Some look back on time in high school with fondness. Others prefer not to look back at all. Sean Stellato decided to put his memories — both good and bad — into a recently released book.
“No Backing Down” chronicles the 1994 Salem High School football team, focusing on the 11-day teachers’ strike during which Ken Perrone continued to coach the team, with the approval of his union but in defiance of the district’s superintendent, Ed Curtin.
“Something always brought me back to this moment in my life, which I thought was very therapeutic,” Stellato said. “I had a lot of empathy with my former teammates, my coaches, and I kind of developed [an understanding] of what my coach did.
“He put his whole career — 37 years of tenure — [at risk] to coach these kids. And he didn’t have to do that. He could have taken a step back, coached another 20 years, and easily been the all-time-winningest coach in Massachusetts high school history.”
Stellato, 38, who is now a sports agent with several NFL clients, was a junior that year. As the team’s quarterback, he led the Witches to an undefeated regular season — including dramatic last-play wins in the final three games — before losing to Whitman-Hanson Regional in the Super Bowl, 13-0.
Perrone was fired at the end of the season, bringing to an end his 22-year coaching career at Salem High, where he compiled a record of 151-62-8.
The dispute between Perrone and Curtin became so volatile at the time that the superintendent, in a TV interview, compared the coach with cult leader Jim Jones. Stellato, who now lives in Danvers, likened the events of that fall to the Salem witch trials more than three centuries ago.
‘I went back to all the spots where the big things happened — the fields, the high school, my grandmother’s grave. A lot of healing.’
Stellato, who went on to play football at Marist College and in the Arena Football League, believes the book will be cathartic for others, as well as himself.
“I went back to all the spots where the big things happened — the fields, the high school, my grandmother’s grave. A lot of healing,” he said. “And really getting a mental picture of each character and each person I interviewed. It was extremely therapeutic. A lot of closure. And I really thought it was extremely therapeutic for the characters that I interviewed and I chose to make main characters in the story.”
Perrone, now 79, is one of those characters.
“I think it was a story that had to be told,” said Perrone, who also coached baseball at Salem State for 30 years before retiring in 2012. “Sean did a great job, not only telling about the inside things that happened with the football program, but with the strike itself. He did an awful lot of research with School Committee people, and got an awful lot of information. When I read the book, it’s so detailed, what happened during the strike, the meetings of the School Committee people, things that we didn’t really know what was happening on the other side of the door.”
It’s not Stellato’s first book. He wrote “4th and Long, The Odds: My Journey” in 2005, which he described as a memoir for his family. “No Backing Down,” six years in the making, is for his former team and the city of Salem, he said.
“And now being a father, in my mid-30s, and finally really understanding what was at stake . . . I wanted to write the story very objectively, being older, not as an angry 17-year-old.”
Stellato recently hosted a book release party that served as a reunion of sorts for that ’94 team.
“Personally it was very painful when everything happened,” said Manuel De Pena, who was a junior wide receiver on that team. “I kind of put it behind me. But I didn’t realize how much I actually needed to remember it, too, because it was very special.”
Several of Stellato’s NFL clients attended the book launch. Players he represents include Philadelphia Eagle Bryan Braman; New England Patriots Kyle Arrington and Joe Vellano; Jacksonville Jaguar Marcus Whitfield; and Tampa Bay Buccaneer Andrew DePaola.
Stellato knows not everyone will be happy with the book. He tried to get Curtin’s side, but said the former superintendent declined to participate (Curtin could not be reached for comment for this story). Stellato is now willing to let the public judge.
“Yeah, there will definitely be people who will knock it, I’m sure,” he said. “All I know is I try to live by the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you want done unto yourself. I know I have a high level of ethics and integrity. I’ll never jeopardize credibility or reputation for anything. And if people want to knock it, they can knock it.
“I think it is a major compelling story. We’re not stopping till we get to the big screen, and will let America and the avid readers do what they do best.”