NORTH ATTLEBOROUGH, Mass. – Joe Rabuffo walked softly, solemnly.
He wore a mix-match of clothing items: a North Attleborough letterman jacket, a camouflage New England Patriots knit cap, a pair of shorts and work boots. As he and his teammates streamed out of the subterranean locker room outside of Community Field in a funeral-like march, Rabuffo took his time passing by the Red Rocketeers’ assistant coaches who spilled out into the cooridor. He started at the far end of the line and moved station to station, stopping at each face with a handshake and a "Thank you."
The senior had just played his final high school football game.
He held his helmet by the facemask in his left hand, with shoulder pads and game jersey draped over. Rabuffo’s, like all of the Thanksgiving Day football game participants in the Attleboro, North Attleborough rivalry, helmet was decorated. Nobody quite remembers how the tradition was started, but it’s one of the more colorful aspects of Massachusetts high school football and its more than century-long history on Thanksgiving mornings.
Rabuffo’s helmet creation had the Patriots logo on either side, a nod both to his favorite team and the honest to goodness patriots who give their lives in service. Wrapped in white tape, he stenciled out the Flying Elvis and, across the back, the letters “USMC” for the Marine Corps. He wanted to honor former North quarterback Kyle Van De Geisen, a Marine captain who was killed while serving in Afghanistan in 2009.
Rabuffo, who wore No. 67, also paid tribute to a long-lost Big Red great, Thomas Bury. Bury was killed in 1983, in an auto accident on Cape Cod, while en route to his first assignment with the Coast Guard. His name is immortalized on the scoreboard at Community Field and a college scholarship set up in his memory is still offered at the high school. Bury was gone long before Rabuffo was born and he has no other familial connection to Bury other than the playing number which they share.
“I wanted him [Bury] to play one last time along with me,” said Rabuffo, who started at center and long snapped for the Red Rocketeers.
They all played to remember.
For North senior captain Jack Blase, he carried with him the memory of his older brother, Alex. In 2008, Alex Blase — then a North football player, himself – died suddenly at 17 of a brain aneurysm that ruptured while playing a game of pickup basketball. A popular young man among his teammates and school community, it was a devastating loss for all associated with North athletics.
Despite that loss, miracles emerged from Alex’s untimely death. Mere days before his death, Alex listed himself as an organ donor on his learner’s permit at the Massachusetts Registry. When he passed, several of the young athlete’s organs were preserved for waiting recipients.
Jack Blase attached a sticker with his brother’s initials “AMB” to the front of his helmet. With the words “MOM” and “DAD” scrawled out on the bars of his facemask, it formed a kind of trinity as Blase led his team onto their home field for the last time.
“I wanted to honor the seniors, the kids who’ve had my back through everything and, of course, remember my brother,” Jack Blase said.
Perhaps no design displayed on Thursday conveyed what Thanksgiving Day means more than that of Attleboro senior Scott Friedlander.
Standing 6-feet, 10-inches tall, Friedlander is impossible to miss in a crowd. A backup offensive and defensive tackle, as well as a musician, Friedlander estimated he spent about six hours creating an elaborate tribute to his teammates. Wrapped around the back of his helmet, the phrase “Band of Brothers” was stenciled out. An homage to the World War II miniseries, Friedlander found his inspiration in the art of its promotional poster.
The concept worked on multiple levels, as Friedlander comes from a service family – his father (retired), brother and sister were all enlisted in the Navy. The Friedlander family can trace their United States military roots back the Revolutionary War and their service encapsulates every major conflict since.
Using a kind of bas-relief method, Friedlander created a line of figures, encircling the neck of the helmet, standing as one, but indentified with the numbers of his fellow seniors.
Everything that could be said, that was said by Henry V on St. Crispin’s Day, they said on their helmets:
“But we in it shall be remembered —
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”