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For years, Duxbury High’s football players have leaned on a three-word motto: Strength, Honor, Liberty, the last word a tribute to the daughter of a former Duxbury student who died in combat in Afghanistan in 2011. It was often shortened to a simple “SHL” in hashtags and yearbook inscriptions.

But in the affluent town on Massachusetts’ South Shore, another mantra entirely was widely used as a pregame pump-up slogan: “MFB,” for “murder f---ing b--ches.” Some even had it engraved on their commemorative state championship rings.

The phrase — which several former players acknowledged but shrugged off as merely adolescent verbal posturing — became a secret shorthand for the win-at-all-costs, leave-it-all-on-the-field style of play that helped raise Duxbury’s sports profile to one of the best in the state. The Duxbury Dragons had the will to dominate, and they often did.

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Together, the two slogans — one inspiring, the other crude and sexist — tell the contradictory tale of a celebrated football program that has long been lauded both for its undefeated seasons and volunteer work with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Dorchester but this spring drew swift condemnation for the team’s use of anti-Semitic play calls on the field. One was “Auschwitz.”

The scandal, which erupted in mid-March, rocked the scholastic sports world, making headlines across the country and evoking condemnation from the Anti-Defamation League of New England. The program’s head coach, Dave Maimaron, was fired a week and a half after the game in question. His dismissal left many residents on the leafy streets of Duxbury divided.

Some brushed off the controversy as a single mistake in a coach’s otherwise sterling career.

“Dave Maimaron is no more a hero or villain than any of us. He is, instead, a man whose heart is as big as his ego, which he has demonstrated time and time again in both his personal and professional life,” wrote Corinne Woodworth, who taught English alongside Maimaron in the 2000s.

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Others view it as an existential crisis that — paired with the recent firing of a varsity hockey coach over sexual abuse allegations — exposed a disturbing underside of Duxbury and its vaunted academic and athletic programs.

And to many who played under him or have watched the team from the sidelines, the scandal and its aftermath were the inevitable product of an inappropriate and offensive football culture that has long been overlooked in the cloistered bayside community.

 Duxbury High head coach Dave Maimaron on the sidelines against Tewksbury High during the MIAA Division 3 football semifinal at Xaverian Brothers High in 2019.
Duxbury High head coach Dave Maimaron on the sidelines against Tewksbury High during the MIAA Division 3 football semifinal at Xaverian Brothers High in 2019.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

Former players described Maimaron, 52, as a hard-charging coach who acted more like a high-schooler than a leader of high-schoolers, often using profanity and sexual references to create a cliquish and closely bonded team culture. The Globe spoke with 11 former players, many of whom defended him as a dedicated educator and upstanding member of the community. But they also acknowledged that his personality could be unprofessional, or worse, on and off the field. Most were unwilling to be named for fear of backlash from the close-knit community.

“Things that were just ridiculously inappropriate were very commonplace,” said one player who graduated in 2013. “I’d say over time that vulgarity clearly got out of hand and spilled over to create a culture where these play calls were let to slide.”

Maimaron apologized for the offensive play calls at the time of his firing, and elaborated this week in response to questions for this story. Through a spokesman, he also denied knowing that “Auschwitz” was used by players until after the game, at which time he reprimanded them for doing so.

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“Unfortunately, our long and documented history of good works has been overshadowed by the incident on March 12th and subsequent allegations of improprieties related to the program,” Maimaron wrote in a statement. “I hold myself accountable for any inappropriate and insensitive words and/or actions that have been connected to our team on my watch, whether or not I was privy to them.

“I have since been removed as football coach, a job which was a lifetime passion of mine and something I’ve put thousands of hours into, and I’ve accepted this decision. As such, I’m hoping to emphasize to my students and players that when you are in a leadership position, you take responsibility for mistakes, you learn from them and you move forward as a better person,” said Maimaron in the final lines.

To be a varsity student athlete at Duxbury is to be a local star. Students from around the state have moved to the town of nearly 16,000 for its athletics, and athletes from several sports such as lacrosse and football have been recruited to play for colleges like Harvard, Amherst, and Johns Hopkins.

