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With 57 career touchdowns, Pelham junior Bruce Vieira is already one of the most prolific players in area history. Vieira leads the Pythons into today’s Division 5 state title game against Gilford.

PELHAM, N.H. — Fourth-and-goal from the one-foot line, championship hanging in the balance. The linebacker reads the play, attacks the hole, soars through the air, meets the halfback head-to-head and drives him back for no gain.

Said linebacker was not Tedy Bruschi. He was Pelham’s Bruce Vieira at age 13 in a midget Pop Warner state title clinching win over Nashua.

“Greatest play I’ve ever seen,” said Pelham High JV coach Kevin Jean, who coached Vieira as a fifth-grader in the Pelham-Windham Razorbacks Pop Warner program.

“The collision was huge, like a college hit. Bruce came flying over the top, and so did the halfback. Bruce won the battle.”

Vieira, now a junior and already the most acclaimed and prolific player in the 15-year history of the Pelham program, leads the host Pythons as they attempt to win their first Division 5 state title today at 12:30 p.m. vs. Gilford.

“Since Day 1, Coach (Tom Babaian) has been preaching 11-0,” said Vieira, a three-year starter for a Pelham program that has gone 24-7 over that span.

“It’s right in front of us, this team is ready to go. And it’s more than just being No. 1. To make history being the first, something that can’t be taken from you, something that will live forever in this town. To be No. 1 is great, but this is about making history.”

Pelham’s place among the Division 5 elite and Vieira’s greatness are not coincidence. They are not accidents either.

Vieira’s grandfather is former Lowell High star Bernie Judge and his cousins include Brendan (a three-year starter at Northwestern) and Sean Smith (two-time all-conference player at Bentley) of Andover.

“Believe it or not, when I was younger I raced go-karts,” said Vieira, whose NASCAR dreams died the first time he put on a pair of cleats. “Something about football has always clicked. It’s about the work ethic. You have to put so much into it to be a great player. I love that. Football is over Saturday. Starting Monday, it’s time to start preparing for next year.”

Jean said, “He was easily the most outstanding kid we had right away. In the fifth grade, he was reading offenses, calling out the strong side and pointing out who was getting the football. We played him at linebacker and he had those big, Mike Singletary eyes, bulging out of his helmet. He was just phenomenal.”

Speed and guile were God-given gifts, but Vieira, who scored an amazing 31 TDs in eight games for that state champion eighth-grade squad, has never slacked off and relied on them solely.

Even now, Jean is surprised.

“He’s a student of the game,” said the coach. “He studies so hard and is his own worst critic. We’re preparing for Gilford and just had a three-hour practice. I’m out winding down and he’s home scouring film. He’s already texted me three times with something new that he just picked up.”

Vieira is caught in a dogfight with Greater Lawrence Tech star Nate Adames for the area lead in points scored and touchdowns, trailing 190-188 and 31-29.

The Pelham halfback (with 1,287 yards on the ground) leads the eight 1,000-plus yard rushers in the region with an 8.8 yards-per-carry average. As a sophomore Eagle-Tribune All-Star, he rushed for 1,023 yards and scored 20 TDs and was considered just as devastating at linebacker.

This glorious season almost never happened.

“Before my freshman year I actually applied to Central Catholic but only made the waiting list,” said Vieira. “I went to Pelham and had a great freshman year. Then I was actually looking at prep schools and got into Worcester Academy and Salisbury (in Connecticut), but it just didn’t work out.”

Vieira plays the “what if” game once in a while. He hears the whispers about it “only” being Division 5 football.

“To tell you the truth, it drives me when people talk about that,” he said. “I just work all that much harder.”

Jean is sure that Vieira could play on any field around here.

“I’ve seen Pinkerton and the bigger schools, the only real difference between Bruce and those backs is that they have a bigger line blocking for them,” said Jean. “I think Bruce would be even better in Division 2 or Division 1. Look at Salem, Shane McMahon (5-9, 165-pound standout) isn’t bigger than Bruce (5-8, 175).”

All has not been perfect for Vieira at Pelham. As a freshman, he started in center field on the varsity baseball team, but went hitless in 20 at-bats.

“As I got older my baseball skills declined,” he joked. “I mean, it’s all about football anyway.”

Well, not completely. He went to track and ran on the Pelham 4x100 relay which placed eighth in Class I and he’s a talent on the wrestling mat. He missed last season with a broken collarbone, but he placed third at 140 pounds as a freshman at Division 2 States.

But his mind now is only on today and Gilford.

The Eagles gave Vieira fits in the regular-season finale, holding him to only 16 yards on the ground.

“Bruce was a decoy for a large part of that game. Where he went, two or three of their defenders went,” said Jean. “He knows he had the bad game. but he still broke Gilford’s back with the pickoff to end the game.

“Without giving away the game-plan, Bruce will have a lot more effect on the game this time around. I guarantee it.”

Getting to know Gilford

At 9-1, Gilford, a fifth-year varsity program, is one of the feel-good stories in small-school New Hampshire football.

The Eagles compete without a penny from the school budget.

“It’s all through boosters and fund-raising,” said coach Mike DuBois, whose team still changes for practice and games in a converted barn, one that was fitted for indoor plumbing only last year.

Gilford’s only loss this year was 13-12 at Pelham in the regular season finale.

The Eagles are led by 1,200-yard rusher Eric Dean and talented quarterback Colby Athanas. Dean carried 18 times for 91 yards and Athanas threw for 186 yards and two scores in the earlier matchup.

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