By Phil Stacey
---- — BEVERLY — All Roger Day could do was shake his head and chuckle.
Describe Brendan Flaherty to some who has never seen the mercurial Beverly High captain play before, the team’s offensive coordinator was asked.
“The best way to put it,” said Day, a veteran of 35 years coaching high school football, “is that he’s like a weapon you can use any time, against anyone — for anything you need. Anything.”
No one who has ever watched the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Flaherty ply his trade on the gridiron would ever disagree.
Flaherty will play the final game of his brilliant high school career tomorrow afternoon at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough as he and the Beverly Panthers take on Natick High School for the Division 2A Eastern Mass. Super Bowl championship.
The Panthers won’t only be looking for their second Super Bowl championship in three seasons — Flaherty had two touchdown receptions as a sophomore when the Orange-and-Black defeated Somerset for the 2010 title at Gillette — but are also aiming to finish 13-0 and thus become the greatest team in the 122-year history of Beverly High football.
“It’s truly hard to believe this is it, his last (high school) game,” said Tim Flaherty, Brendan’s father and a former Beverly High Class of 1985 gridiron star in his own right. “Brendan reminds me a lot of my late father Lenny (who played at Boston College) in that he’s a quiet, confident leader who knows what he wants at all times.”
Flaherty had perhaps the signature game of his high school career Tuesday in a 34-21 playoff semifinal triumph at Burlington High, rushing for 251 yards on just 13 carries while scoring four touchdowns. He also had a 44-yard punt return in which he broke approximately eight tackles in what Day termed “the absolute, no-question play that turned the game around for us.”
The 17-year-old Flaherty is the school’s all-time leader in rushing touchdowns (39), total touchdowns (59) and points (368). He is the only player in Beverly High’s long and storied history to run for a touchdown, throw a touchdown pass, catch a touchdown pass, return an interception for a touchdown, return a kickoff for a touchdown and return a punt for a touchdown — and he’s done it all in the same season this fall.
In a city where dominant running backs have been the program’s hallmark for virtually all of its existence, Flaherty might be the very best to ever put a Panther helmet on.
The little things
Technically listed as a fullback because of his size, he is that rare combination of player who can effectively beat up defenders between the tackles on belly and trap plays while also getting to the outside on tosses and jet sweeps with his terrific breakway speed. His penchant for breaking tackles, keeping his feet moving and anticipating the time and space he’ll have to make a particular move or cut is uncanny.
“If you’re an offensive lineman,” said fellow captain Marc Babcock, “then Brendan’s the kind of kid that you want to block for. He’s a great athlete but an even better person.”
With a team-high 1,321 on the ground this season, Flaherty will take a career total of 3,328 rushing yards on 303 carries into tomorrow’s tilt with 11-1 Natick. No player who has ever donned the Orange-and-Black comes close to his 11 yards per attempt while running the football.
“He’s exactly the kind of student-athlete we want at Beverly High,” said principal Sean Gallagher, a former star player and coach at his alma mater, Salem High. “He’s a perfect gentleman off the field — and an animal on it.”
What else can you say about him? Plenty. Day calls him “hands down the best receiver I’ve ever coached”, and while Beverly doesn’t throw often, Flaherty has still managed to haul in 14 career TD passes. His work out of the defensive secondary gets lost in the shuffle, too; Flaherty is among the team’s leading tacklers and takes immense pride in cutting down opposing ballcarriers, anticipating and picking off passes, and wrapping up a ballcarrier before stripping the football loose — as he did during Tuesday night’s semifinal win over Burlington.
Then there are the little things. “Stuff that no one sees,” Flaherty said. “If I make a block that springs one of my teammates for a 60-yard touchdown run, that’s the same to me as if I scored. I take a lot of pride in things like that. I’ll do whatever the coaches need me to do because it’s a team game.”
So what sets Flaherty apart from other physically gifted high schoolers with speed, good hands and a high football IQ? It goes back to those aforementioned little things, like employing the same work ethic during practices, film study and weight sessions as he does during the actual games. It’s knowing not only his own 1/11th on a particular play, but what everyone else (on both teams) should be doing on the same play.
“When we need big yards, Brendan almost always makes the plays,” citing the Panthers’ biggest wins this season (over Masconomet, Marblehead and Burlington) as examples of Flaherty’s best work. “He ran like a man possessed (Tuesday).”
It’s also a burning desire to not accept failure under any circumstances. “I hate to lose more than I like to win,” he admitted, and any of his teammates who have battled — and lost virtually every time to him — in video games such as Madden ‘13, FIFA ‘13, NHL ‘13 or NCAA ‘13 will attest to.
“I try my best in whatever I do,” he admitted. “I’ll keep playing and playing and playing until I get it right.”
It’s not all brawn for Flaherty, however; far from it. Sure, he comes from outstanding athletic stock; aside from his paternal grandfather and his father (who went on to run track at Northeastern), Flaherty’s mother, Annie, was a terrific Division 1 college basketball player at Canisius College in Buffalo. His three younger siblings (11th grader Mary Cate, 10th grade football teammate Bryan and 8th grader Kevin) are all terrific student-athletes in their own right.
But it’s the classroom where Flaherty truly shines. Holder of a 4.1 grade-point average and a member of the National Honor Society, he is, ironically, ranked No. 33 in his senior class — same as the number he wears on the football field. He prides himself in taking honors classes and challenging himself mentally and creatively.
“I’m a very serious student. Academics are far more important to me than anything I do on the football field — or on any field,” said Flaherty, who is mulling offers for both his football and lacrosse talents from schools such as Holy Cross, Stony Brook (for lacrosse), Brown and a handful of NESCAC institutions (where he could play both sports). “It’s absolutely academics for me first and sports second.”
A job to finish
Flaherty has become so popular in football-mad Beverly these days that his father, a lifelong resident of this coastal city who ran for mayor in the fall of 2011, jokes he’s now being referred to as “Brendan’s dad” more than anything else.
“It’s been great for our whole family,” Tim Flaherty, who recalls tossing a tiny football into his young son’s crib for their first games of catch, said.
“Brendan’s a high profile kid in the community, but you’d never know it by the way he carries himself. He’s extremely blessed as an athlete, but the way he’s handled it with humility is what’s most impressive to me. He goes about his business without needing the attention.”
Now it’s down to one game, a contest the Panthers have been dreaming about since the end of the 2011 season but haven’t dared focus on until every other challenge had been conquered. Now that they have, Flaherty and his Beverly High teammates are set on making Garden City gridiron history.
“There’s nowhere I’d rather be than at Gillette with the guys I’ve played with since second grade. There’s nothing like it,” he said.
“To be in the position we are and have that opportunity in front of us ... we can’t let it slip away. It’s time for us to finish the journey we started on a long time ago.”