The Only Game That Matters | The Tradition of Nantucket High School Football

When you live on an island like Nantucket, it’s traditions like high school football that define local pride.

By Ian Aldrich

Oct 17 2017


Junior running back Alex Small, far left, and junior guard and defensive end Jared Funderburg troop off the field with their team at halftime during the 2016 Island Cup clash with Martha’s Vineyard.

Photo Credit : Mark Fleming

In late November, on high school football fields across New England, a unique kind of community gathering takes place as traditional rivals face off in the most recent chapter of a long-running story. These are battles of will and strength, of course, but deeper forces also collide. For those two hours it can seem as though a community’s identity hangs in the balance. Nostalgia sweeps through the stands like a comforting summer breeze, and around the scrum of tackles missed and tackles made, talk rises of what was, what is, and what should be.

These games are an expression of continuity. Boys don the uniform colors their fathers and grandfathers once did. Stories are handed down, too. At dinners, holidays, and birthdays, old plays are described as though they’re happening in real time. That fumble. That touchdown. That game-saving interception. An extension of this continuum also plays out on the field. Seniors take their final snaps, while freshmen are baptized in a ritual that their own replacements will one day inherit.

Junior running back Alex Small, far left, and junior guard and defensive end Jared Funderburg troop off the field with their team at halftime during the 2016 Island Cup clash with Martha’s Vineyard.
Junior running back Alex Small, far left, and junior guard and defensive end Jared Funderburg troop off the field with their team at halftime during the 2016 Island Cup clash with Martha’s Vineyard.
Photo Credit : Mark Fleming

On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, one such game is played between the Massachusetts islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. Theirs is a rivalry that goes back more than 60 years, and since 1978 this game has been known officially as the Island Cup. The contest has a practical importance—playoff seeding, league titles, state championship berths—but even when there isn’t as much on the line, its significance isn’t lessened.

“I think it goes without saying that most kids would rather win this than the [state] Super Bowl,” says one former Nantucket player. “This is our Super Bowl.”

For most of the 2016 season, a state championship title seemed to be in the cards for the Nantucket Whalers. As the island’s best team in more than a decade, they rolled through the year without a loss to earn the No. 1 seed in the Mayflower League. But a second-round upset loss to Seekonk in overtime crushed their state title hopes.

So it is that on a rainy Friday the Nantucket team takes to the home field for one final practice. The next morning they’ll board a chartered ferry for a two-and-a-half-hour ride to Martha’s Vineyard to play the Vineyarders to close out the season. Now the game means nothing—and, still, everything. As Led Zeppelin and AC/DC crackle from the stadium speakers, the offense runs timing patterns while the defense attacks its own drills with the intensity of a midseason practice.

At the center of the field stands head coach Brian Ryder, a Nantucket native who anchored several Island Cup–winning teams in the 1980s before playing for Tulane University and earning a short preseason stint with the New England Patriots. He wears a white sweatshirt emblazoned with “Beat MV” across the front and “It’s Called Pride, Where’s Yours?” on the back. Ryder, who still looks as if he could out-bench-press every one of his kids, eventually circles his squad at the 50-yard line.

Head coach Brian Ryder, center, leads the way as the Nantucket football contingent walks down to the ferry for the two-and-a-half-hour trip to Martha’s Vineyard.
Head coach Brian Ryder, center, leads the way as the Nantucket football contingent walks off the ferry at Martha’s Vineyard.
Photo Credit : Mark Fleming
Even with a 28–0 lead at the half, the intensity still shows in the faces of Nantucket players, from left, Bodie Sargent, team captain Cory Ryder, and Ampherny Garcia.
Photo Credit : Mark Fleming

It may be the year’s last practice, but Ryder has no interest in keeping the session light. After all, there’s history to atone for. During the first quarter century of the Island Cup’s existence, the Whalers dominated, winning 17 times. Now, the Vineyarders held a 12-game winning streak, and it had been 21 years since Martha’s Vineyard had lost on its home field to Nantucket. But 2016 had been a disappointing season for the Vineyarders. They’d had just one victory, and Ryder knew this should be Nantucket’s time.

“We’re going to break their will, aren’t we, boys?” Ryder yells, his gravelly voice echoing through the stadium.

