The Tewksbury High School Hall of Fame running back was holding a child in every photograph. Jay Petros was also smiling in every single photograph. Memories of a proud father and grandfather. There was not a football, trophy or any semblance of athletic achievement in sight. When I heard that Jay had passed away just before the Fourth of July, I went searching for memories that might include something about football. I found a few, but not many. That’s not what Petros was about. Family and friendships meant a whole lot more to a man who arguably was the greatest running back to ever wear the uniform of the Tewksbury High School Redmen.
When Town Crier Sports Editor Jamie Pote asked me who I thought was the best running back ever at the school, I didn’t hesitate. It was Jay Petros. What I didn’t know at the time was that playing football didn’t mean much to Petros. I would soon learn after his passing that family always came first for Jay. Football was a very distant second.
The fact that his family meant so much to Petros would take a tragic turn when his older brother David died just days before Jay. The Petros family was now dealing with the loss of two brothers when most families were planning holiday celebrations.
A large extended family of Petros, Horgans and Aylwards from surrounding communities from Tewksbury to Raymond, New Hampshire would make sure that support would be there every step of the way. What stuck with me was the smiling children in the arms of a man who thought of himself as much more than a great athlete.
What Jay could never deny was the gaudy statistics. He was the consensus pick among TMHS football historians when the Town Crier compiled a list of best-ever running backs at the school. “He could turn the corner on that sweep better than anyone,” noted one veteran scribe.
Petros finished his three-year career at TMHS with 3,119 yards rushing. In 1976, the 5’9’’ 175-pound Petros rushed for 1,161 yards and scored 84 points, averaging 8.1 yards per carry.
As a senior he improved on those numbers with 1,376 yards on the ground with 112 points. During Jay’s three years at TMHS the Redmen finished with a 22-7-1 record, winning the Merrimack Valley Conference Championship with a 9-1-0 season in 1976.
Petros was also a vaunted track athlete at TMHS, running the 40-yard dash in 4.7 seconds. The three time MVC All-Conference football player was elected to the Tewksbury High School Athletic Hall of Fame in 1997.
In one of the few photos that I could find that had anything to do with football, a headline included with the faded newspaper clipping stood out. It read- ‘Jay Petros — Superstar’. Petros stood on the sidelines, helmet off, smiling broadly for the camera after another big Tewksbury High School football victory. He was probably smiling because he had helped his team win another football game.
Years earlier tough between-the-tackles running back Rick Mackey helped lay the foundation for an attitude that would come to be known as “Tewksbury Tough”. While Mackey was the talented bricklayer, it was Petros who turned on the afterburners that would ignite a ground game featuring a power sweep to the outside. It would spawn the “Tewksbury Wiggle” emulated by running backs like Frank Fay, Tom Horgan and Pat “Boo” Tremlett.
Jay would run away from all of the football achievements faster than he ran from any Merrimack Valley Conference defense. He didn’t like all the attention. In fact, he really was never in love with the game of football.
His coach remembers Jay Petros
Coach Bob Aylward attended Jay’s Memorial Mass that was celebrated July 3 at the Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church in Merrimack, New Hampshire. His first memories of the star running back would drift back to what he would call “a young senior” — for Jay was just 16-years old as a senior at the high school.
“Jay was the whole package in my opinion,” remembers Aylward. “He always played football, but he never really loved football. He would tell you himself that he never really loved football. He achieved so much given that he was a 16-year-old senior. He was a terrific player. He had a combination of rare skills. He was strong, quick, agile and fast. He was unique because he was so strong at 16. And he was tough.”
Aylward tells a story of Petros during a 1976 practice going one-on-one in a drill against tough and very strong linebacker Billy Ashe, a quad captain with Jay’s brother Mark “Fuzzy” Petros and Rick McGillick. Petros didn’t back down from Ashe. And he never backed down during a game either. Jay could run hard inside before burning defenses with bursts of speed to the outside.
“Jay could match up strength-wise with anyone on the team,” recalls Aylward.
The coach remembers that after two tough contests with Andover, that school honored Petros with an All-Opponents Award at the Golden Warriors’ banquet. Some of those Andover players would go on to play football at Boston College. Jay would briefly take his football talent to the Pan Handle of Oklahoma.
From Oklahoma to Raymond, New Hampshire
Jay would briefly play some football in Oklahoma with Tewksbury quarterback and teammate Brian Wolfe before returning to Massachusetts to play at the University of Lowell for Coach Dennis Scannell. The son of Beverly and the late Joe Petros would come home and marry his high school sweetheart Patricia Horgan on November 3, 1979. Football was now very much in the rearview mirror of Petros’ life. Jay and his bride moved to Raymond, New Hampshire to raise a family. When he wasn’t working as a Team Leader in Annuity Operations for Fidelity in Merrimack, New Hampshire Jay was coaching with the Nor-Rock Youth Football program in Raymond. He was an avid camper, loved motorcycling, taking photos and following the Boston sports teams.
Jay’s obituary would note that he was a devoted family man, and his three children gave moving eulogies at his memorial service. Jay, Jenny and Myke would honor their dad, as would former TMHS teammates Mike Silverio and David Burns with guest book memories.
“It was a pleasure playing on the same football team with Jay, and it was an honor sharing the same backfield. I was his blocking back, although he didn’t need my help. Jay was the best football player and an even better person,” wrote Silverio. “I was fortunate enough to have been a schoolmate and a football teammate at TMHS,” recalled David Burns. “I will always remember him as the great player that he was, but more importantly the person that he was. He was always welcoming, and very humble. He was someone who made you feel that you were his friend, and that’s the way that I will always think of him.”
The memorial service for Jay Petros was filled with a family coming together to support one another after the loss of two brothers who loved each other unconditionally. Brothers Joe and Mark were there with their sisters Denise and Christine to support their mother Beverly. Jay’s dad Joseph M. Petros lost a three-year battle with cancer on May 1, 2005. The most senior Petros was 73-years-old when he died, and it’s not a stretch to say that this family’s strength and kindness all started with Joe. He was the kind of man who looked you in the eye and gave it to you straight. His gruff exterior was always touched by a kindness and a genuine sense that he cared about you. Like father, like son.
Joe was married to Beverly for 51 years, and like Jay, Joe’s family was the first thing that you remembered about him. Every single Petros would leave a lasting impression. People remember Joe Petros coaching Pop Warner Football in Tewksbury and the days when he would preside over the fledgling Redmen Boosters Club in basements all over town. Joe loved football and he loved Tewksbury. But his family always came first. Like father, like son.
Shunning stardom and loving life
Jay Petros was much loved by his mother and father, his wife, his children, his four grandchildren and his many nieces, nephews, cousins and god children as well as generations of the Horgan family. He would rather have people talk about his large extended family than some scrapbook filled with faded press clippings. None of that stuff mattered to Jay. In fact, he abhorred any press coverage that labeled him the best at anything. He couldn’t believe that the Town Crier had called him the greatest ever running back in Tewksbury. I heard through the grapevine that he wanted absolutely nothing to do with it.
It’s unfortunate that you sometimes learn a lot more about someone in death than you ever knew about in life. I learned that Jay was a humble man. Some great athletes are very good at faking being humble. I’ve seen plenty of “aw shucks, I’m not really that good” moments before some athlete got ready to play the part of big man on campus. There wasn’t an “aw shucks” bone in Jay Petros’ body. Jay’s humility was real. It was genuine. It was honest. It was who Jay Petros really was.
He would never say it, so I will say it for him. I watched you play for three incredible high school football seasons, Jay Petros. You were the best. Rest in peace.