no way to sugar-coat it: Sharon was beyond bad.
For instance, between 2004-2010, the Eagles amassed a record of 7-67.
I repeat: 7-67.
And you know what? That wasnt even a big deal.
For myself, a 1998 Sharon High graduate and former 20-year resident of the 17,000-person suburb (located between Boston and Providence, and right next to Foxboro), that kind of monumental failure was just par for the course. After all, before this year, Sharon hadnt had a winning football season since 1988. And for the better part of those next 24 years, they werent even close. So in the time since I graduated, whenever Id find myself in a conversation with someone who still lived in town and eventually learned the details of Sharons latest 2-9, 1-10 or 0-11 campaign, it would barely even register.
Oh. We still suck, huh?
Of course we did. That was Sharon High School football. And after years and years and years of relentless losing, that took on a life of its own. It became part of our identity. In fact, if you asked anyone from a neighboring town to tell you what they knew about Sharon, the answer would probably sound something like:
Well, I know they have a big lake. A lot of Jewish people. And a really bad football team.
Of course, Sharon has always been about much more than that. The town has a great school system. A safe, almost Pleasantville way of life. And the sports program is more than respectable, with countless state champions in track, tennis and wrestling, and consistently competitive basketball, soccer and baseball teams. But more than anything, to the general public, the town was most-commonly defined by those three characteristics: The Lake. The Jews. And the really bad football team.
By the way, those last two traits were very much related. In case youre unaware, football and the Jewish people dont exactly mix. More specifically, football and Jewish mothers have a longstanding rivalry that I believe dates back to the Stone Ages. And for its part, Sharon probably has more Jewish mothers per square foot than anywhere in Massachusetts.
Now, obviously there are exceptions. There were plenty of Jewish players on this years team, and every team throughout the towns history. But in a broader sense, the fact that a significant portion of the player pool simply wasnt allowed to play limited the teams potential, and always reeked havoc on the overall depth and numbers.
Back in 1992, things were so bad that the administration actually moved to cancel the last three games of the season. And you couldn't really blame them. At the time, the team was down to only 14 players. Safety was an enormous issue.
Had the administration succeeded in prematurely ending that season, there's no question that it would have spelled the end of Sharon High Football. If they canceled it then, it was never coming back. But thankfully, the principal, athletic director, coaches and most passionately the players led a last minute charge to recruit a few more bodies and convinced the school committee to overturn the decision.
Football was saved!
But they still werent very good. At thats being kind.
Fast-forward 19 years, to the spring of 2011, and absolutely nothing had changed. Like I said, Sharon was a combined 7-76 over the previous six seasons, and were fresh off another 1-10 campaign. They were also looking for a coach . . . in this case, their fourth head coach in four years (!).
So, the administration did the only logical thing they handed the team to a 24-year-old.
In fact, when David Morse (who spent the 2010 season as one of the team's assistants) got the job in Sharon, he was the youngest head coach in Massachusetts. He was two years old when the Eagles posted their last winning season.
Also, he apparently knew a thing or two about football.
Out of nowhere, the Sharon kicked off the 2011 season with three straight wins. In the process, they won back-to-back games for the first time since 1998 (my senior year, and Im old), and their first Hockomock League game since 2005. Just as quickly, the team fell back to Earth and finished the season at 4-6, but it was a start, and with a large chunk of his players returning in 2012, the young coach knew he was on to something.
Morse, a Norwood native, admittedly didn't know much about Sharon before taking the assistant job three years ago. But naturally, he understood the basics.
"Honestly," he told me yesterday over the phone, "the only thing I knew about Sharon was that a friend on my high school team had a step-brother who went there, and he always used to say: 'Man, my step-brother's a pretty good athlete but he plays on the worst team ever.' Thats all Id ever heard."
In retrospect, it probably helps that Morse isn't from Sharon. That he didn't grown up living and learning about the unavoidable ineptitude of the Sharon High School football team. That he couldn't grasp just how awe-inspiring it was for the Eagles to post a 4-6 season. But either way, he was barely satisfied.
"We won four games, and I was shocked by the communitys response," he said. "We won four games and you would have thought we were champions. But I thought these guys had real potential. So when they came back this season, I told the players, Listen, our goal is not just to make people happy and win some games to be credible. Our goal is to go the distance. I told them, 'If you want, we can just go through the motions, and still have ourselves a pretty nice season. But if you want to be a champion, you have to lay it out on the line and commit yourself to this team.'"
The commitment started in the weight room. Sharon had coincidentally just opened a new facility when Morse got the job, and he knew that strength, conditioning and physicality were three things this team couldn't do without.
He also knew that they'd have to stay healthy: "We couldnt be hit by injuries because theres no depth in Sharon," he said. "There are just so few kids on the team." (Granted, as opposed to '92, this year's roster count was a much-healthier 51.)
He also knew they'd have to get a little lucky.
In Morse's words, for the Eagles to achieve their championship dreams, "Everything had to be perfect."
And "perfect" is the perfect way to describe the first half of Sharon's 2012 season.
Just like the year before, they started 3-0. Then it was 4-0 . . . then 5-0. In that fifth game, against league-rival Canton, Sharon was undeniably lucky. Eking out the kind of incomprehensible, gift-from-God victory that Morse had envisioned.
