TEWKSBURY — The muddy field was cold and wet. The stone bleachers are crumbling and turning to dust. They’ve been that way for two football seasons now. It’s Thanksgiving morning in Tewksbury, and a small but enthusiastic crowd has turned out to say goodbye to Doucette Field. Some people called it a stadium over the years. Whatever it was called, it has been home to many Tewksbury High School football players since 1938. Once it was called the Center School Field before it was named to honor the late Tree Warden Walter Doucette in 1977, a fitting tribute to a dedicated town employee. There was a group of older men from Tewksbury and Wilmington who showed up at the field Thursday morning and did nothing but smile. There were hugs, handshakes, tears and laughter. They showed up with cancer, in a wheelchair, limping and searching for the right thing to say to former teammates they hadn’t seen in more than 20, 30 or even 40 years. They were a lot older, heavier and balder. Some were Redmen. Some were Wildcats. The old rivalry had come full circle. It was time to say goodbye to old Doucette Field. A place where memories were made.

Two days earlier Eleanore Riddle made the short drive from her Tewksbury home to say goodbye to Doucette Field. For the 82-year-old Riddle, this place was so much more than a field. Two of her sons played on this field. Matthew and Mark gave all they had to give to make Redmen football great again beginning in 1977. Mark broke his neck on this field in 1979.

“I went up there to the field crying today. I talked to one of the workers. I went there to say goodbye to Walter Doucette Field,” said Riddle. “My dad took me to my first game there in 1947. I was pregnant with my son John in 1963 when Walter Doucette sat in front of me for every game. We used to go to all the games.”

This day was about so much more than a field. It was about Tewksbury people with the last names Aylward, Mackey, Millett, Riddle, French, Hague, Gillette, Smith, Petros, Vecchi, Brooks, Hanley and Roux. I’m sure I’m leaving some last names off that list. They will let me know about it I’m sure.

Last Thursday morning there were guys I remember from Wilmington with the last names Campbell, Woods and Stewart. I’m really sure I will hear about any Wilmington omissions. That’s the nature of the beast. I will go to my grave known as that guy with the “Big Red T” on his chest. On this morning, all the competition was over. The games ended a long time ago. We were all here to say goodbye to Doucette Field.

There were generations of families making memories on this patch of dirt that served as a field. It wasn’t that way back in 1938 I’m sure. I played on this field from 1970-72. There wasn’t much grass on the field back then. I was injured, benched, humiliated and taught a football lesson or two by people like Joe Hanley and Charlie Roux. I survived the experience long enough to learn from it even when the place was called the Center School Field. Eventually the field got better with a new name and a young, enthusiastic head coach with that last name Aylward. I was long gone by then. But I still have those memories of playing on a field that I found myself standing on again for the last time a week ago. The first thing that I noticed was that the mud was still cold. I couldn’t understand why as a 16-year-old lineman I enjoyed finding the muddiest area of the field and diving right into it before every practice.

At halftime of the Tewksbury-Wilmington game the former players from both towns gathered at midfield and looked skyward. A drone flew overhead and snapped some group photos. TMHS Athletic Director Ron Drouin thought of a way to get the best photo of some guys who collectively kept looking around for the photographer. It was pulled off without a hitch in sight thanks to the drone provided by the Tewksbury Police Department. We had plenty of time to find another Tewksbury or Wilmington guy to shake hands with or bear hug.

“I must have cried four different times,” said retired TMHS varsity football coach Bob Aylward. “It was overwhelming. It was more than I expected. All these different kids through the years. It was pretty incredible. I thank Ronnie Drouin for that. It was a great idea.”

Current TMHS football coach Brian Aylward has been around Doucette Field a long time both as a player and a coach. In 1985, Brian and his brother Rob — a volunteer assistant coach with the Redmen — played on a Tewksbury team that went all the way to Foxboro and won a championship. Thursday the coach said goodbye to the old field with a 28-13 victory over Wilmington to complete a 10-2 season.

“We’ve played more games on this field this season than we ever have,” noted Brian Aylward. “It seems like we’ve been here every week. We were heavy on home games to begin with. Then the three playoff games were here.”

It will be a busy offseason for the Tewksbury coach as the team shifts gears and moves to the new field that will be under construction adjacent to Doucette. The project will also eventually include a new fieldhouse to replace the James Brooks Fieldhouse. The names of Doucette and Jim Brooks — who died in 1986 at the age of 40 after a battle with brain cancer — will remain forever on any new football high school football facilities in Tewksbury.

