• by Robert P. Barsanti •
When the mighty Nantucket Whalers scored their first touchdown of the game, I was sitting at the fifty yard line discussing computer software. We paused in our discussion and watched the Upper Cape Voke tacklers bounce off of the running back until he stood in the end zone triumphant. We stood, we whistled, we applauded, and then we returned to a discussion of pull down menus and interfacing with the Common Core.
Whaler Football isn’t really about the football. I don’t remember watching many of the scoring plays unless they had the good sense to come at the lapse of some conversation. The football game was more about seeing and being seen. In the familiar past, when the game was played on Saturday afternoon, you could take attendance from the fifty yard line.
Back in the day, when the coaches were the players, the stands would fill and rock. Boxing Bobby would throw his jabs from the front row. Flint Ranney would celebrate each home touchdown with a howitzer shot. The older and the more infirm would drive to the games and park near the concession stands. Up on the hill, the troublemakers would sit on the guard rail near the road and cause mischief while they smoked cigarettes.
The one o’clock start gave most of the island something to do on a Saturday afternoon. You could finish a light lunch, walk up to the field, and spend an otherwise profitable afternoon in the company of friends and family, while in the eyes of all who would spit on your grave. The town would gather for the games, trade gossip, watch a few plays, then, in the settling dark, drift off for pizza or burgers.
Those games were played in daylight. The opposing team spent the night before sleeping in the gym, came out for the JV game in the morning, then played at one o’clock in the afternoon. After victory or, more likely, defeat, they rode a bus down to the boat, accompanied by a taunting crowd. Then the victorious Whalers would drive through town, honking their horns, and celebrating home field advantage.
Either sportsmanship, high gas prices, or civility has marked the end of the fan serenade down at the boat. Moreover, the Whalers did not upset the meals of the palates of the diners downtown. This game began at five o’clock in the afternoon, which gave the referees and the opposing team just enough time to arrive on one high speed ferry, lose a hard fought game, then leave on the next boat. The coaches were back home in time to tuck their kids into bed.
The island has changed. The years have worn away the fans. Plenty of great seats remained available in the aluminum bleachers. The oldest fans, as befits their wisdom, sat up against the press box in the lee of the wind. The youngest fans, from the middle and high school, jammed up against the western most edge of the bleachers. The rest of us spread out over the aluminum benches, eased back, and enjoyed the game. The carpenters and plumbers who took Saturdays off to stand at the fence and discuss offensive strategy, as well as their past heroics, cannot take those days off now. We have become a profitable and professional island; building sites are for the day and football fields for the night.
The team has changed as well. In the SuperBowl past, the team was manned by names that had been on island for generations. Those names may have been Cape Verdean or Portugese, but they were familiar nonetheless. The oddest name on the list inevitably came from the AFS student Vito had “convinced” to kick the extra points and field goals. The current Whalers reflect the rest of the island; they hail from anywhere on the planet. Their families came here in search of high paying jobs, found them, and then enrolled the future linemen in school. Very few of their fathers played for Vito or were hit by an errant clipboard. They don’t know the stories of the 1982 SuperBowl team, nor do they know many of those old heroes. It’s a different island.
But it isn’t a different game. The field may have school buses parked at one end, a wind turbine at another, and employee housing down where the burnouts used to go, but the field remains the same one that Tim Ostebo once patrolled.
Whaler Football tells the winter story of the island. The island changes, not so much because more and more hedge fund managers buy 15 million dollar houses in Squam, but because poor people come on the late boat, live in a basements and string three jobs together. The children come to the school with “the best that their parents have.” The boys play football, the girls cheer, and the Unimportant People of Nantucket expand to include Caribbean Meat Stew on the menu, right alongside Holy Ghost Soup and Clam Chowder.
On Saturday, both teams played a familiar game. Although I have slipped away from Whaler football in the last few years, I remember smaller, undermanned, but well-disciplined teams come across the water to lose nobly to our bigger, talented, and penalty befouled teams. So it happened on Saturday, when the Upper Cape Voke players bamboozled the home team with a fake punt, drew them off-sides, and misdirected them into several long reverses. But, at the end of the game, the larger and more talented home team wore down their Voke brothers and scored on the final play.
The Whalers stood victorious in their blue and white uniforms. The boys held their helmets in the air and shouted, the cheerleaders leapt and squealed, and the fans applauded. As we have for fifty years.
To the west, the sun set, followed by the barest sliver of a moon. That has been going on for quite a few years as well.