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On high school football

Memories collide with father’s pride in playoffs

Andover High School quarterback C.J. Scarpa stiff-arms Central Catholic's Santino Brancato during the fourth quarter of their Thanksgiving Day matchup.

Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Andover High School quarterback C.J. Scarpa stiff-arms Central Catholic's Santino Brancato during the fourth quarter of their Thanksgiving Day matchup.

One of my favorite moments growing up was the pomp of Little League opening day, when we would ring the diamond at South School in Andover, get introduced to the crowd, and later enjoy a postgame hamburger that Mr. Curtin, the local McDonald’s owner, would cook at a field-side griddle.

In those days, it was OK to be on the Yankees, especially when your dad was coach and your teammates included your older brother, Gary, and friends like Bobby Heidt, Glenn McIntyre, and Chris Doherty.

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Jack Johnson and assistant coach Dick Heidt took the preseason draft seriously, long before anybody heard of fantasy football, and our team always battled it out against the dreaded Red Sox.

The scariest moment was going up to bat against Jim Wetterberg, a manly 12-year-old on the White Sox who could throw pure heat and intimidated you as he stood on the mound with his bleach-blond hair flowing from his cap.

The fun continued into high school, especially playing football for the Andover Golden Warriors.

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Heidt and McIntyre were teammates, as were Jon Kent (now a military lawyer), Steve Stabile (a firefighter), Tom O’Brien (brother of Penn State coach Bill O’Brien), and cocaptain Michael Chiklis (star of “The Shield” and, currently, “Vegas”).

We were coached by the legendary Dick Collins, a taskmaster who once threw down his clipboard in a rage and sent us off to run hills after punter Brett Pearson hit him on the head with a booted ball.

And I can still remember one of our assistant coaches, Dick Bourdelais, reaching under his shirt and thumping his chest repeatedly with his fist as he accused us — during a halftime speech against our Thanksgiving rival, Central Catholic — of lacking heart.

I played three more seasons in college, even reaching the Hall of Fame at my alma mater, Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis. That award, rest assured, was due to my freshman membership on a team that reached the Division 3 semifinals, not personal accomplishment.

That said, I didn’t think anything could surpass those experiences — until my own sons began playing sports.

From the moment Patrick started playing soccer and baseball to the final buzzer of Kelley’s last wrestling match, my wife and I got more joy watching them compete than we ever did playing or, in her case, being in the dance troupe.

Soccer started as a rugby-like scrum, with a pack of kids moving in a cluster until the ball popped out and the group momentarily dispersed. By the time Kelley was a senior and squad cocaptain, the game had taken on a speed, precision, and feistiness that had me cheering like a spectator at the Coliseum.

Patrick gravitated toward running, and over time earned a cross-country cocaptaincy that made the trips to Franklin Field, the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center, and New York’s Van Cortlandt Park all the more rewarding.

Both boys reached those accomplishments not at Andover High, but St. John’s Prep in Danvers.

I bring that up because my worlds collide Tuesday night as Andover takes on St. John’s in a state Division 1 high school football semifinal. The winner gets to play in the Super Bowl Saturday at Gillette Stadium.

One one level, I’m torn between my own alma mater and that of my sons. My personal allegiance is clear, but I retain an affinity for the Prep, a school whose scholarship matches its athletic prowess.

Patrick never would have become the man he is today without his teachers, for sure, but also without his coaches, including three-season running gurus Ray Carey and John Boyle.

And I know Kelley gained a level of personal confidence from spending four years wrestling under the great Manny Costa. He also picked up a paycheck in the summers landscaping with assistant coach Kevin Cote.

As a parent, I would never relinquish the hours we spent — especially for four-team wrestling meets — with parents like the Hardings and the Grabowskis, talking about everything from raising cows and cooking quiche to remembering a lost son.

But I felt a renewed connection to Andover High on Thanksgiving, as I stood in a crowd of more than 6,000 as the Warriors played the Central Raiders for the 40th time.

The teams entered the game with identical 9-1 records, and the stakes were clear: a spot in the division semifinals against a still-to-be determined opponent.

They traded scores in the first half, with Central opening with a field goal, Andover responding with a touchdown, and the Raiders answering with one of their own.

It was 10-7 in favor of Central when Andover quarterback C.J. Scarpa hit receiver Cam Farnham for a 77-year touchdown. That pushed the score to 14-10 as the teams entered the locker room for their own Thanksgiving halftime speeches.

When they emerged, they returned to their sidelines, stretching and warming up for the second half.

It was then that I spotted Scarpa’s father, Carmen, dashing down from atop the stadium and calling over his son for a private chat over the fence separating the fans from the players.

Carmen Scarpa played quarterback for Andover himself, but I always remember the underclassman more for his fearless leadership of an unbeaten Warriors basketball team that had a March 1981 championship game against Cambridge Rindge & Latin — at the time led by future NBA center Patrick Ewing.

The clash between the teams was immortalized in a photo showing the 5-foot-6-inch Scarpa dwarfed by Ewing after the scrappy guard pump-faked the 7-footer into a full leap. Scarpa scored on a lefthanded hook, but Cambridge ended up winning, 59-50.

Scarpa went on to play varsity basketball at Harvard before graduating from Harvard Business School and building a successful investment career.

C.J. Scarpa has the same pluck, headmanning the Andover High squad after, as head coach E.J. Perry described it, being “the B-team quarterback in eighth grade.”

Following the conversation with his dad, C.J. Scarpa helped the Warriors rebound from a Central field goal with a late third-quarter touchdown drive. It culminated with a 9-yard run by the quarterback, followed by a 2-point conversion pass from Scarpa to receiver Jake Flaherty.

Central scored with a minute to play but then failed on an extra-point kick, leaving Andover with a 22-19 lead. When the Warriors recovered an onside kick, victory was assured and the crowd erupted.

A day later, I learned that Andover’s next opponent was St. John’s Prep — a surprise for me and my older son as we shared turkey leftovers.

In the ensuing days, the matchup inspired a raft of memories and the commitment to make the trip tonight to Cawley Stadium in Lowell for the showdown between the key actors in my childhood and adult memories.

I’m sure to find Carmen Scarpa in his traditional spot — high atop the 50-yard line, ensuring that he can see all that will unfold on the field below. C.J.’s mom, Jeannie, will be close by.

We now work out each morning at the same gym, and I can personally attest that Scarpa can still compete at a high level, whether on the gridiron or the court.

But as a fellow father of two boys, I can also say that none of that compares with the joy Scarpa will experience Tuesday night — watching his own son play one more game.

Glen Johnson can be reached at johnson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.
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