The Eagles were down 14-6 late in the fourth, and driving down the field, when Canton picked off a pass that should have sealed the win. But for some reason I don't know, does Marlon McRee have any family in Canton? the Bulldogs linebacker decided to run with it, and during the return Sharon forced a fumble to retain possession. With 59 seconds left, they tied the score with a touchdown and two-point conversion, and then won the game in overtime, 21-14.
"If (that linebacker) had just fallen down," Morse said, "we dont win the Super Bowl."
After that, the Eagles weren't perfect, but they certainly kept winning, and finished the season at 9-3 which was good enough for a spot in the Division III playoffs. In the first round, they played Pembroke, and with less than two minutes remaining in the game, Sharon clung to a 7-0 advantage. At the 1:09 mark, Pembroke scored a touchdown to cut the lead the lead to 7-6, but on account of the inclement weather and an injured kicker, Titans coach Bob Bancroft elected to attempt a game-winning two-point conversion.
It failed, Sharon prevailed and the town with the awful football team was heading to the Super Bowl.
When I arrived at Bentley on Saturday morning, I was first struck by the temperature. It was really cold. On my walk to the stadium, a midst a frozen sea of Sharon fans, I heard two separate guys talking about the 2004 Titans-Pats playoff game; about how they had braved those conditions and that this was nowhere near as bad. And they were right.
But the fact that people were even comparing the two afternoons is indicative of just how cold it was. On the walk, I heard another Sharon fan joke, "Well, I guess this is what it looks like when hell freezes over," while another fan went with the ever-reliable: "Sharon in Super Bowl? It looks like the Mayans were right!" I should also mention that it was a really long walk to the stadium. At least two miles. But hey, it was a small price to witness history.
After finally finding the field, I was next struck by the disparity between fan bases. Sharon's opponent was Wayland High School, and the stands on the Warriors' side were about at half capacity. Across the way, there wasn't an open seat behind the Eagles bench. The crowd had already overflowed onto the sidelines and behind the end zone. As I made my way through the crowd, I noticed multiple groups of men standing together in individual bunches. I recognized one cluster as crew of players from when I was high school, and quickly realized that each group essentially represented a different era of Sharon High football. That they'd all come back to see the ridiculousness for themselves.
"When's the last time you came to a game?" one of them asked. His friend replied, "I don't know . . . probably when I played." He was at least 45 years old.
Now, if Sharon High's season was a Disney movie script, I'd proceed to tell you about the most the unbelievable football game in modern day high school history. I'd explain how the Eagles fell behind early and lost their best player to an injury. I'd tell you about Morse's legendary halftime speech and how Sharon emerged victorious on the heels of a flea-flicker Hail Mary with no time left on the clock.
However, that would all be a lie. The truth is far more boring. But all things considered, it's no less astounding.
The truth is that Sharon won the 2012 Division III Super Bowl in rather convincing fashion. That's not to say that it was easy, because the 12-3 final score suggests otherwise and I'm sure everyone in that Eagles locker room would back that up. But watching from the sidelines, the game was never in serious question. Sharon wasn't a plucky underdog, trying to catch lightning in a bottle against a team that was out of its league. They were a legitimate and bonafide force, which dominated the trenches, rendered Wayland's offense (which had scored at least 28 points in five of its last six games) useless and essentially imposed their will for 40 straight minutes.
Sharon took a 6-0 lead, when senior Sean Asnes caught a five yard touchdown pass with less than a minute left in the first half. On the opening play of the second half, Asnes broke out for a 71-yard touchdown run to make the score 12-0 (Sharon missed both PATs). Later in the third quarter, the Eagles knocked out Wayland's starting QB (separated shoulder), and that was pretty much that. It was never any less than a two possession game. There was no last second drama. No classic Disney ending.
Except for the fact that one of the perennial worst football teams in Massachusetts, a team that almost lost its football program 20 years ago and was two seasons removed from a 7-67 stretch, had just won a state championship.
"I honestly feel like a college coach," Morse said. "Ive had alumni from the Sharon teams I coached the last few years texting and calling me to say, Wow. This is so amazing. Thank you so much. And Im just saying, why are these kids thanking me? And Im getting constant e-mails. I just read one from a guy from the Class of 88 and another from the Class of 81. After the game, people were coming up to me with their lettermen jackets from the 70s. They all kept thanking for what I'd done and for bringing this to the town. I told them, 'Why are you thanking me? This is about the kids. They did this. They bought into it.' "
It's fair to wonder how long it might be before Morse will more than just "feel" like a college coach. Thanks to Sharon's historic season, he's a serious contender to be named Massachusetts High School Coach of the Year. And even if he doesn't win the award, his accomplishment won't go unnoticed. Other opportunities will undoubtedly arise. And when you remember that he's still only 26-years-old, who knows what the future might hold?
But for now, Morse is content to stay in Sharon and continue to build on program that he essentially constructed out of thin air.
"I knew when I was a little kid that I wanted to be a high school football coach," he said. "Im pretty happy with the lifestyle of a high school teacher and coach. Obviously, anytime you experience success, and have an emerging program, you have people saying: 'Oh, youll have your pick of schools next year, but I'm not thinking about that."
And neither are any of the 17,000-plus residents in Sharon, or the thousands upon thousands of Sharon High graduates who've gotten word of Saturday's victory and can't even begin to comprehend how this football team found its way to the top. Even if Morse never does another thing for Sharon, he's still done enough. He and his team changed the town forever.
To anyone who doesn't know, it's now Sharon, Massachusetts: Home of the big lake, a lot of Jews and the 2012 Division III Super Bowl champs.
And we couldn't be more proud.