SOUTH BOSTON, Mass. -- Former Boston College star and NFL veteran Sean Guthrie has slowly turned the South Boston Knights into one of the Boston City League's most formidable opponents. Now in his fifth year at the helm, he has his kids staring down a potential playoff berth in tomorrow's Thanksgiving showdown with archrival East Boston. Both teams sit at 4-0 in the Boston North.
If they are to reach the Super Bowl for the first time since 1998, it will be by way of senior running back James Toles, a bruising runner at 5-foot-10 and 193 pounds who has learned to harness his speed under Guthrie's Wing-T scheme. Considered by some to be one of the city's best backs, he has thrived for the Knights since transferring from Newton North and leaving the METCO program following his sophomore year. He has 14 rushing touchdowns in 10 games, averaging over 100 yards per game.
Toles spoke with ESPNBoston.com following a Wednesday afternoon walkthrough at Southie's gymnasium, to talk about his running style, Guthrie's life lessons, and the importance of the Eastie-Southie rivalry.
Q: Traditionally, the football culture at city schools hasn't been as strong as it has in the past.
A: "No, not at all. It's a big change. Newton North wasn't as big either, but I played at a top level with all these Division 1 athletes in Pop Warner, and going to a Boston public school I just want to make it as best as I could."
Q: What has coach Sean Guthrie built here?
A: "I'd say that, every year he tries to build for the next year going on. It's not always about that year right there. He loves the kids, so it's not like he's just gonna pick favorites, make a team that's gonna win a championship. He always wants to build. He works with the freshmen all the time, the sophomores all the time, he's just an amazing guy. He's one of my big role models."
Q: What are some of the biggest lessons you've learned from him?
A: "I have a lot of energy. Like when I'm in practice...when I make a big play, you'll see me screaming. The one big lesson he told me was to use my excitement in a positive way. Sometimes I'm kind of a dirty player with my talking, not physically, but he's like 'You know what, don't boost up the other team with that excitement and energy you have; use that to push up your team, keep your team up'. I think that's the biggest lesson I've gotten from Guthrie."
Q: You guys have found a lot of success with the Wing-T. How much fun is it?
A: "I believe at my position, it has to be the best formation ever that you can run. Every running back doesn't want to be touched. If they can go clean into the end zone, they want to go clean into the end zone. The Wing-T gives you a head start with the motion. That motion, I believe that's cheating (laughs). I've played football for a long time, and motion just seems like the most cheap way to get around that corner. It's like, once you're out there, you're free, do whatever you want. It's not up the middle -- I'm usually a smash mouth football kind of guy -- but I easily adjusted to the Wing-T."
Q: How many times do you guys call 'Jet Sweep' in a game?
A: "Alright, each week we try to do something new, use a new package that we learned in practice. If it comes down to lack of discipline with our team, not remembering our assignments, anything like that, we just always go back to the jet. We're a running team, so we just go back to what we know, and do what Southie does with their Wing-T."
Q: When the call comes in to the huddle, what is your reaction? Based on your film, that play is obviously in your wheelhouse.
A: "Actually, I'm a quiet guy in the huddle. The funny thing is, it's actually my linemen [that get fired up]. Something doesn't go right, they're always like '27 Jet, next play we're gonna get back into this game'. That's how we get our motivation, we get a 27 Jet and we're gonna get some yardage, and then that's how we get the ball rolling. Twenty-seven Jet, 28 Jet, that Wing-T, I love that play. That's one of my favorites."
Q: For those that haven't seen you play, describe your running style.
A: "When I came to South Boston, I changed up my running style. I've always been a power back, I love contact, I play for guys helmets. Just, the whole running people over. But the Wing-T, it took me out of that, the smash mouth football ethic I've used. I believe that with the speed I also have, it helps me out with the Wing-T. But Guthrie has seen that, if we run up the ball, it is a dangerous sight. So we have gone to the I-formation, a little power back, 70 up the middle, or hit me with a lead around the end and cutting in. We've been going back to my ethic, and that's smash mouth football. That's what I've grown up on. That's what I love to play."
Q: So your favorite move?
A: "I love the shoulder. There's a thing that's going around Southie, everybody yells it, it's called "Everybody gets the shoulder". Say, a big play, if we have a one-on-one, we're abusing that one-on-one, and we're gonna expose the kid in front of us. That's how we play."
Q: The talent overall in the city, do you think it's underrated?
A: "I believe it is. A lot of the kids don't get to showcase their skills as much, because the lack of dedication that the other kids have in this league. It's about discipline, and a lot of kids aren't disciplined in the city. You come to one practice and there's 27 kids there, next practice there might be 15. So it's like, some people are here to wear the jersey. It's a big thing, because all of the Boston Public Schools are such small schools, that it's very hard to pick out athletes. A lot of the top-ranked schools, they have kids to pick out of that are big, or they have tryouts, stuff like that. It's really hard in the city to get these kids in practice, and to keep their grades up.
"Playing football with these kids...I adjusted to it, I used some of the Newton North, Division 1A ethic. Everybody's coming to practice, everyone's a big football fan in the city, I mean I try to get our school to do the best we can with the kids we have."
Q: Southie-Eastie -- I don't think we need to explain too much. What's the climate been like this week?
A: "All week, I've been out and about, shopping, on the train going home, and everybody is just, they see you and they're like 'Southie? You guys gonna beat Eastie, right?' I've heard it about 100 times in the past week. I've talked to the alumni, and they're so psyched about the players that we have this year, and the chance we have to go really far. I'm gonna take this seriously, because nobody's promised to the next level. I'm not a cocky player, I'm not gonna say I'm going on to the next level, I'm not one of those kids that are like 'I'm going D1'. I'm playing every game like it's my last, and I definitely don't want this to be my last one."
Q: You look at the banners here, and you see all the Division 1 state championship basketball banners. When you think South Boston athletics, the first two names that come to mind are Monty Mack and Jonathan Depina. What would it mean to put a football banner up there?
A: "(exhaling deep) That would mean everything to me. I swear, ever since I came to South Boston, I've always wanted to be about this school. Since I didn't really get to build a connection with the kids at Newton North, and I ended up leaving, it's like, alright two years left, I've got to make the best of this. I came to South Boston, one of the things I used to do is sit in those bleachers (points to benches behind the baseline) to do my homework, and I'd look up at those banners, like 'Wow, there's no football banners up there'. (He's reminded there's just one) Alright, there's one, but you know what I mean? Just to graduate with a jacket, or a banner, do something for my school. I've got to do something for my school, because this wall needs some life."
Q: How much sleep do you think you'll get tonight, thinking about this game?
A: "I don't know. I'm gonna try my hardest to sleep, I promised my coach I'd get some sleep tonight with the game ball, and hope that this weather is not going to do anything to this ball. That's what we're gonna work on tomorrow, and that's why I'm going to sleep with it tonight. It's going to be slippery out there. We want to play hard, smash mouth football, with no fumbles. A lot of people joke about one of the wet games I had, where I racked up a lot of yards but also had four fumbles. That's something I don't want to do again, so I'm going to sleep tonight, sleep with my game ball, play some ball, beat Eastie."