PHOTO BY BOB ROCHE
Classical’s last-second hero, Marcus Rivera, celebrates the Rams’ 21-20 Thanksgiving Day win over English with teammate Nick LaBella.
By STEVE KRAUSE
LYNN — As jazz artist Dinah Washington once sang, “What a difference a day makes.”
Lynn Classical’s Marcus Rivera woke up Thursday morning with nothing more on his mind than winning a Thanksgiving football game to cap off a bittersweet season.
He woke up Friday morning fielding phone calls from ESPN.
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Video of Rivera’s improbable 83-yard kick return with no time on the clock has gone viral. It was the No. 2 play on ESPN’s Top 10 plays overnight, and representatives from the network called him first thing Friday morning
As a result, he will be featured in a future segment on the network’s signature “Sportscenter” next week. But there’s a bit of a price to pay.
“They’re going to call me at 7 in the morning,” he said.
Rivera went through the same jumble of emotions as everyone else who saw Thursday’s Classical-English game.
“I thought we were done,” he said. “I thought it was over. I thought I had lost the Thanksgiving game in my senior year.”
He thought that way because English had scored a touchdown with eight seconds left in the game that, in and of itself, was the culmination of an inspired fourth-quarter comeback.
With the score 20-15 and the game pretty much considered academic, English kicked off. Classical mishandled it, and the Bulldogs got the ball back.
Now, there was bedlam on the English side of the field as fans, who had been congregating in the scoreboard corner of the end zone, spilled onto the field.
“I just wanted it to be over,” Rivera said. “I was crushed.”
But the game was not over. The referees had called a penalty, and it was against English. The Bulldogs would have to kick it over.
This time, the squib kick took a crazy bounce right in front of Classical’s Melvin Nieves, and it practically bounced into his hands.
Both Rivera and coach Tim Phelps said that as impromptu as that play may have seemed, it was tantamount to a busted play.
“It was supposed to go the other way, left,” Phelps said. “All our blockers were set up over there, and so was their defense.”
What makes Phelps marvel is that the play ended up being a happy accident.
“If it had gone the way it was supposed to have gone, he’d have had to weave his way in and out of a whole bunch of English defenders, and who knows what would have happened.”
So how did it get messed up?
“Melvin was supposed to turn and toss it to me, but he faked instead because he thought he saw a seam,” Rivera said.
But the seam closed quickly.
“Then he looked for me,” Rivera said. “But I was too far away for him to throw the ball. We had to run to each other, and just as he was getting tackled, he tossed the ball up to me.”
Then, Rivera turned the corner and started running down the right sideline.
“All I saw was green,” he said. “I just saw three people, and one of my teammates, Chase Buono, blocked the only guy who could touch me.”
“Actually,” Phelps said, “I think Chase ended up getting two guys on that play.”
After the last English defender was dealt with (this time by Nashaun Butler), Rivera had nothing but green fields and goal posts in front of him as he turned on the jets and sprinted to the end zone.
“I didn’t believe it,” he said. “Eight seconds earlier and we’re going to lose. Now, it’s ‘I’m gonna win the Thanksgiving game for us!’”
The year ended a lot better than it began for Rivera. Three plays into the team’s opener against Gloucester, Rivera suffered an injury that left him out of action for the first four games. Compounding that was the fact that the Rams lost that game, 21-19, on a last-minute touchdown pass by the Fishermen.
“That really affected our season,” said Rivera, who was vital to Phelps’ plans this season.
He came back in Week 5 against Marblehead, and was on the field for Classical’s win two weeks ago over Malden.
It took a while for the shock to wear off.
“I think it was around 8 o’clock Thursday night,” he said, “I started seeing it on the news. That’s when it sunk in.”
A day after, Phelps was thinking of his coaching brethren across the field.
“That had to be awfully tough for Chris (Carroll) and English,” Phelps said. “But I admire the way they came back in that game. It was really a good game as it was.”
Steve Krause can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.