“Yes, Coach!”

“We’re good to go, aren’t we, boys?”

“Yes, Coach!”

The field is a portrait of island continuity. There is Ryder, class of 1987, who captained his senior-year team and still speaks in reverent tones about his final Island Cup game. “On the second-to-last touchdown of the game, I spiked the ball in the end zone and got a penalty,” Ryder says, and laughs. “It was 31–0. It didn’t matter.”

His brothers played here, as did their father, an offensive lineman who went up against the Vineyard in the 1950s. In uniform today is Ryder’s son, Cory, a 6-foot-4, 300-pound senior left tackle and team captain who’s committed to play for William & Mary next season. Coaching alongside Ryder is Beau Almodobar, the junior high school’s physical education teacher and a former running back who, it rightfully could be argued, was the greatest football player the island ever produced. Next to him is Vaughan Machado, the offensive line coach who played quarter­back for Nantucket in the early 1960s. In the player circle there is sophomore Cameron Bartlett, whose dad played with Ryder. Next to him is Darian Duarte, whose father, both grandfathers, and an uncle all suited up, and Burke Hughes, whose father, Jimmy, also played. On and on it goes. A generation of boys who’d heard stories about beating the Vineyard.

The Vineyard players get their game faces on.
The Vineyard players get their game faces on.
Photo Credit : Mark Fleming

“My dad always said one of the best moments in his football career was holding up the Cup,” Cory says. “So it’s always been a big thing, and I don’t want to graduate without holding it up myself. That goes for the whole team, especially the other seniors. We’ve been playing together since the second grade. It would be such an awesome thing to do—to win the Cup and bring it back home. It puts you in a special class of people.”

* * * * *

steel-gray sky is growing lighter the next morning as the team gathers near the ferry ramp at Nantucket Harbor. Players cluster in familiar social circles while special teams coach Mark Willett offers Dramamine to anyone who needs it for the ride.

“You guys sleep OK?” he asks a pair of sophomores.

“I don’t know,” says one. “I went to bed at, like, a decent hour. Probably 10:30 or so, but I was tossing and turning like it was the night before Christmas.”

The nervousness is also evident among the parents, high school classmates, and other fans who gather around the players as the boat readies to depart, a steady stream of cars lining up to board. In all, some 500 people signed on to take the ferry, which the booster club had chartered for $10,000. Across the island, the local airport prepares for those who prefer the 15-minute flight to the Vineyard.

One of those set to fly is Vito Capizzo.

To talk about Nantucket high school football and not bring Vito Capizzo into the story is like discussing early American history and omitting George Washington. Over the course of his 45-year career as coach, the Sicilian-born Capizzo, who played on Bear Bryant’s practice squad at the University of Alabama, won 293 games and guided the team to three state championships. 

He arrived on Nantucket in the fall of 1964 and turned a dying football program into one of the state’s finest. As victories and league titles mounted, Capizzo ingrained football culture into the year-round life of the island. When mothers gave birth to baby boys at the local hospital, he gave the family a small blue football for their new son.

“You play Nantucket and you’re not just playing 11 guys on the field,” an opposing coach told Sports Illustrated in its 1996 story about the rivalry. “You’re up against mystique and tradition. You’re battling a town, a community, a whole island.”

 The teams square off in front of the Vineyard stands.
The teams square off in front of the Vineyard stands.
Photo Credit : Mark Fleming

Players and fans on either side of the rivalry fed off Capizzo’s intensity. On the eve of one game, Vineyard supporters staged a rally and bonfire for their home team; as part of the festivities they threw a casket into the flames and joked that Capizzo’s body was inside it. Later, at a game hosted by Nantucket, locals came to the hotel where Vineyard players were staying and kept the club up all night by rattling the building and whooping it up outside.

In the early 1980s, the pregame handshake had to be abandoned after the captains of the two clubs started swinging at each other. “Both teams were lined up at the 45-yard line,” recalls Machado. “And you start seeing these guys start jawing at each other. The next thing you know, they’re going at it, then both teams get into it. They stopped that tradition the next year.”