For now, there will be some relatively simple stuff on the head coach’s plate. Like adjusting the offseason schedule so junior quarterback Ryne Rametta can turn in his uniform and equipment. Immediately after Thursday morning’s game, the junior quarterback stood in the mud and asked his coach for a minor schedule adjustment so he could get to a part time job. The young man came a long way in his development this season, and he will get to cherish the memories of the old place before making some new ones on a sparkling, shiny diamond of a field next season.

There were so many people with so many memories Thursday morning. I wanted to speak with everyone, but time ran out on the season. It was a morning that will stick with me forever. Your own mortality and a bit of melancholy gets mixed with memories when you reach a certain age. After I watched Shane Aylward score two touchdowns to put a nice finishing flourish on an injury-riddled season, I moved on to the task at hand. Where were the old guys saying goodbye to an even older field? Here is a sampling of those conversations.

JIM PANZINO (1974)

“My first big game memory at Doucette Field was the Pop Warner Carnation Bowl in 1970. We had a great team coached by legends Ernie Lightfoot, John Hazel and Jim Brooks. Our opponent was a team from Staten Island, New York. The surroundings had the feeling of a bowl game for a bunch of 13-year-olds. This team was the core of Coach Aylward’s first squad at Tewksbury High School. It included Lefty’s first co-captain Mike King, Rick Mackey, Richie Sullivan, Eddie Powers, John Breen, Tom Luciano, Micky Rasmussen and myself. Ernie Lightfoot taught us toughness. He later reunited with Coach Aylward for our senior year at the high school, which helped us take toughness to a whole new level. Sadly, that team included Paul Sullivan, Dave Petros, Luke Byrne and Brian “Snucker” Smith —  teammates who passed away too soon.”

“Fast-forward to my last big game at Doucette Field, Thanksgiving Day 1973 against Wilmington. This was a tough year and depressing for us. Wilmington crushed us that day. My haunting memory is running about 40 yards to chase down Doug Stewart as he crossed the goal line. We had a bad team despite great leadership from Dave Smith and Tommy Morin. We never gave up that season. Revenge was sweet the next year in Wilmington with Coach Aylward on our sideline. In my unbiased view, that 1974 team started the Aylward/Tewksbury dynasty.”

MIKE SMITH (1980) MIKE BUSCANERA (1982) & MIKE MACKEY (1984)

“I’ve never seen so much excitement like when all of the old players were on the field at halftime. It was great to see the Wilmington guys. That actually made it more special. My brother Steve graduated in 1972. My brother Dave graduated in 1974, but unfortunately has passed away. He would have loved to have been here today,” said Smith. I played beside Mike’s brother Steve on the Redmen defensive line in 1971.

“I remember sitting in the locker room getting ready for the game and hearing the marching band pass by beating on the drums,” offered Buscanera. “I also remember Monday afternoons watching game films under the stands in what we called The Dungeon. I will never forget those years.”

“My memory would be my nephew Sean scoring all the points in a 3-2 win over St John’s in the only Division One year. He kicked a field goal and took a safety late in the game so he could punt it deeper as time ran out,” said Mackey.

MARK “FUZZY” PETROS (1977) & TIM BOUDREAU (1985)

“I’m practically speechless. There are a lot of memories here. A lot of good friends. It’s just nice to be here and see everybody. It’s kind of cool,” said an obviously moved Petros.

The day was especially emotional for “Fuzzy”. I found him and gave him my biggest hug of the morning. Mark’s brothers Dave and Jay recently passed away. They both played at Doucette Field, and Jay was arguably the greatest running back in the school’s history. There was a moment of silence for Jay before the game.

Tim Boudreau was one of the greatest athletes to ever play at Tewksbury High School and was a member of the 1985 TMHS State Championship football team.

“It’s sad. But something bigger and better will come. The times change and we’ve got to keep moving forward,” said Boudreau, who looks like he could go out there and take a few snaps today.

BRIAN BROOKS (1990)

The last name Brooks will forever have a special place in the hearts and minds of anyone following Tewksbury High School football. Brian Brooks’ dad Jim will have his name atop the new fieldhouse when its’ finished. Jim was President of the Redmen Football Club and was there when the football program was jumpstarted under the direction of Bob Aylward. Jim’s son went on to make a name for himself with the Redmen, helping the team to the 1990 Super Bowl, leading the team as defensive captain and wearing number 55. He also wears his Redmen football heart right on his sleeve today.

