EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

February 8, 2013

Coach Raff brought out the best in North Andover

Bill Burt
The Eagle-Tribune

---- — NORTH ANDOVER -- For 24 hours I’ve tried to put the Coach John Rafferty firing and rehiring, which lasted nearly two weeks, in some sort of perspective. And then it hit me.

It’s a Wonderful Life.

Yes, I’m equating two bizarre weeks in North Andover to the feel-good Christmas movie classic.

Sure, there were some painful and nasty times, sort of the “Pottersville” side to the incredibly inspiring story.

The silence and hiding behind the “personnel matter” by the North Andover Schools Superintendent, principal and athletic director was agonizingly frustrating. They gambled this sentiment, that “Raff was robbed of his job,” would eventually go away.

They, of course, lost. But their story is for another day.

What transpired outside of the North Andover Schools System administrative offices was amazing.

A Facebook page -- “Support Coach Rafferty” -- was started. Petitions to “Bring Back Raff” were in several businesses and locations throughout North Andover. People were picking up updated petitions and delivering them to “Bring Back Raff” Headquarters at Stachey’s Pizza.

In fact, two of his cashiers had a side jobs of counting up the signatures on the petitions as they came in.

That was the special part of his movement. Despite the major issues that Rafferty’s supporters had, other than a few “personal” comments in the comments section of Eagle-Tribune stories, there was very little name calling.

Instead, after getting nowhere with the school employees, many of Rafferty’s supporters went to the School Committee, which really didn’t want this on their plates. But with about 700 people signing a petition and about the same amount clicking the “like” tab on the “Support Coach Rafferty” Facebook page, the School Committee had to at least listen to people vent on Monday night.

The key moment of this movement occurred that night when about 40 current football players, all wearing ties, stood behind their captains as Tommy Stabile succinctly said firing their coach was wrong.

It opened they eyes of all the adults at that meeting, particularly the School Committee. It was arguably the greatest performance by a North Andover High football team.

That’s right, the kids set everyone, including a few adults, straight.I’m guessing the School Committee sent a message: “Guys, fix this or we will fix it for you.”

Two days later, Coach Raff is back.

When we first got word here on Wednesday, at The Eagle-Tribune, that Rafferty would be reinstated as the head football coach at North Andover High School, two phone calls came in from supporters.

It was strange. It wasn’t what you might expect.

There were no over-the-top expressions of “We got ‘em! We showed them school officials who’s boss!” In fact, they shockingly weren’t angry. In fact, it was to the contrary.

Instead, both were simple and respectful, yet at the same time powerful and meaningful.

“This is a night that has restored my faith in people’s sense of morality,” said Mike Laornenza, whose son played for Rafferty before graduating last May and who owns an insurance company in town. “I think (Superintendent) Hutchinson and the School Committe got this right. It was frustrating, but in the end they listened.”

Terry Holland, a life-long resident and owner of Stachey’s Pizza spoke almost as if he was in library.

“(The School Committee) listened. They investigated. And they act upon it,” said Holland, who has spent several years involved in the town’s youth sports booster club (NABC).

“What happened was supposed to happen,” said Holland. “People spoke up, made their points and a wrong is now right. It’s a great day for the town of North Andover.”

Despite his victory, Coach Rafferty didn’t return any calls (I tried seven times!) yesterday. One of his friends said, “He hates being in the news. He just hates anything about him.”

Holland said he spoke with Coach Rafferty after the decision on was made to bring him back on Wednesday and after he met with Principal Carla Scuzzarella yesterday.

Coach Rafferty still is a little pained by everything that happened.

“But I told him, ‘Raff, you are one of the luckiest guys in the world,’” said Holland. “I said, ‘You found out how much people really love you and appreciate you. That usually happens after you’re dead.’”

Congratulations George Bailey ... I mean ... Coach Rafferty. Congratulations North Andover High football players. And congratulations to the town of North Andover.

You believed in something and you went about your case with dignity. And you won. There is hope.

You can email Bill Burt at bburt@eagletribune.com.