TEWKSBURY — Every Thursday afternoon offensive line coach Paul Norton, courtesy of his wife Margaret, arrives before practice with a big batch of homemade brownies for “his boys.” It might seem like an odd routine for a man who looks like an intimidating presence, but it’s part and parcel of being a devoted and caring coach who connects with the young men he tutors in the fine art of offensive line play, treating the group that fires up the Tewksbury offense with respect while at the same time nurturing a well-documented offensive lineman’s need for good food — and plenty of it.
Everyone gets the treats, from the starters to the linemen who might see their only lengthy playing time of the season against Wilmington Thanksgiving morning. For 39 years, the offensive linemen at Tewksbury Memorial High School have been like a family to Paul Norton.
“Paul’s wife has done the brownies for years, and they look forward to it,” says retired TMHS head football coach Bob Aylward, who coached with Norton at Nashua High School before returning to Tewksbury in 1995. “It’s a family thing. And he’s the proud papa.”
Paul didn’t mention his wife’s baking skills before the Redmen took the field to play Winchester in the Division Three North Championship game. What he did mention was his love for Tewksbury and the many reasons why he decided to stick around and help Bob’s son Brian make another championship run with a team boasting a tradition of success with deep family ties.
“The kids’ work ethic is just special here,” says Norton about one of the big reasons why he loves coaching these Redmen. “They say in life that the kids change. I don’t think the kids change at all. The times change, but if you are on the level with them and you treat them with respect every day and they know that you care about them, they will work hard for you. I find that these kids really work hard. What’s unique about Tewksbury is we had linemen like (Zach) Weitz last year at 157 (pounds), and this year I’ve got Mike Woodford at a robust 285 (pounds). They come in all shapes and sizes. If you want to spill your guts and get after it, there is a spot for you on the offensive line here. We play anybody and everybody.”
Everybody understands that their coach sets the tone and a fine example every day at practice. There is a high attention to detail and rules to follow. Norton’s track record at his “other” job speaks volumes. Just knowing where Paul worked every day before his retirement might even be intimidating to some young men. Welcome to the Billerica House of Correction, Paul Norton’s place of employment for 34 years.
Longest running superintendent in Middlesex Jail and House of Correction history
Norton spent 34 years working at the Middlesex Jail and House of Correction in Billerica. It’s a tough job that can be a grind even on its’ better days — and there aren’t many of those days when you are dealing with anyone who is incarcerated. Paul Norton did that tough job and he did it well — so well that he was Superintendent in Billerica for 14 years — the longest running Superintendent in the jail’s history.
For many of his years spent working at the jail, Paul held a part time position (1980-1995) coaching at his alma mater Malden Catholic. He was coaching at Malden Catholic when current TMHS head coach Brian Aylward and his brother Rob were Redmen winning a Schoolboy Super Bowl in what is now Gillette Stadium back in 1985. Bob Aylward was coaching both of his sons to a championship that day.
When Bob Aylward left Tewksbury after many years to take the head coaching position at Nashua High School, he hired Norton as his offensive line coach. The senior Aylward knew all about Norton’s years as a standout lineman at Malden Catholic and Northeastern University. And he knew that he needed a taskmaster with presence to help him jumpstart the Nashua High School football program. He got the perfect coaching personality in Norton. With longtime TMHS assistant coach Ernie Lightfoot coaching the Nashua receivers, Aylward felt that he had the right coaching combination in place. The “three amigos” would be an example for a program that at the time needed to be pointed in a positive direction. With Lightfoot working for the Town of Tewksbury and Norton at the House of Correction, at the very least the Nashua players had role models showing them what a solid work ethic was all about.
“I learned a lot from Ernie. Like paying attention to details. Those were good years up there in Nashua,” remembers Norton. “Then I came down here when Bobby came back to Tewksbury in 1995.”
Norton has stuck around long enough to coach for Bob’s son and see another generation of Aylwards come around to help lead the Redmen to a State Championship. The senior Aylward knows how fortunate his son is to have a veteran coach like Norton around to help start another edition of “Tewksbury Tough” for these Redmen.
“He’s a high-quality guy to begin with,” offers Bob Aylward. “He was a terrific player in his day. He was working in Billerica and it just so happened that he was available. It just worked out great. Then he came down to Tewksbury from Nashua with me. Then he stayed with Brian.”
Aylward admires Norton’s work ethic and his ability to connect with linemen. With good reason. There aren’t a lot of 64-year-old guys running around willing to have a laugh and a good time before buckling down and getting right to work.