“We dream about being the best, wanting to be the best for a community, for our family and our friends,” said Brooks. “High school football is the best time of year. The best time of your life.”

EUGENE ‘MOUSEY’ ROUX (1977)

Charlie Roux’ kid brother-affectionately known as ‘Mousey' — made his mark early in his Tewksbury High School varsity football career with determination and toughness that was off-the-charts. He is still displaying that gritty attitude in the face of a far more serious battle today. It was during a scrimmage in 1977 that Roux was running along a muddy patch of Doucette Field when his calf was gashed wide open by a metal can protruding out of the muck and mire. His coach Bob Aylward remembers the day and still shakes his head in amazement all these years later.

“We were scrimmaging and he comes up from a play cut and bleeding badly. An old open can had come up from beneath the field. It was like a quagmire. He lost a lot of games his senior year because of it. The muscle was involved at the tibia. Every time he put pressure on it the stitches would split.”

Roux would eventually recover and play a big part in Tewksbury High School’s football reboot. The players had bought into Aylward’s unbridled enthusiasm for playing the game.

Roux’ mom Dorothy helped run the family business for six decades, but she always found time to be an enthusiastic supporter of Tewksbury sports programs because her sons were involved and she loved watching them compete. She always seemed to be sitting right at the 50-yard-line no matter what the field was named. Charlie played at the Center School Field. His brother played at Doucette. Same field. Different name. Same competitive Roux family. After the games the Roux house was a destination spot to celebrate victory. ‘Mousey’ loved every minute he was on the field for the Redmen, and it showed. In all the years that I’ve known The Mouse I’ve never seen him not smiling. When I found him Thursday morning after the drone photo he had the same smile of the teenager that I remember all those years ago.

“I loved playing in this mud,” he said. “We never lost in the mud. We were Aylward’s first champions.”

Roux has the smile of a champion. He looked tired, but still ready for a fight. This time it’s about more than playing a football game on a muddy field in November. Roux is fighting for his life.

“About a month ago I wasn’t feeling well. I got out of work and was on the couch for about five days,” Roux remembers. “I went to see my daughter, who is a nurse practitioner. She called an ambulance and we went to Lowell General. We got out of there and went straight to Mass General.”

There was some bad news coming his way. Roux wasn’t knocked to his knees when the test results came back. He just got himself prepared for the fight of his life. Roux had just been diagnosed with Stage-4 lung cancer.

“Right now they are doing the radiation. In December they told me they were going to take the next step. We don’t know what that is yet. I’m getting up every day at five o’clock in the morning to make it to the hospital every day. I have eight more radiation treatments left. Then we have the big meeting next week.”

Say a prayer for The Mouse. He will get whatever news the doctors give him and get ready to give cancer hell. The disease is in for quite a ride. People just don’t toss the words “Tewksbury Tough” around because they need a cool sounding slogan for a football game. It’s real. I know it. Guys like Roux know it. Every man on that field last Thursday morning knows it.

SAYING THAT FINAL GOODBYE

Dirt or mud. Sometimes there was grass. Although I seldom played on grass. There were important games that probably should have been cancelled, but we played in the mud at the Center School/Doucette Field. Sure it often looked bad, and Andover would come to town and refuse to play on a field that didn’t seem fit for cows, much less some clean and slick Golden Warriors. Like many visiting teams coming to Tewksbury, Andover got muddy and wet real quick. The Redmen were prepared to play football in any conditions.

Sure the field looked bad. But it was never embarrassing, because it was ours. It belonged to us. We felt right at home in the dirt and the mud and the dusty sand that the field’s surface turned into every August during double session practices. How many times did I plant my face right into a pile of dirt or a mud puddle while doing the dreaded “up-downs” that were a part of every practice? I was a mess minutes into every session. And I loved every minute of it.

When the drone went away and the photo had been taken, the older Redmen and Wildcats beat the cold rain and headed to their turkey and all the fixings. Everyone had a destination. Thursday morning was part of another journey well taken. Old Doucette Field is tired. It’s time has passed. It’s time to make some new memories. Kids like Ryne Rametta deserve the very best. We’ve had our days in the mud and the dirt. We’ve seen all the blood and the sweat that it takes to build a winner with some obstacles in the way. It’s time for a new generation of Tewksbury High School football players to move on to a new field and make some memories they can call their very own.

See ya Old Doucette.

Thanks for the memories.

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