* * * * *

On the boat, the Nantucket players take their seats in a separate section of the lounge area. It’s Ryder’s attempt to keep his players away from the pregame hoopla. But it’s an impossible task. Tucked to one side is Cory Ryder and fellow senior JT Gamberoni, a short, athletic safety and running back who hopes to become a Navy SEAL. As the two sit together, talking and checking their phones, classmates and parents file past them. “You guys got ’em!” and “This is the year!” tumble at the two players, who acknowledge the support with nods and smiles.

On the other side of the lounge, not far from where the cheerleading team is going through some last-minute hair touch-ups, Jean Duarte, Jane Hardy, and Hardy’s sister, Jeanne Dooley, three of the team’s most tenured fans, sit around a table. They’re part of the multi­generational experience, too: All three were cheerleaders, and their husbands played football. Later, their sons and grandsons earned spots on the roster.

“I just want one more Cup win while I’m above the ground,” jokes Dooley, who graduated in 1949. “If we win, I’ll stay until the very end—but if we lose, I’m out of there immediately. I can’t stand to see the Vineyard prancing around with that Cup. I take it personally.

“But I’m not as bad this one,” she says, pointing across the table to her sister, a 1957 graduate, who starts laughing. “I’m serious. At a game a few years ago, we weren’t very good and the crowd is just dead. Jane gets down in front of everybody and starts yelling at them, ‘What the hell is wrong with you? Make some noise!’ They were looking at her like she was crazy. I had to tell her to calm down.”

By late morning, the Nantucket team is off the ferry and on a bus to Edgartown for a pregame brunch at the Harbor View Hotel. Coach Ryder takes a seat in front and surveys the scene around Vineyard Haven. “Damn,” he says. “I hate this place.” He looks up and sees the bus driver staring at him in the mirror.

“Well, not really,” he says. “Just in terms of football.”

The driver nods to indicate she grudgingly accepts the apology. “It’s a lot easier to get to the mainland from here than it is from your rock,” she says with a smile, then hits the accelerator. Along the road are homemade signs reminding the visitors they’re no longer on friendly turf.

“MV Will Beat Nantucket Again!” says one. “Harpoon Whalers!” reads another.

At a little before noon, fans for both clubs have begun to fill in the stands around the football field at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School in Oak Bluffs. High school kids line up in a long row behind a chain-link fence. Two girls sit on their boyfriends’ shoulders. Fire engines park behind one of the end zones, the drivers ready to blast the sirens whenever the home team scores.

One of those to walk through the entrance near the fire engines is Don Herman. A Georgia boy who married into a New England family, Herman arrived on Martha’s Vineyard in 1988, and over the next 28 years he did for local football what Capizzo had done on Nantucket. He won often and, to the great dismay of his rivals, piled up Island Cup wins. During the first decade of the 2000s, the Vineyard lost just once to Nantucket. Herman retired after the 2015 season.

The memories of Herman’s recent dominance ripple through the Vineyard side of the stands as the visiting team runs through its warm-ups. Two middle-aged women quietly assess Nantucket’s obvious size advantage.

“They look so much bigger,” says one, clutching a program.

Her friend shrugs. “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.”

The two teams keep to their own side of the field, but they steal looks at each other. There’s a brief burst of emotion when Nantucket leaves the grounds to gather one last time before kickoff by running down the Vineyard sideline. An assistant coach for the home team takes notice, and when the visitors are out of earshot he yells at his players, “Yo, what’s up with them coming down our sideline?!”

Another coach nods in agreement. “They disrespected us already!” he yells. “It’s personal now.”

By kickoff, several thousand people have arrived. A police officer looks on near the field entrance. Asked if he’s worried about any problems, he lets out a gentle laugh. “Come on,” he says. “It’s the Vineyard and Nantucket. These are two of the richest places on earth.”

* * * * *

Astrong rivalry, the kind that raises the blood pressure of all those involved, is born not out of differences but similarities. What a place is, what it represents, perhaps even the very things its residents value, are the relationship’s underpinnings and its tension points. You are like us, but there is only one of us.

So it is with Nantucket and the Vineyard. Both are islands. Both share a psychological indifference to the mainland. And, most noticeably, both are summer playgrounds for wealthy outsiders. But for the next two hours, island life is defined exclusively by those who live here year-round. The kids playing these games, the fans who come out for them, the former players who continue to show their support—these aren’t the hedge fund managers, politicians, and celebrities who are increasingly associated with these islands. This is a local event, and when you live in a place that feels as if it’s increasingly being snatched up by outsiders, you hold on tight to the things that can’t be relinquished. Like a football game.

