The coach looked up at his former player and smiled. Jim McNally, as he often did, had stopped by to visit John Ritchie, his old coach at Wilmington High School back in a memorable undefeated 1972 season. Jim heard that his coach and mentor over so many years wasn’t doing well, and at 97-years-old, Ritchie was coming to the end of his life. When that time approaches, people react in different ways. Ritchie was never a man of many words. His actions in helping to support so many football players over the years spoke volumes. McNally did what came naturally to him. He cared. His coach looked up at him and smiled again. He didn’t say a word. He didn’t need to. Less than a day later, John Ritchie was gone. Wilmington had lost a football coaching legend.
John Ritchie loved football. It wasn’t that long ago that he was still going to high school games. Friday nights John would be somewhere watching the Wilmington Wildcats. Saturday afternoons he would be standing behind a fence in the endzone at a Tewksbury home game with his friend, former TMHS assistant coach Ernie Lightfoot, catching up on the Redmen, Wilmington’s longstanding archrival. Ernie and John would swap old stories and catch up on the high school football news of the day. Mostly, they would just watch. If a play or player caught their attention, they might talk about that. Often it didn’t matter who was playing. John just loved watching football. When he wasn’t at the first Tewksbury game this season I asked Ernie why not? There was a sense that if John wasn’t watching football somewhere that something was wrong. McNally heard the same thing through the Wilmington football pipeline. He needed to see his coach and friend again. He wasn’t sure if it would be the last time.
“When we lived in Florida and we were going to move back to Wilmington, the first person that my dad called was John Ritchie,” remembers McNally. The McNally family wanted to be sure that Jim would be eligible to play high school football in Wilmington. Ritchie had the answers, as he so often did. He saw talent and drive in McNally that would be about much more than football. Ritchie was responsible for helping Jim to not only play high school football, but to secure a college football scholarship as well. McNally would go on to a very successful stint as a professional boxer and a distinguished career in law enforcement. It should surprise no one that Ritchie’s positions as a Wilmington Police Detective and the town’s Juvenile and Safety Officer helped to inspire McNally. His influence on people like McNally extended way beyond the football field.
John really loved talking about football, often in a surprisingly cerebral way. He would break down game film, target McNally’s strengths and weaknesses, and get back to the player. Jim went on to be an all-conference defensive end for a great (9-0) Wilmington High School team.
“John Ritchie was one of the smartest football guys that I’ve ever known. He was responsible for a lot of guys getting into college. John wasn’t too excited about our senior year, but I remember walking off the field in Andover and him telling me that we might really have something special here,” said McNally. Wilmington had something special in John Ritchie. The lives this man touched and changed covered decades.
Longtime assistant for another coaching legend
Ritchie was an assistant coach on Wilmington High School Hall of Fame coach Fred Bellissimo’s staff for 19 years through the 1960’s and well into the 1970’s. He was an offensive coordinator before anyone really understood what that title meant. John provided the bridge offensively that connected Wildcat great running backs Jack Bowen and Mike Esposito, two players with uniquely different running styles, with all-conference and Division One college football talent that Ritchie helped to develop with his creative mind-set offensively.
“He had all the intangibles, no question about it,” Ritchie would say about the running and pass catching ability of Esposito. “I coached Jack Bowen (1960-61), and he was more of a straight-ahead runner. Esposito had great hands. He could always catch the ball. He had that extra move that had us using him as a receiver. As far as I’m concerned, he was the best running back that Wilmington High School ever had.”
The Esposito-Ritchie years were a special time for Wilmington High School football. Over four seasons, the Wildcats finished 8-1, 8-1, 6-2-1 and 9-0. The coaches would often take Esposito and running mate Dick Gillis out of games when leading by wide margins early in the third quarter. “Fred was the taskmaster — the disciplinarian and the conditioning coach,” remembered Esposito. “The brains behind the operation and the tactical coach was John Ritchie. At the time, that was the best coaching combination in the area.”
Ritchie came up with the concept of getting the football to Esposito in open space. The screen pass utilized Mike’s blazing track-sprinter speed, and the Wildcats’ offense took off. John had different football concepts for that time, and he wasn’t afraid to tell Fred what he thought would send the Wildcats’ attack into overdrive.
John was the offensive guy and Fred ran the defense. John was quiet and reserved in his demeanor, while Fred wouldn’t hesitate to get right into a player’s ear hole to get his message across. It all worked perfectly. When John was named the head coach in Wilmington for the 1978 season after Bellissimo retired, it was considered a no-brainer for the town. It didn’t quite work out that way-at least at the start. John, in his characteristic low-key style, shrugged it all off when hours after he was hired the school committee decided that all coaches at the high school would need to reapply for their positions annually. Thirty-nine Wilmington High School coaching positions were officially vacated in June of 1978. Ritchie’s first job as a head coach was one of them. He wasn’t the least bit worried. He knew in his heart that he was the right man for the job.
In June of 1978, Ritchie attended a retirement celebration for Bellissimo at the Wilmington Son’s of Italy. He presented his friend with an oil painting that depicted Fred sporting his customary “eye on the prize” expression. The two men exchanged handshakes, and as usual Ritchie was quick with the quip that spoke directly to what was on everyone’s mind that night. “I’m in a unique position,” he began. “My only claim to fame is that I was Fred Bellissimo’s successor for three-and-one-half hours.”
The night was billed as “Thank-you Coach Bellissimo 1956-1977.” It wouldn’t be long before many WHS football players would be thanking the town. Ritchie would be the next head coach. Esposito visited the Town Crier offices to help lobby for John.