Having led the Dragons to five state championships and a string of undefeated seasons, Maimaron was something of a town celebrity. On campus, his former players said they were favored for placements in classes taught by coaches, often got away with doing less work than students not on sports teams, and skirted punishment when tardy or in trouble. Like many varsity coaches at Duxbury, Maimaron also taught classes, specializing in special education.

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“When you’re in high school, especially playing for Duxbury where they take their sports so seriously, you’re kind of put on a pedestal. You feel like a king. Like a celebrity,” said one player who graduated in 2016. “I kind of wish now that I had figured out half the [expletive] I was faced with on my own. Because now I’m 22, and who am I going to run to when I need help?”

But playing on the varsity football team also meant being subject to Maimaron’s whims. Broad shouldered and charismatic, he was a coach who could inspire fierce loyalty among players but just as quickly cut them down with sharp critiques. He thought about winning constantly, former players said, and pushed his teams to do the same. He was not above shouting obscenities or ordering someone to “get that [expletive] kid off the field” if someone failed to meet his expectations.

Many players dismissed his profanity as locker room talk. But some said it showed the level of unprofessionalism that Maimaron knew he could get away with unscathed. Three former players recalled Maimaron making sexually explicit comments about players’ mothers. “Your mother was nice last night,” or the like, was a common refrain to teenagers during warm-ups. It wasn’t uncommon for the player to respond with a retort about Maimaron’s wife.

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One former player, who graduated in 2018, said Maimaron basically acted “like a 10th grade boy,” but the player explained how such behavior created an environment where “it’s very easy to go to him with problems, whether they’re related to football or not.” The player explained that the “MFB” acronym, for example, originated with players but was adopted by Maimaron as a pregame hype slogan before big games.

“We strongly condemn the use of language like that in any form or place; it is absolutely unacceptable,” said Duxbury Superintendent John Antonucci, in response to questions about the vulgar language, including the acronym. Maimaron’s spokesman, Boston public relations executive Joe Baerlein, denied that the coach was aware of or used such language.

Maimaron’s sway over players extended beyond the field, according to police records. In the fall of 2017, the state Department of Children and Families received an anonymous complaint claiming Maimaron directed some two dozen players to help a contractor winterize outdoor facilities at the nearby Hanover YMCA without water breaks or bathroom trips. Those who refused told investigators they ran the risk of being benched, according to the complaint.

School administrators told Duxbury police that Maimaron had not informed the school about the required labor, but administrators relayed that it was in exchange for a $1,000 donation to the Duxbury Gridiron Club, a nonprofit booster organization benefiting the Dragons that has taken in between $18,020 to $87,687 each year in public support — from gifts, grants, and contributions — since 2012. The purpose of the club as stated on tax documents is “to provide recreational and competitive football opportunities to student-athletes at Duxbury High School.”

School officials told the Globe that at the conclusion of the school’s investigation into the arrangement, the students were compensated for their labor and Maimaron was warned he would be disciplined if anything similar occurred again. An internal policy was instituted to prevent students from participating in any fund-raising activities where their program receives a donation in exchange for work performed.

“What became so clear is that the coaches in this town, especially those with winning records in high-profile sports, have tremendous power in the community — power over the kids, power over the parents, power over the school — and it sets them and their actions beyond reproach,” said a parent of former Duxbury football players, who asked not to be named for fear of backlash from the community.

In the aftermath of the play call controversy this spring, several residents and former players noted that the unprofessional and vulgar behavior often went unchallenged not only because it was downplayed as typical football talk but also because the Duxbury community is so close-knit and homogeneous.

The town is 97.2 percent white, 2.3 percent Asian, and 0.8 percent Black, according to 2019 Census Bureau estimates. The religious makeup of the town’s population has not been precisely documented, but there are at least 10 churches within town limits. There are no synagogues in Duxbury. The closest Islamic services are held about 23 miles away, in Brockton.

