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Boston high schools join forces to create winning football program

By Scott Wahle Special to The Pilot
Posted: 10/28/2016

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You can see them practicing out on Jim Rice Field in the South End on weekday afternoons -- two schools, one football team: the Cathedral Panthers, a division 4 co-op team comprised of players from both Cristo Rey Boston and Cathedral high schools, joining forces for the first time ever this fall -- and winning. In fact, Cathedral has done nothing but win this fall, cruising to a 7-0 regular season record and the Catholic Central Small Championship.

"When I came here, I was told they were working on getting a team, but it didn't happen," said Cristo Rey Boston junior Jose De Los Santos. "But then Mr. Stuart came in. He's the man, making things happen."

Mr. Stuart is Joe Stuart, Cristo Rey's second year athletic director, who came to the school three years ago as a volunteer basketball coach. Stuart acknowledged a big student push for football and liked the idea, but "how many would be committed to it?" he wondered, and there were other obstacles to overcome as well, to "make things happen." Things like funding for a full-time coaching staff, equipment, and field space in the city. And not just a field, but a field with goalposts.

"So being able to piggyback on a school that already had a team, a league, and connections for field usage was key," said Stuart.

That school was Cathedral, like Cristo Rey, a private Catholic high school sharing the same college-prep mission. And they had a football team, but maybe not for much longer were it not for the co-op.

"Alone, we wouldn't have survived," said first-year head coach Paul Sobolewski. "Our numbers were getting smaller -- we finished with just 18 players last year. The co-op idea really appealed to me. It's given kids from Cristo Rey a chance to play football, and it's given the Cathedral kids a better shot at being competitive."

More than competitive -- how about undefeated? Last weekend, the Panthers completed a perfect regular season schedule with a 35-0 shut out win over Marian. How dominant is Cathedral? The Panthers have enjoyed a 25-point average margin of victory this season, outscoring their final three opponents by a combined score of 119-0. But what was it like, putting this team together? The two schools have an intense rivalry in other sports - could they play together on the football field? The coaches and athletic directors had a plan.

"We did it the right way, getting the kids involved with each other right away over the summer -- in the weight room, and with our Tuesday night passing camp," said Sobolewski. "So by the time the season began, they were acclimated to each other."

Some had played with or against each other in Pop Warner, or attended the same elementary school, but others were meeting for the first time. Currently there are 12 players from Cristo Rey who suit up for the Cathedral Panthers on Saturdays. Four of them are starters, including Jose De Los Santos.

"It was awkward playing with guys you'd never met before," said Jose, who plays tackle on both sides of the football. "But as the weeks have gone on, we've become more of a family."

"There are always stumbling blocks along the way, but these kids have bought into the program," said Sobolewski, with understatement. Cathedral has earned the second seed in the Division 4 North bracket, and this coming weekend will host a playoff game against Essex Tech, whom the Panthers defeated in a close season opener. But winning hasn't been the only dividend of this collaborative.

Joe Stuart, one of three assistant coaches for the Panthers in addition to his AD duties for Cristo Rey, says he's seeing commitment from kids he hadn't seen before. Because of the work-study program, there are practices his guys have to miss, but if a player has three unexcused absences, they have to turn in their equipment.

"And for our kids it's a big learning opportunity, because they have the same obligation with their work-study commitment. It's not OK to not show up," said Stuart.

Cristo Rey unique work-study program enables students to help pay for their tuition by working five days a month at a corporate partner's office. Jose's job is with MassCOSH (Coalition of Occupational Safety and Health). "I'm a peer leader there. We give workshops to companies who reach out to us to speak about health and safety at work sites. Juggling work, school and football has made me more focused. If I don't get the grades, I won't be able to play."

But no one is happier about the birth of football at Cristo Rey than Joe Stuart, a second team All-state football player during his high school days.

"There's something different about football...the discipline, the structure of the game. With the helmets on, everybody looks the same."