“He’s a gem. He’s one of those rare guys that can spend two hours a day out in a field with his group of kids and can do it, and do it the right way,” said Aylward. “His language is great. His knowledge is superior. Since he’s retired he’s had all this time to study. He does a great job in all those aspects in order for Brian to be able to be as multiple as they are on offense. They do a really good job of trying to get the right blocking scheme and the right sets.”
And Norton has nice mix about his coaching style. Approachable yet direct. Adaptable and willing to learn as the coaching styles evolved over the years.
“The huge change in this program is how much these kids do in the weight room,” notes Aylward. “These kids are strong. They are undersized at times, but they are strong. If you see Paul at practice, he will be off on his own with his group. His drills are technique specific. He’s definitely an old-school guy for sure. But he’s adapted to the changes for sure. And he’s a great rules guy. He always has the football rules book beside him.”
“Coach Norton is the best,” says TMHS Athletic Director Ron Drouin. “He brings consistency here every day. He brings professionalism. He brings a wealth of knowledge at his position. He’s been around a long time with Coach Aylward and Brian. There is a lot of trust on Brian’s part in Coach Norton to execute their schemes and help to run quality practices every day.”
A big part of the Redmen offense
Norton is a big cog in Tewksbury High School’s offensive wheel. Without Norton leading a group that includes Kyle Scrooc, Robbie Kimtis, Antonio Capelo, Mike Woodford, Anthony DeSisto and Dylan Chandler there would be little room for the gaggle of running backs displaying that typical Tewksbury “wiggle” to the outside. And the Redmen are fully capable of running to the inside between either tackle. TMHS Hall of Fame running backs Jay Petros and Rick Mackey would be proud.
The Redmen tradition of running back excellence continues with players like Shane Aylward, Kyle Darrigo, Tyler Keough, Danny Fleming and Kalu Olu hitting the many holes provided by Norton’s collection of well-coached offensive linemen.
“We use a lot of formations, and sometimes our offensive linemen move around a little bit,” offers Norton. “We’re not one of those spread teams with bucket steps and zone blocking. We’re a team that still traps and pulls. We’ve still got (blocking) sleds over there. How many teams know what that’s all about anymore? We’ve lightened up the hitting a little bit. There is more learning and film work. We’re just relaxing the kids and not getting all excited about it. You’re limited to so many contact practices during the week, especially this time of year. You want to keep the kids healthy and hitting on all cylinders.”
Norton doesn’t necessarily measure his tenure in Tewksbury through the prism of victory and defeat. Championships are nice for sure, but for Norton, sometimes just seeing a kid turning a corner in life and on the football field is a very big deal.
“Sometimes you measure the highlights in Super Bowls,” he admits. “Super Bowls are nice, but I think about the kids who don’t necessarily always start or who aren’t three year players. The kids who maybe just get in there on Turkey Day against Wilmington — yet they are here for every single practice. They never miss one. I think about the dedication and the community support — the overall atmosphere of the program.”
A thankful mentor and some first-ever brownies
Norton counts Lightfoot as one of his mentors throughout his many years in Tewksbury. When they both came back to Tewksbury with Bob Aylward, it was Lightfoot who understood just how difficult it could be juggling a fulltime job with part-time coaching duties. Ernie, who was working for the Town of Tewksbury at the time, helped to make Norton’s job easier with some advice while Paul was motoring between Nashua, Billerica and Tewksbury. The pair bonded after practices, swapping stories and football strategy. Lightfoot returns the favor when it comes to figuring out who mentored who. “I learned a lot from him,” remembers Lightfoot. “Paul’s old school — but he knows what he’s doing today. I’m happy that he’s still in Tewksbury.”
And so is Tewksbury High School senior lineman Scrooc, who found himself playing some offensive line for the first time this season.
“Coach Norton is intense, he really is,” offered Scrooc. “He cares about each and every one of us like we were his own sons. It’s just really awesome to see. He knows what we can do, and he wants us to do our best every time that we go out there.”
After the big playoff victory over Winchester, Scrooc was asked about his coach and what he means to his development as a neophyte along the offensive line. And what about those brownies? Just how good are they? The young man burst out laughing before delivering his answer.
“I haven’t had them yet because I wasn’t a lineman last year, but I’ve gotten some doughnuts and Ring-Dings. Hopefully the brownies are this week.”
What more can an offensive lineman ask for? It might be time for a big batch of those brownies after another Tewksbury State Championship. Food and victory. And a solid coaching connection with a man who genuinely cares. On this Thanksgiving morning, be thankful for people like Paul Norton.