“Without a doubt, John Ritchie should be the coach. John’s put 20 years into Wilmington football and has helped many players attend a university,” said Esposito.
Mike admired Ritchie as not only a coach, but as a man he could count on for advice many years after high school. John stepped up after his hiring was official and stated the obvious.
“There will be some changes, but I hope to carry on the tradition that Fred established here,” said the new head coach. As they say in more than just football -“if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
John selected Jim Gillis, Ed Harrison, Bernie McKenna and later Jim Tildsley as his assistant coaches. His first captains were Phil Russo, Sal Carbone and Tom Carroll. There were only six seniors on that 1978 team. John would be in his element right away as a teacher of all things football. The Wildcats were still successful right up until fate stepped in to send John Ritchie away from the coaching sidelines.
Some very big coaching shoes to fill
Ed Harrison has never been afraid to step up when he feels that the WHS Athletic Department needs him. He’s back as the WHS Director of Athletics, and as usual, Harrison is much more than a fill-in. Ed brings a genuine respect for the task-at-hand to virtually everything he touches. That was the case back in the Fall of 1982 when the man he calls a friend felt that he couldn’t give the team the time and effort that the head football coaching job required.
The ”Three Amigos” coaching staff of Ritchie, Harrison and Tildsley were pretty much inseparable during their years coaching football in Wilmington. Soon Tom Woods would be added to the mix, and the Wildcats would have the right blend of toughness and creativity that would help the team move forward after the retirement of Bellissimo. Wilmington was getting ready to travel to Lawrence Central Catholic for the third game of the 1982 season.
“John was always the last one on the bus, and he got on and said that he wasn’t feeling well,” remembers Harrison. “He tells us that he can’t make this trip. We really didn’t know at the time what was going on. It was like — oh my God. He missed a few practices after that, and it was week-to-week. That’s how he left. He decided that he was done. After the fifth game I was named interim coach.”
It was a job that Harrison never lobbied for. Eventually he was named head coach and stayed on for several years. Much like today, he stepped up when Wilmington needed him most. It turned out well for Ed. He was an excellent football coach. But his love and respect for Ritchie far outweighed any ambition to be a head coach.
“John was from a different era,” says Harrison today. “I loved the guy. He was great. John would always come to practice during the week years after that to ask how things were going. He would always have a play. Most times it would be on a napkin. Every time he gave us something it worked. He had a great offensive mind.”
For many years Harrison and his dad would take Ritchie on high school football road trips.
“I would see him and he would ask — are you going tonight?” said Harrison, laughing at the fond memory. “Then he would say — ‘OK. Pick me up.”
Harrison knows that he was part of something very special. He learned a lot. He laughed a lot. And he won a whole lot of football games. Ritchie opened up the Wilmington offense with players like Bowen, Esposito, Gillis and in later years Jim Stewart and Gordie Fitch. John could spot football talent when he saw it — and when he saw it he knew how to utilize it.
“He helped a lot of guys back in the day,” says Harrison, almost wistfully.
One coaching legend remembers another
Bob Aylward is another coaching Hall of Famer, having led Tewksbury High School football to elite status over many seasons. Long retired and enjoying watching his son Brian coach his grandsons in Tewksbury, Aylward — who hadn’t seen Ritchie in several years — was saddened when told of his passing. Many years ago, Ritchie was largely responsible for getting Aylward a football scholarship at the University of Wyoming.
“I met John Ritchie, Lloyd Eaton (Wyoming coach) and Sal Albano at Carol’s Diner in Medford in the middle of a blizzard,” remembers Aylward. “Sal was a volunteer assistant coach at Somerville High School (where Bob played high school football) and a special education teacher at Wilmington High School. John helped Sal get a film of me to Wyoming and contacted the school. I got a scholarship to Wyoming. It was a life-changing opportunity.”
Several all-star football years later, Aylward was playing semi-pro football with the Lowell Giants before beginning his a college coaching career at Northern Colorado in 1969. Two years later Aylward was a 26-year-old assistant coach on Bellissimo’s staff at Wilmington High School. Ritchie was there to mentor and encourage Aylward again. The 1971 season was a transition year for the Wildcats’ football program, and Ritchie and Aylward were a big help in teaching young players just what being a WHS football player was all about. It wasn’t easy playing in the shadow of players like Bowen and Esposito, but the calmness and dry wit of Ritchie was a plus in helping to lead the way. Ritchie’s ability to connect with young people made an immediate impression on Aylward that he carries with him to this day.
“I loved John. He was a terrific coach. He was very astute,” says Aylward. “He had an uncanny ability to read game film quickly, and to make determinations on another team’s tendencies. He had all of the old-school stuff, but he was intellectual in football. He was one of my all-time favorites. The last time that I saw him was on his 90th birthday. They had a thing for him at the Wilmington VFW. A bunch of the guys from that great 1972 team were there.”
John Ritchie worked for many years in law enforcement, and he coached football and was very good at what at the beginning might have seemed like a passing fancy. It wasn’t. John loved football, and he would watch high school football well into his 90’s. What stands out even more than football is that Ritchie and his wife Olive raised a large extended family that includes four children, 13 grandchildren, 24 great grandchildren and two great-great grandchildren. They all had a fine example of how to live your life doing something that you love. Ritchie was a man of few words. But when he spoke you listened. And if you listened at all you walked away learning a lot about football. And life. Rest in peace coach.