As for the game itself? It isn’t much of one this year. After stopping the Vineyard on downs on its opening drive, Nantucket puts together a quick score built around a series of runs by featured tailback Travis Demby. At halftime, the visitors are up 28–0.

A despondent Lucas Debettencourt, senior tight end for Martha’s Vineyard, takes a knee after his team’s loss.
A despondent Lucas Debettencourt, senior tight end for Martha’s Vineyard, takes a knee after his team’s loss.
Photo Credit : Mark Fleming

By the middle of the third quarter, many of the Vineyard high school kids who’ve come to heckle and cheer have packed up and headed home. In the Vineyard bleachers, the feeling is somber. “They’re just a lot bigger than us,” complains an older fan. Next to him, a woman wearing a 1990 Vineyard jacket nods in agreement. “We’ve also had a lot of injuries,” she says. “A lot more injuries than them.”

“Oh God, this is painful,” says another as Nantucket pushes the ball across the goal line again, to go up 35–0.

Across the field, Nantucket fans are chanting, “We want the Cup! We want the Cup!” Bells clang and a sprinkling of students hold up cardboard face shots of the team’s junior quarterback, Jack Holdgate. Nearby, sisters Jane Hardy and Jeanne Dooley share a look of relief. “I’ve been texting updates to my grandson in North Carolina,” Hardy says. “He never won the Cup. He’s so excited.”

Just then, their friend Jean Duarte shows up with a container of popcorn. “I was almost knocked over because I was screaming so hard in the line,” she says, then proceeds to ring her cowbell. “Come on, Whalers!”

When the final whistle blows, the score reads 42–0, Nantucket. Jhevonne Daniels, a junior defensive tackle, takes off his helmet and runs his hands through his hair. “Man, this is the best moment of my life,” he says to nobody in particular. “I’ll never forget this.”

Scenes of celebration on the field for the Nantucket players as they end the Vineyard’s 12-year dominance of the Island Cup.
Scenes of celebration on the field for the Nantucket players as they end the Vineyard’s 12-year dominance of the Island Cup.
Photo Credit : Mark Fleming

The game over, any lingering animosity between the teams dissipates. The two sides shake hands, and all the Nantucket players give a pat on the back to Elijah Matthews, a senior receiver for the Vineyard, who sits in a golf cart nursing a severely sprained ankle.

One of the last off the field is Demby. He makes the slow walk back to the locker room. Just outside the school building, he spots Vineyard tight end Lucas Debettencourt, who is banging the dirt off his cleats. Demby sticks out a hand.

“You lookin’ at schools?” Demby asks.

“Yeah, Holy Cross and Bentley.”

“Hey, I’m looking at Bentley, too.”

“Well, all right, man,” says Debettencourt. “Good luck.”

* * * * *

The ferry ride back to Nantucket is an extended tailgating scene. While coaches and players circulate in the lounge, down in the car hold parents and fans relive the game. Food is passed around, including several multi-foot-long subs that get carved up into more manageable pieces.

As the boat begins to dock, the players position themselves on one side of the big car entrance door, while the cheerleaders stake out their ground on the opposite side and proceed to lead everybody in rounds of cheers.

“Just wait until that door opens—this place is going to go crazy,” one parent says.

Scenes of celebration back home for the Nantucket players as they end the Vineyard’s 12-year dominance of the Island Cup.
Scenes of celebration back home for the Nantucket players as they end the Vineyard’s 12-year dominance of the Island Cup.
Photo Credit : Mark Fleming

And he’s right. Waiting on the other side, the island greets the victors loudly. A fire engine sounds its siren as the players disembark, and everyone follows the truck through downtown.

“How does that feel?” Coach Ryder yells. “Let’s do it again next year!”

Players take turns holding the trophy as they make their euphoric march. At one point Demby holds the Cup in one hand and hops onto a teammate’s shoulders for the ride up Main Street. Restaurant workers and patrons pour out onto the street; some even join the parade.

It’s dark and it’s November, but today the island basks in light. The victory belongs to everyone. Nothing can take it away from them.