Tom Lamb has been coaching high school athletes since Richard Nixon was president.
That’s a lot of cold afternoon practices, bus rides, orange slices, rainouts, battles with the MIAA, and one-on-one conversations with fragile teens straddling that elusive line between adolescence and adulthood.
Lamb is a Massachusetts scholastic sports legend. As a varsity football coach, he won 248 games and four Super Bowls for Natick and Norwood. He has coached a future Heisman Trophy winner, been honored by four Halls of Fame, and put in time at Hoosac Valley, Northeastern, Framingham State, Boston English, and assorted Babe Ruth, Legion, and Little Leagues at multiple exits off the Mass. Pike.
So what is he doing coaching the Natick girls’ varsity softball team into the 2021 state tournament at the age of 73?
“That’s a good question,” Lamb said. “You’ve got to be a little crazy. But I do enjoy it and I really enjoy the real teaching aspects, down at the basics. I coached my granddaughter’s Little League softball team here in Natick.
“I enjoy practice and the teaching part. During the pandemic, I did nothing but my forced march and my weight training every day for eight months. Now I’m a full-time softball coach. Myself and Alex Cora have about the same hours.’'
Lamb grew up in Adams and was captain of the 1969 Holy Cross football team that made national headlines when it was forced into quarantine after a hepatitis outbreak two games into the season. After HC, Lamb knew he wanted to coach and thought about becoming a graduate assistant under Bob Blackman at the University of Illinois, but opted for high school sports. He kick-started his coaching career at Hoosac Valley in Cheshire.
He has retired a couple of times and thought he was done for good at the age of 70, but folks kept coaxing him to come back and “help out.” Lamb was “helping out” the girls’ softball program when he was suddenly asked to take over for coach Diane Whittaker, who was sidelined this season with health issues.
For Lamb, coming back to softball closes a loop. He was head coach of Natick girls’ softball back in the late 1980s before he became Barry Gallup’s offensive coordinator at Northeastern.
Now, more than 30 years later, Lamb is back on the softball sideline, and his RedHawks are 14-2, seeded second in Division 1 South as they prepare for their first tournament game Monday. Natick’s only two losses were nail-biters against Bay State Conference champion Newton North. Senior Katherine Canty is Natick’s ace hurler, while Juliana Kiley and Jess Brill pace the lineup.
When you coach in the same place this long, you wind up coaching the children of your ex-players. Maddie McCarthy, cocaptain of the 2021 RedHawks, is the daughter of Mike McCarthy, who was a tight end for Lamb at Natick in the late 1980s.
Another guy who played football for Lamb was Doug Flutie, who came to the Natick varsity as a pipsqueak sophomore in the fall of 1978.
“I talked to Doug’s father and told him we would bring him along slowly,” remembered Lamb. “That was the plan. Then the first day of practice, our assistant coach told me, ‘I don’t know who this little kid is, but he’s the best player out here.’
“Doug was about 140 pounds and we had him as a defensive back. We played Winchester in our first game and they had a great big fullback and we saw Doug go into the line against this big kid and we were thinking, ‘Oh no, we’re going to lose Flutie,’ and twice he came out of the pile with the football running in the other direction.”
Lamb stayed at Natick long enough to coach Doug’s nephew, Billy, who also went on to play at Boston College.
So what about it, coach? You’ve coached daughters of former tight ends and nephews of former Heisman winners. That’s a lot of instruction. More than a little soul sculpting. Have kids changed over the years?
“Maybe around the edges a little, but no, they’re the same,” Lamb said. “They love to compete. They love to have fun.
“Our goals are to have fun, to learn the game, to compete at a high level, to make more friends. You want to be a nasty competitor and a polite friend to that person you’re competing against. Being able to turn that on and off as a human experience is something I think is important for kids to be able to do.
“We challenge them: ‘Which do you need to get better at?’ Some are tremendous competitors but have a hard time with the kindness part. Some of them are very kind but have a hard time competing. We’re looking for both.
“Everyone’s somewhere in between. We’re trying to get them to experience those things.’'
Natick’s regular softball coach, Whittaker, expects to return to the bench next season. Will Lamb retire yet again?
“At this age, you take it one day at a time,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ll go away or be an assistant. Who knows? I’ve retired a few times, but the coaching keeps you going.”