This Thanksgiving was bittersweet, but one coach Mark Bettencourt called a “great day to be a Tanner.”
As the Class of 2016 played in their final game, a 52-0 romping of Saugus, a sense of both celebration and triumph mixed with tears unfurled upon the field. “Don’t be crying out here,” Bettencourt jokingly belted out.
The Tanners had capped off their unexpected 6-5 season with the win they were aiming for, but afterwards took the field for photos and goodbyes that for many would be their last.
"I certainly remember my first sophomore practice. Watching the class of 2014 and then 2015 play. I'm still surprised this is my last game honestly" Ugonna Okananwa remarked.
The seniors will leave as the first class since 2005 to have a winning record in their three varsity seasons (17-16). They were along for the entire ride; beginning with the disgrace of the 0-11 rock-bottom season, on to the first taste of winning in 2013, to the illustrious 2014 team that put Peabody back on the map, before leading this 2015 squad that set out to prove Peabody football is a program once again.
Call it what you want; the Doug Santos era, the Rebirth, or Bettencourt’s Return but the mission has been accomplished.
The responsibility fell on Santos, John Villani, Cam Cordaro, and Frank Falco. All four were important contributors to last year’s team and knew very well what it stood for. As captains they would be pressed with passing those virtues on to this group.
It wasn’t smooth, a 1-3 start casted doubt, and they were dealing with three very different groups of players. There was younger guys stepping up into expanded roles, those coming back after years off, and even those joining for the first time intrigued by where the team was going.
Thanksgiving’s result and the entire season screamed loud and clear across the state that the message was well-received by the new Tanners. The overwhelming victory not only handed Peabody their second straight winning season, but provided a fitting wrap for both the current and future leaders.
Wearing brand new powder-blue uniforms that the seniors will get to keep, Doug led the way to seal the sweet deal on what may be the greatest career in Peabody High history. He rushed for 3, 15, and 76 yard touchdowns in the first half before adding 30 and 65 yard scores in the third quarter.
Santos tore through defenders, showed off his increased elusiveness, and utilized his all-around IQ for the game that have made him one of the best players in Massachusetts for the second straight year. After his final rush to end the third quarter that put Peabody up 38-0 he was pulled by his mentor Coach Bettencourt for the final time.
He stood with 20 rushes for 285 yards to go with his five scores, one last curtain call. The game improbably gave him 2,000 yards for the second straight season, landing him the two highest totals in Peabody history, while adding 25 total touchdowns for 152 points.
“I had the urge to get back to 2,000” he stated. “I was just trying to run as hard as I can and its hard when you’re on a field like this. But we did it…our team played well, we played hard, and I don’t think we’re going to have any regrets.”
Now that all is said and done, Doug rushed for a career record 4,856 yards and tied Frank Candela’s record 64 touchdowns. The memories he leaves behind are numerous; two playoff wins, countless brilliant single-game performances like his 357 yard playoff effort against Malden, and the manner with which he inspired the Tanners football program back to relevancy.
Santos has a strong case to be declared the greatest Peabody football player ever.
“He definitely works the hardest and he definitely is the best, he deserves every minute of that glory,” Jake Doherty said.
The team had plenty of praise for their leader and dominant performer, while Santos outlined the simple fact that he wanted to be great so he had to go out and grasp it at all costs. A motto that can be greatly applied to any facet of life:
“I hope that my hard work and the things that I do during the offseason are what people are going to think about” he said, speaking on his legacy. “When you want to be great, you can’t just expect to be great, you have to put in the work. I knew that, I grasped that. I worked my butt off to get where I am, I’m very thankful for that and I thank God for everything he’s done for me.”
Beyond the fitting end to the legendary career of Santos, a defensive unit showed once again how important they were to this team’s enormous success. The front line was a dominant group all year long and towards the end became a menace to anyone who stood in front of them.
The unit was Peabody's best in terms of points-allowed in ten years (16.9 points allowed per game).
Hunter Josselyn, Cam Powers, Geordan Siewe, Jared Andy, Frank Falco, Eric DeMayo, and Jake Doherty played with such cohesion and bruising effciciency all season that throwing senior Jay Luna-Gil back into the mix almost made it unfair. The group will largely be broken up due to 5 of them graduating, but they terrorized offenses to the point where they looked like the true x-factor of this team.
The group was of utmost importance to Doug on the offensive end, as all their quick stops provided more opportunities for him to put up points, “As soon as I got to 2,000 I thanked our defense…if they don’t play defense I don’t get the ball. And they helped get the ball so many times back to the offense. It was incredible, I thanked them for everything they’ve done.”
