Entertainment, Sports

‘Big Blue Days’ relives Swampscott’s past football glory

For almost a quarter of a century, the town of Swampscott was as close to an athletic Camelot as there ever was in the state of Massachusetts.

Anyone who has spent time in or around the North Shore in the last 10 or 15 years would probably point to the city of Everett as resembling that remark most. With perennial championship football teams interspersed with basketball teams that always seemed to contend, Everett has always been the prototype throwback community. Mention the Crimson Tide and you can almost hear the brass band and see the cheerleaders marching down the street almost the same as a parade for conquering heroes.

From 1953 up until 1976, that honor belonged to the Big Blue and Swampscott High. For those 23 years, the football team was synonymous with championships, and the coaching staff with greatness and innovation. The Big Blue compiled undefeated seasons in 1957, 1958, 1963, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1971 and 1972. And its 1970 team only lost once.

Robert E. Jauron chronicles all this in "Big Blue Days," his book that acts both as a historical non-fiction detailing the origins and development of Swampscott glory days and a (admittedly) biased accounting of its creator: Stanley Walter Bondelevitch, a coach who was lured to the North Shore by Lynn athletic luminary Elmo Benedetto.

Jauron is the first-born son of another legendary coach: Bob Jauron, who, among other things, coached the Lynn Lions, the one-year experiment that combined all of the city's public high schools under one umbrella.

By the time Jauron's children were old enough to play sports, the family had moved to Swampscott and its boys — Robert, Dick and Mike — played their football for Bondelevitch.

Jauron delves into the move from Lynn to Swampscott in the book, recounting the tremendous amount of help certain people from the town — one a lawyer and one a businessman (neither of whom he names) — for getting his father back on his feet after a tough stretch. The family eventually moved into a duplex owned by Myron Stone (who is still alive and still very much involved in the Swampscott Gridiron Club).

Stories like these, as well as many others, make the book a great read for anyone with knowledge of the Swampscott football legacy — especially those of us who lived it in any way at all. Particularly interesting are the early days of the Bondy era, his arrival to the town from Hudson, and the fact that he met his future wife, Dot, after jousting with her over the use of the gym in Maynard, where they were both coaching at the time.

Also revealing is how one of Bondelevitch's first true projects, upon arriving in Swampscott, was to talk up Bobby Carlin, generally acknowledged as one of the best ever to wear the Big Blue uniform. Jauron said that prior to Bondy's arrival in 1953, Carlin was an indifferent athlete and student, and that through the coach, Carlin straightened himself out and became a star who later served as an Ivy League captain (Brown).

Though the Swampscott story has a plethora of glittering stars (Jauron's brother, Dick, being perhaps the biggest), there's no denying that the true luminary in this book is Bondy himself, whom Jauron portrays as a combination pied piper and tent preacher.

Over the years, I have heard story upon story about how this all worked. Assistants (whether they were Dick Lynch, Frank DeFelice, Dick Stevenson, or whomever) did all the grunt work. They drew the Xs and Os, they were the disciplinarians. Bondy tied it all together with a bow and exhorted the troops to go out and run through the brick wall.

But Jauron guarantees that it wasn't quite that simple. Bondy knew, he said, how fragile even the toughest kids were. There are several stories in the book where Bondy senses (or outright knows) that some of his players are having difficult home lives, and makes it his point to look out for those boys.

Also, Bondy had the right touch for knowing when to push the throttle down on a kid and when to ease up, Jauron said. His only consistent motivation was to keep the program vibrant, relevant and stocked with talent. He'd do whatever he could to achieve that objective, whether it was court local media to keep his players in the news, hold clinics to win parents over, and create ways to keep his players employed by him (and therefore where he could watch them) during the summer months. He did this by first establishing his own summer camp in Gloucester and later by becoming director of parks and recreation in Swampscott.

Along the way, there were hardships. The worst one had to be David Coughlin's death of heat stroke following a game in 1961, as well as the accidental death of assistant coach Hal Foster's young son. But through those tragedies, the Big Blue players actually bonded and got stronger, and Jauron suggests strongly that it was the force of Bondy's personality that fostered the atmosphere that allowed such bonding to happen.

No detail escaped Bondy. When he found out a Sculpin (which was the team's nickname prior to 1954) was a bottom-feeding fish with the moniker "mud-hake," Bondy couldn't wait to get rid of the name. "Who's going to be afraid when they say 'here come the Mud-Hakes'?" Bondy wanted to know. Big Blue, at least, denoted the majesty of the ocean that lay just beyond Blocksidge Field.

Finally, there's this. After a celebrated 32-game unbeaten streak, Swampscott lost to St. John's Prep on an improbable pass to Dana Hughes, who grew up a stone's throw from Blocksidge. The team took the loss hard, probably more so because they all hung out with Hughes as kids.

They were still feeling low the following Monday until Bondy orchestrated an impromptu assembly during which the team's many accomplishments over those previous 32 games were celebrated.

Bondy's first gig at Swampscott lasted long enough for the team to win the first-ever Division 2 Massachusetts Super Bowl over Catholic Memorial. He was gone by 1976, coached at Bishop Fenwick for several years, and then was back in Swampscott for Round 2 for four years, from 1983 through 1986.

This book has it all: warm anecdotes, good insight into some of the era's greatest players, and — most of all — a fascinating character study of the man who made it all possible: Stanley Walter Bondelevitch.

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