NORTH ANDOVER — In the awe-struck eyes of 10-year-old Tom Stabile, North Andover football legend Andy Foote was nothing short of a superhero during his record-setting career.
“Andy was like Superman,” said Stabile of the two-time Eagle-Tribune Player of the Year (2005-06). “He was the greatest football player I have ever seen. I would be in the stands as a kid watching him run for five touchdowns every game. I would read about him in the paper and dream that some day I could be like him and play running back at North Andover High.”
It took until his final high school season to earn that opportunity, but starting today Stabile will finally have the chance to live out that dream.
The North Andover senior tri-captain won the running back job this preseason — the fifth different starting running back in five years for the team that has seen four straight 1,000-yard rushers — and hopes to start with a bang tonight when his Scarlet Knights host rival Andover High in their annual season-opening matchup at Walsh Stadium.
“It would mean the world to us to beat Andover,” said Stabile “We have come close the last couple of years but just have not been able to finish Andover off. Our main goal is to beat Andover. We have prepared for this all preseason. I have chills every day going to practice.”
The Andover game holds an even more special place in Stabile’s heart, since his father and uncles were all star football players at Andover, and he even began his playing career as a fourth grader in the Andover Junior Football League.
“They all like to joke with me that Andover is going to beat us,” said Stabile. “But they are rooting for me. I have a lot of family friends from Andover and played with some of the guys on the team when we were little. But I have always been a North Andover guy. I have always rooted for the Knights.”
For father Steve, it took a little longer to switch allegiances.
“I always say that until a few years ago I always bled blue and gold,” said Steve. “But now I bleed red and black. My brothers still tease him about Andover football. Tom has been patient waiting for his shot and has worked so hard to earn it. He’s the only grandson in a group of daughters, so the whole family is going to be there to watch him play.”
Growing up playing running back in the North Andover youth football league hoped to follow in the footsteps of North Andover’s great running back tradition that included Foote and three-year starter Zac Iovanella.
He began to see varsity time as a sophomore, playing primarily special teams and running back on JV, then a season ago earned a starting job as a safety and backup running back to 1,000-yard rusher Nick Oswald.
“I loved playing safety,” he said. “I loved running around and hitting people. It was a lot of fun. But I was always a running back at heart. I was a running back all through youth and in JVs, so I always wanted to run the ball. I always wanted to follow in that tradition.”
He carried the ball 13 times as a junior, for 62 yards and no touchdowns.
“Sadly, no touchdowns,” he said. “I was mostly a blocker. So when I get that touchdown it will be pretty amazing. Since January I’ve been lifting and working on footwork and explosiveness to get ready. I wanted to win this job. I saw guys like John Iannone and Nick (Oswald) step in as seniors and run for over 1,000 yards. I wanted to do that.”
Stabile stepped up and showed enough this preseason to win the job of his dream this season.
“He has poured his heart into the game he loves,” said Steve. “They have a history of excellent running backs and he has shown his patients. Tom is a unique kid. He is very disciplined and we couldn’t be more proud of him.”
At 5-foot-11 and 186 pounds, Stabile feels he has the stuff to succeed.
“It’s not going to be easy,” he said. “Coach (John) Rafferty said to expect to carry the ball a lot. But I love that. I have good size, but I am also pretty quick and can run away from people when I need to. I am just going to play tough, mean football.”
Standing his ground
In the offseason, Stabile made headlines away from the football field, when he helped lead the battle for Scarlet Knights coach John Rafferty to be rehired after he was fired from his job in January.
“That was a really tough situation,” said Stabile. “It (the firing) came out of the blue and we didn’t know what to think. Coach Raff is one of the greatest people and greatest coaches I have ever known, so I wanted to say something. But it wasn’t just me, it was also guys like (fellow tri-captains) Matt Iannone and Colin Couillard.”
After a campaign that included the team led by Stabile appearing at a school committee meeting, they succeeded in having Rafferty rehired.
“That was probably the greatest moment of my high school career,” said Stabile. “I remember I was downstairs and my mom yelled down, ‘We got him back.’ I was thrilled. Then the next week it was all back to normal in the weight room.”
The Stabile name is nothing new to the athletic scene in the Merrimack Valley.
Tom’s father Steve (class of 1981) and uncles Jerry (‘77) and Bobby (‘84) were all standouts at Andover High. Jerry went on to star as a strong safety at Boston College, even picking off future NFL legend John Elway in a victory over Stanford.
“I was always hearing stories about Andover football and BC football,” said Tom. “I have always talked a lot of football with them. They love the game so much.”
The family name also reaches out to Haverhill High, where Bob’s younger daughter Rebecca set the area’s all-time record in the 400 hurdles (63.50) and older daughter Samantha excelled in the 100 and 200. They both ran at Quinnipiac.
Another former Andover athlete that is like an uncle is close family friend, actor and former “The Shield” star Michael Chiklis, who has been close with Steve since high school.
“Michael is an awesome guy,” said Tom. “My dad will fly out to see him sometimes and he will visit us when he is home. I went to visit him last year. He is just a class act. Nothing flashy about him.”