---- — NORTH ANDOVER — Matt Abel, for one, always looks forward to Mauro Pappalardo’s annual Christmas Party in North Andover.
It’s where and when most of “the guys” get together to talk about their families, their busy holidays and, of course, “The Game.”
“The Game” in question has special meaning to Abel and a few dozen of his buddies this week, 25 years after North
Andover went to Andover and stunned their crosstown rivals, 21-6.
“It was the one time of year we knew (The Game) was going to be brought up,” said Abel, an assistant principal at the North
Andover Middle School. “At Mauro’s Christmas party.”
This victory was not a just a victory. Not even close. This, according to a dozen or so close friends who played that day for North Andover High, was a life-changing event, one that has bonded several former teammates together forever.
Both teams entered the game at 6-1 with aspirations of qualifying for their respective Super Bowls (Andover in Div. 1, North Andover in Div. 2). More important, it was the first time the towns had met on the football field in 13 years. And the last time, North Andover had beaten Andover was in 1957.
The roles that day were well known. Andover, of the Merrimack Valley Conference, was considered “Goliath” and North Andover,
of the Cape Ann League, was “David.”
“The week of the game Joe Harb and I were interviewed on the local radio with their two tackles (Mike) Marinaro, who played for Boston College, and some other guy with blue and yellow stripes in his hair who I believed played at URI,” recalled Doug Dreffer, a guard and linebacker for the Knights. “Combined they had 100 pounds on us, easy.”
But the biggest factor was that it was Andover vs. North Andover. And this game in 1987 was the first time the school had met on the football field in 13 years and it had been 30 years since — 1957 — that North Andover actually beat Andover.
“While growing up in town, it always felt like we were second fiddle to Andover,” said North Andover’s Sean Connolly, the starting quarterback. “And you could feel it coming into that game. Everyone in town wanted us to beat them. Andover probably didn’t look at the game like we did. The game meant everything to us. The entire week it felt like everyone in town was behind us.”
The opposition wasn’t the only foe that day for North Andover and Andover. The freezing temperatures (one report had it at minus-5 degrees) and howling winds were brutal that morning.
The irony is, the chilly temperatures and violent winds were not a factor.
“Coach (Mike) Cavanaugh had me so pumped up for the game I had tears flowing on the bus as we pulled up to the field,” recalled Chris Kaddaras.
How pumped was Kaddaras, who played tight end, defensive end and kicker? None of his four kickoffs were returned by Andover.
“I think one of my kickoffs went through the uprights,” said Kaddaras. “I do not think I achieved more than two or three touchbacks in all the other games combined that year. It was a tribute as to how amped we all were.”
While Andover High had the best player on the field, wide receiver John Perry (now the Merrimack College head coach), he
wasn’t the best player on the field that day. That honor went to Connolly, a senior.
The senior quarterback only threw for 22 yards, but he sandwiched two touchdown runs — a 22-yard score and then a 39-yarder — around a 15-yard TD reception by Andover’s Chris Onufer to lead 14-6 midway though the second quarter.
“I remember Con (Connolly) faking to me. I got tackled just over the line and I watched him run for a TD while on my rear end,” recalled fullback Chris Marconi.
The dagger, though, came in the final minutes of the half when North Andover, thanks to an Andover punt into the wind, gave the Knights the ball on the Andover 28-yard line. With 30 seconds left, Mike Sullivan dove into the end zone from one yard out and North Andover led 21-6 at the half.
“Banging in that third touchdown and looking up to see the entire North Andover crowd celebrating was unbelievable. It seemed like the whole town was there,” recalled Joe Harb, a two-way lineman. “But what we noticed even more was the fact that the Andover fans were heading for the exits, like it was over.”
Andover tried moving the ball, predominantly through the air, in the second half. But North Andover’s defense (it double covered Perry every play) and the swirling winds were too much of a detriment.
And North Andover, which outrushed Andover 179 to 34, was able to control the clock the rest of the way.
“I had no clue how cold it was until after the game,” said Marconi. “The coaches had us prepared for this game like no other. We knew every formation they had with a good idea of where they were going to go.”
Andover’s legendary coach Dick Collins went out of his way to praise the North Andover players and fans afterward.
“The town of North Andover gave us a good licking,” said Collins a quarter-century ago. “They should be darn proud of their football team. They did a great job out there and their crowd gave them quite a boost the way they cheered all day.”
While Connolly has been considered the “hero” of that incredible win, for his his touchdown runs, the player who probably best exemplifies the difference between the two programs back then was probably Matt Abel.
Abel was listed at 5-foot-7 and 150 pounds. He went up against a nose guard who was 6-foot and 220-ish pounds.
And according to his teammates, the gritty Abel won most of his one-on-one battles that day.
“Watching Matty handle their nose guard was incredible,” said Dreffer. “It was an example of heart and effort trumping all.”
A year later, the teams met in North Andover. Andover was ready this time, scouting nearly every game. Andover won convincingly, 21-8, at Hayes Stadium, like it was supposed to do. Andover’s quarterback that day, Kurt Brucato, called that “payback” win the biggest game of his life.
But that win didn’t take away what happened the year before, when David slayed Goliath.
“I learned that a silly high school football game can bring smiles and happiness to many people you know and don’t know,” said Pappalardo. “We’ll never forget it.”
You can email Bill Burt at email@example.com.