Luna-Gil, who missed the first eight games of his final season with massive shoulder surgery, made the triumphant Thanksgiving return that he said he wanted to all the way back to the summer. Pressuring the QB all game, he was able to scoop up a 4th quarter fumble and bring it back to the house 60 yards to make it 45-0.
“I don’t even know how to explain, its just memorizing” he stated. “Its great and it sucks at the same time, this is the last time fighting with these guys. But you know, lots of great things ahead for everybody hopefully.”
Luna-Gil's fumble return for a TD.
Captain and defensive signal-caller Falco recovered a fumble in the final quarter as well. He’ll end his career with quite possibly the most underrated impact of all those departing. He wasn’t always making plays, but every snap he was on the field he was putting players around him in the right position to do so against every offense.
His father, coach Falco, got the game ball as he too will see his time with this team come to an end.
Santos had high praise for him in the aftermath:
“Tremendous job, he’s a coach that you can’t replace. He’s outgoing. When we had our summer workouts, he’d do the workouts with us. He’s a crazy dude that has a passion for the game and loves the game just like us, he helps us love the game. He pushes us to our limit.”
The game finally came to its conclusion with Okananwa grabbing the third and final Saugus fumble of the fourth quarter and bringing it back himself to make it 52-0.
Over 3 years he saw time in just about every rushing role for the Tanners, serving as Santos’ main complement in the backfield and a unique playmaker in his own right. He also showed to be a valuable defensive back when the team needed him as well.
Coach Bettencourt said without any doubt that if Okananwa was a primary rusher, he’d be a 1,000 yard rusher.
Santos and Okananwa shared a special bond at RB
“Its a beautiful way to end a career if you ask me. 52-0 is actually payback for what they did to me my freshman year” he stated with his usual enthusiasm.
“It meant a lot, I mean I bleed light blue, of course, navy blue, and white. I love these guys. There’s nothing else I can say…we brought the lessons back, we established the foundation that winning was a must.”
While the seniors made their triumphant exit, maybe more important was the fact that the juniors and sophomores behind them were displaying how prepared they are to assume their own leadership roles into the new era where Peabody can reload year after year.
Doherty recovered an early fumble and intercepted Saugus’ QB. DeMayo, who according to Santos is already a superstar, continued to constantly produce at fullback and make plays at linebacker. Meanwhile QB Matt D’Amato turned two dead plays into gains on the ground, one of which he broke through the middle of the line and went ahead of the whole defense for a 60 yard touchdown in the first half.
Those three look to be the centerpieces of the 2016 Tanners and will take on the role of teaching that team the values of this year's squad.
“The thing is I’ve been telling them all year that this is how captains lead. Think about things that are happening now so when it comes time they know how to lead. So I’ve been trying to help them out…telling them we’re all tough kids and we don’t give up easy. Think that’s what’s really going to push them” Santos stated on passing the torch.
“This team just keeps rebuilding, everybody wants to keep coming and winning, the whole program is just going to keep getting better” Doherty said.
DeMayo added, “I’ve learned that the only way to win a game is to win as a unit…it mean something, wearing these colors with Tanners across the jersey.”
That’s what having a program is all about, it was Bettencourt’s goal to make Peabody one again and this year proved that it is. Everything important about the 2014 Tanners was successfully passed on to this team through coaches and leaders, it took time, but ended in another successful season.
Next year will be different. Santos did so many important things for Peabody on and off the field and not having his explosiveness to lean on will be a difficult transition. Nevertheless, there are so many sophomores and juniors who now have experience playing and struggling through difficult situations where adjustments need to be made.
Also, as Santos said, he rarely played on the defensive side of the ball in his career yet they were still able to become incredibly effective groups.
The Class of 2015 now walks off into the sunset, they can pat themselves on the back knowing that they not only helped bring Peabody football back, but they kept it going.
A variety of seniors from last year’s team were back for the game, such as Ivan Tran and Emilio Cantone, and while they were stunned at the team’s performance this year they all said the same thing. Seeing the success pass on made what they did feel even more worthwhile.
Put simply, the Tanners' Class of 2015 made playing for Peabody mean something again:
“It means a lot more than people think, its not about the team as much as it is the friendships and the bond we’ve made. Its crazy” Cam Cordaro said.
“Leave everything out on the field, you never want to leave the field you never want to come off the field knowing that you didn’t go your hardest that play. And lead, all you have to do is lead. They’ll be great next year.”