By Tom Vartabedian
---- — It took 52 years before justice was served to a Haverhill trio that helped lead Brewster Academy to a Lakes Region championship.
The wait seemed intolerable for Tom Thornton and Bill Fenlon Jr., especially after losing their sidekick Jimmy Owens some years back.
The three were part of an elite team that was inducted into the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame June 1. With Owens, his tribute came posthumously.
“Don’t know what took so long for our football team to be formally recognized,” said Thornton. “But as they say, better late than never.”
They grew up in Bradford, served as altar boys at Sacred Hearts Church and attended parochial school together, playing CYO basketball. They made their first Holy Community there and were confirmed at that church. One’s joy was another’s pleasure. The same could be said for any grievances.
They belonged to the Boy Scouts and played Little League baseball on similar teams. As friends, they became inseparable.
Together, they proceeded to Haverhill High, played their sports, did well scholastically, and graduated with the Class of 1961. That summer, they made a pact. Off they’d go for a year of preparatory school and the choice was unanimous — Brewster Academy in Wolfboro, N.H.
A Haverhill Gazette article featured their photographs with the headline: “Three to study at Brewster.”
Owens and Fenlon went out for football after successful careers with the Hillies. Thornton had only played freshman ball at Haverhill before dropping out. It didn’t take long to convince him to keep the trio together.
“All for one,” said these Musketeers.
The year was 1961 and the team ran roughshod over its opponents. Had it not been for a bad snap from center against Phillips Exeter, they would have gone unbeaten, racking up 500 yards on the ground in the 7-6 heart-breaker.
Included in the season were solid victories over freshman teams from Harvard, Dartmouth and UMass
Despite the blemish, the Haverhill boys became part of school history, taking the regional title and sending three players into the NFL, including Milt Morin, a first-round pick with the Cleveland Browns out of UMass Amherst and the consensus “greatest football athlete in school history.”
Those in the know call it the “best football team in school history,” corroborated by school head Michael Cooper and athletic director Matt Lawlor.
In a letter addressed to the players, Cooper reached out to the trio for distinguishing themselves as outstanding contributors to athletics while attending Brewster.
“You have continued to exemplify the core values of the Brewster principle of respect, integrity and service in your personal and professional lives,” he wrote.
After graduating from Brewster in 1962, the trio went separate ways after returning to their city. Two entered the military. Owens proceeded to Boston College — the same school at which his step dad, Gene Goodreault, became an All-American after leading his Eagles to the 1941 Sugar Bowl title.
Owens worked for Pentucket Shoe and Star Paper Company and compiled one of the largest music collections in the city. Suffice it to say the Owens family built up a proud legacy at Haverhill High through their respective generations.
“Jimmy also excelled at baseball but football was his top sport,” recalled Thornton. “He was well respected by his teammates as a halfback — modest, humble, yet tough and durable.”
Fenlon was an offensive guard and now lives in Rochester, N.H., where he works as a contractor. He, too, played baseball for the Hillies, described by Thornton as an “unsung hero” type. The Fenlon family made a huge impact for generations at Sacred Hearts School.
Thornton played both ways at Brewster, alternating between a wide receiver and cornerback. His cross country and track exploits at Haverhill High were carried to the gridiron.
He secured a business degree from Suffolk University after a stint at Northern Essex Community College and wound up marrying his high school sweetheart Gail Blanchet. They adopted two children and have two grandchildren.
After a successful banking career which led to president at two institutions, Thornton spent 14 years with Edward Jones Investments in Haverhill before opening an independent firm at 191 Merrimack St., where his dad (Daniel) began his investment career.
He’s served as past president of the Kiwanis Club, Haverhill Board of Realtors and New Hampshire League of Savings & Loans Association.
Fenlon, too, was unable to attend the induction ceremony due to illness. In the end, it was Thornton who represented this trio in the name of three buddies from Bradford who never let go.