For as long as I could recall — or at least as long as I figured out I wasn't cut out to patrol center field for the Red Sox — I had waited for this moment.
My first assignment as an employed sportswriter.
It was September 15, 1990, the Ipswich High football season opener against Westwood.
It was also the day I met Jack Welch, a man almost 40 years my senior but someone I've had a wonderful friendship with for the past three decades.
Before we start, let's back up a step as technically, it wasn't my first sports story to appear in print.
I had done a news internship that spring at the old Beverly Times and had some bylines in the newspaper, did the early morning police beat, helped out with coverage on fires, feel-good stories and the like. But sports is what I longed to write, and thanks to the paper's sports editor (and my long time colleague), Paul Leighton, got a couple of easy assignments to whet my appetite.
Secondly, I wasn't so much 'employed' at that time as I was being given a shot to see what I could do. The late, legendary Bill Kipouras had been apprised of my desire to cover sports on the North Shore, and the most revered voice on the local athletic scene decided to give this 21-year-old, who was still attending college, a shot.
(To give you a sense of how much things have changed over the last 30 years, the first time I went into The Salem News building — the old News, located in downtown Salem at 55 Washington Street — I saw a small metal folding table with a typewriter on top and an ashtray sitting right next to it. This is where Kipouras churned out his copy, fire hazards be damned.)
I was equal parts excited and nervous as I made the bucolic drive down Route 1A towards Ipswich. Would the ticket takers really believe I was working and not just some kid looking to get in for free? Would they let me sit up in the press box? Would the stat keeping I had practiced on my own work under live game conditions? Would I be able to find a hook, a 'nut graph' and use only the most pertinent quotes to tell my story properly?
Most importantly, in my mind, would I be able to ask pertinent questions to Welch, the Tigers' venerable head coach, without sounding like I was out of my element?
Everything actually turned out fine. I had no issues getting in, or up to the press box; there were no issues chronicling the on-field action, and the game itself — Westwood 27, Ipswich 14 — went off without a hitch. My colleagues back at the News, particularly mentors (and friends to this day) Mike Grenier and Gary Larrabee, gave me the thumbs up when the finished product was done, and thus a sportswriting career was born.
And yes, everything went well when I spoke with Welch. Better than that, actually.
Starting his 27th year on the Tiger sidelines, Welch naturally wasn't pleased with the final outcome that afternoon. His team, playing a sophomore quarterback making his varsity debut, fell behind early and never recovered. There was some talent on the roster, he told me, but it would take some time for them to mature and learn nuances of Ipswich's famed but intricate Delaware Wing-T offense.
Welch proved prophetic. After dropping its first four contests, Ipswich won four of its final six games, then captured back-to-back Cape Ann League titles and Division 4B Super Bowls. The second such crown gave Welch his fifth state championship with IHS.
Over Welch's last 10 years with the Tigers, I'm guessing I covered between 70 and 80 percent of his team's games. We went from strangers to having a strong working relationship to true friendship, never losing sight of what the other's job was.
I learned more about football by speaking with him after games than I ever could have by reading books or watching pro and/or college games. He'd break down particular sequences or decisions that he and the coaching staff had made in a way that I could understand and never, ever held back. If his team played poorly or not up to expectations, he had no problem saying so. If they played well — and for a stretch between 1991-93, the Tigers went a combined 29-4 — he praised them accordingly.
We'd almost always talk postgame in an old chemistry room at Ipswich High, after Welch had gotten a postgame kiss from his beloved wife Sandy, received congratulations from any of his seven children who were in attendance that particular day, and he had addressed his team for the last time. I knew to wait in the hallway, looking at the beakers and Bunsen burners inside the classroom where I'd soon be getting another master class in High School Football 101 from the master.
Welch, who turned 88 years old earlier this week, hasn't coached football since the 21st century began. Voted the second-best high school football in North Shore history by The Salem News 10 years ago, he left with 224 wins, eight CAL championships, the aforementioned five state titles and remains a viable presence at Friday night home games for the Tigers, who now play on a beautiful turf field named after him.
Like royalty, Welch is always surrounded by well-wishers at games. With an ever-present Irish twinkle in his eye, he always has a hearty handshake waiting — no doubt a mainstay since from his days as a member of the Naval Academy's UD4 underwater demolition team, the forefathers of the modern Navy Seals. He'll talk football, of course, but is often more interested in hearing about my family, the newspaper business, and any other nugget of information I can offer up that he hasn't already heard.
He's a living legend, a treasure in the town of Ipswich, a man who was the first high school coach I ever spoke to at my first ever game.
In my mind, there's no better way to have broken into the business.
Phil Stacey is the Executive Sports Editor of The Salem News. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @PhilStacey_SN