Some people take the high school football rivalry between Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket seriously.
James Sullivan, the author of “Island Cup,’’ is one of those people, which is why his tongue does not seem altogether lodged in his cheek when he quotes people who liken Martha’s Vineyard vs. Nantucket to “Army-Navy, Ohio State-Michigan, and Georgia-Florida,” as well as “Harvard-Yale without the Ivy” and “USC-UCLA without the roses.”
ISLAND CUP: Two Teams, Twelve Miles of Ocean, and Fifty Years of Football Rivalry
“Island Cup’’ dissects the rivalry through the lens of the 2010 season, breaking into sections by month, starting with preseason workouts in August and running through to the Big Game in November. Along the way, Sullivan treats us to bits of island history and lots of glimpses of the sometimes troubled life stories of key players.
Like lots of neighbors, the people on the two islands sometimes cooperate, but the shared sense of competitiveness is undeniable. Proximity helps account for the rivalry, as does a half century’s worth of games. At bottom each feels superior to the other for reasons that may seem mysterious to mainlanders who regard Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket as similar summer playgrounds for the rich.
It is not, however, the scions of the wealthy vacation residents who play this game, but the “polyglot’’ sons of the island, descended from English and Irish fishermen, native Wampanoags, immigrants from the Azores, Cape Verde, and Brazil, and black families from a historic summer enclave on Martha’s Vineyard. Far from the monied, leisure crowd, these players represent the working people who reside on the islands year-round.
Sullivan regards many of the characters involved in the story as singular. Take Adaaro Blackhawk, a heavyset sophomore newcomer who had been home-schooled by his grandparents after his mother was tragically killed in a bridge collapse; or Randall Jette, a senior speedster who “took a little pride in his schoolwork’’ and had drawn the attention of recruiters; or Donald Herman, the dedicated, Georgia-raised Vineyard coach.
But perhaps the most colorful of all is Vito Capizzo, legendary coach of Nantucket. Over one stretch of 20 seasons under Capizzo, Nantucket went 177-34-1, sometimes with a male enrollment of only about 100.
Readers will regard Capizzo as either eccentric or insufferable, depending on their politics and how seriously they take the old fellow, who, according to Sullivan, “once strolled the halls of the high school like a potentate, blatantly smoking his cherry tobacco from a pipe, as no other school figure would dare.” He also delivered “his Archie Bunker commentaries with a twinkle in his eye” — commentaries such as “[t]hose soul brothers could run like deer.”
According to Sullivan, football under Vito, like football under Bear Bryant, “was much, much more than just a game.” Football in general and the Island Cup in particular “brought the community together, just as everyone was preparing to hunker down for another blustery winter by the ocean.”
Fair enough, and important enough, too, for those who remain on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket after the summer people have departed for one of their other homes. Many of the islanders will recognize themselves and their heroes in the extensive play-by-play Sullivan provides. High school football is certainly among the factors that can unite and energize a community, especially, as Sullivan has it, a community “fairly desperate for activity.” Some readers may come away from “Island Cup’’ wishing they’d grown up on Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket. Others will no doubt be thankful that they’ve only encountered Capizzo in a book.