The Globe spoke with one student who was one of only a handful of Black football players at the high school from 2012 to 2016. On the field the player described being heckled by opposing fans and players with racist comments such as, “Are you lost? Brockton High is that way,” referencing a school in a majority Black city. He recalled one Duxbury student tittering: “When God made the first Black person, he said, ‘Oops, I burnt one.’ ” Another player, who graduated in 2013, confirmed that he often overheard teammates and opponents make racist comments to the few Black players while trash-talking during games.

“There is a widespread sentiment that ‘Duxbury doesn’t have a race problem,’ yet I can think of countless times when I have experienced and bore witness to bigotry,” 2012 graduate Seb Taylor, who is Jewish, wrote in a blog post days after the play call controversy became public. “This perception may stem from the fact that, in our overwhelmingly white town, it is often assumed that since nobody is there to speak out that the problem doesn’t exist.”

A 2016 graduate named Dylan, who asked to be identified only by his first name because he was worried about affecting his job prospects, denied knowing about any racist or anti-Semitic play calls during his time on the football team. He insisted Maimaron “isn’t a bad man,” but added he “wasn’t really surprised” by the recent news.

“It’s a rich white town,” he said of Duxbury. “When things like this happen it definitely tends to get pushed under the rug.”

And in that town, few teams garner as much unwavering support as Dragons football.

In August 2014, when an assistant football coach was caught on camera punching two players — one in the chest, one around his back and neck — administrators took weeks to fire him, even though they were alerted to the assaults by an anonymous e-mail sent on the night of the incident.

That coach, Harry Taylor, who worked under Maimaron for several years, told administrators that he thought the students were vandalizing a wall within the newly constructed weight room, according to the police report. (The students, it turned out, were drawing on a fogged-up window with their fingers.) But school officials waited until police inquired a week after the incident to file a DCF report. By then, video of the altercation had been automatically erased to open up storage, according to the police report.

Still, Taylor’s eventual termination inspired T-shirts emblazoned with “Free T” worn by students and team members, as well as a protest at the next school committee meeting. The town’s American Legion hosted a party “to honor and celebrate . . . a great Educator and Coach,” and a GoFundMe fund-raiser benefiting Taylor raked in thousands of dollars.

Taylor, who said he was later cleared by DCF and retained his teaching license, called the incident “a moment in time that I wish I could take back and respond more appropriately.”

“I was tremendously grateful for the outpouring of support from my students, colleagues, family, and friends,” he added. He is no longer employed by Duxbury Public Schools.

A similar town campaign has emerged in the wake of Maimaron’s firing from the football team through a website titled duxburyfordave.org. The site is full of emotional letters that present Maimaron as a caring and patient educator, in stark contrast to the crude and hotheaded coach described by several players.

“Dave Maimaron is the most ‘exceptional’ man I know in Duxbury. He’s somewhat ‘old school’, but he’s a quality person from top to bottom,” wrote Bobby Farrelly, a filmmaker and parent of Duxbury students, in one letter.

The goal of these impassioned pleas is to salvage Maimaron’s remaining role within the Duxbury school systems as a special education teacher, from which he remains on paid administrative leave as independent attorney Edward Mitnick leads the school’s investigation into the play calls. The longtime coach was not on the sidelines when the Dragons finally returned to the field for first time since the controversy erupted. It is unlikely he ever will be again.

And yet on April 15, on a misty spring night under the lights of Scituate High’s stadium, the Dragons did what they’ve always done best: win. An 86-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter buried the Sailors and Duxbury’s winning tradition continued.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the ADL’s response to the Duxbury play call controversy. The organization called for an investigation.

Duxbury coaches talked to the football team before the start of their game at Scituate on April 15, the team's first game since its season erupted in scandal and was paused on March 19.
Duxbury coaches talked to the football team before the start of their game at Scituate on April 15, the team's first game since its season erupted in scandal and was paused on March 19.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Hanna Krueger can be reached at hanna.krueger@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @hannaskrueger. Elizabeth Koh can be reached at elizabeth.koh@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @elizabethrkoh.