As the Chelmsford football team congregated around coach George Peterson early Thursday afternoon, Nik Sperounis faced his teammates, sporting an all-black beanie, a varsity jacket draped over his No. 21 jersey, and lightly cradling a sledgehammer.
After the Lions’ 16-3 defeat of Merrimack Valley Conference rival Billerica to cap an 8-3 season, Peterson praised “the heart and soul of his team” who was unable to play a single snap this season despite being penciled in at the start of the preseason as a starting linebacker.
The Chelmsford players, with ‘NS21′ written on their sleeves, roared, “This one’s for you, Nik.”
The Lions are a family. And the absence of Sperounis for his entire junior season had a profound impact on the program.
In August, at the start of preseason drills, Sperounis was not feeling well. Peterson took note too, sensing something was not right. In the Fall II season last spring, Sperounis had returned from a knee injury to play the final three games at linebacker.
His shoulder and back had become bothersome. One test, done on Cape Cod, revealed a broken collarbone. But another was inconclusive. Back in Boston, further tests revealed a stunning diagnosis: angiosarcoma, a rare cancer. He had lesions on the back of his neck, calf, collarbone, ribs, and spine.
Immediately after the Sept. 2 diagnosis, Sperounis received 20 days of radiation at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Every Wednesday he gets paclitaxel chemotherapy at the Jimmy Fund Clinic at Dana-Farber with his parents, Mary and Chuck.
Through his treatment, he dropped considerable weight, from 160 to 112 pounds. And for the most part he was restricted to a wheelchair. But in the last few weeks, Sperounis has turned the corner through treatment.
On Wednesday night, Sperounis texted Peterson, yearning to be a part of the full gameday experience on Thanksgiving. Previously, he had watched Chelmsford games from the trainer’s golf cart. But he was finally able to walk. In the past three weeks, he has put 23 pounds back on his frame, to 135.
Nik Sperounis rode the bus with his teammates to Billerica Thursday morning.
Peterson had dedicated every previous practice or game to Sperounis. Now, in a makeshift locker room, the cafeteria at Billerica High, players wept at the presence of their teammate. The family was back together.
“He’s been the focal point of our team all year,” Peterson said. “The rallying cry is: ‘You think this is tough, imagine what Nik’s going through.’ We’re fighting for more than just ourselves, we’re fighting for our teammate who would do anything to be out here with us. It’s been incredible to watch the backing from the community of Chelmsford for this young man.”
Said Sperounis: “They are like my brothers — I don’t really know how to put that into words. I love seeing everybody showing support. If anyone was going through this, we’d all be doing the same for them.”
Chris Coutu, the Lions’ defensive coordinator, gave Sperounis the sledgehammer at start of the season. Each week, a sticker with the number of the player that delivered the hardest hit in the game was placed on the handle.
Sperounis carries the sledge with pride.
Start to finish, he has been an inspiration. When the Lions trailed King Philip by five touchdowns in the Division 2 semifinals on Nov. 5, senior captain Michael Hennessey, Sperounis’s first cousin, yelled to his teammates, “Look behind us at the kid in the wheelchair. He’d do anything to be on that field with us. We’re going to fight until the end.”
A GoFundMe campaign, started by the Hennessey family, has raised $120,445 from 1,300 donations as of Friday afternoon, smashing the $50,000 goal.
“Michael has been a champion of Nik since Day One,” Mary Sperounis said.
Like Nik has been for others, a selfless leader among his peers.
“You talk about an inspirational kid. I haven’t seen any sadness, being down, from the minute he got diagnosed,” Peterson said. “You’re just in awe of the determination, grit, and toughness he shows — it’s remarkable.”
Said Mary Sperounis: “The doctors can’t believe how well he’s responding to the chemo, because he’s so young, so strong, and so healthy.”
“Some kids just have the fiber of their being that will go through adversity and trudge through it with the mind-set that I am going to get through this,” Peterson said. “Everyone loves him and he’s a wonderful kid.”
▪ In its previous three games heading into the Division 1 semifinals, the Franklin defense yielded 16 total points. Only Attleboro (19) and Wachusett (21) managed to score more than 14 points against the Panthers in their first nine games.
Springfield Central was another story. The Golden Eagles put a 60-spot on the Panthers in the semifinals. But they’re everyone’s outlier.
While King Philip became just the third team to reach the 20-point threshold against Franklin (10-1) this season, the Panthers defense enjoyed a bounce-back performance Thanksgiving morning, proving its mettle by allowing just 6 points over the final 42 minutes of a 27-20 victory.
“It was good to get back to our identity and our reality,” Franklin coach Eian Bain said. “Springfield Central can take anyone out of their comfort zone and King Philip does it in a totally different way.”
After scoring on its first two possessions, KP was forced to punt on its next three. Following a 70-yard touchdown drive to open the second half, KP’s final three possessions ended with two turnovers on downs and a fumble that Franklin senior Jonathan Martins recovered. At one point the Panthers defense was so locked in, KP believed its best option was a surprise punt on third and 24.
All told, Franklin allowed 344 yards, including 260 on the ground, but the Panthers kept KP star back Ryan Gately out of the end zone.
With 6:22 remaining in the game, KP had the ball on its 18-yard line down by seven. The Warriors started to drive, picking up a pair of first downs and reaching midfield after a 5-yard first-down run by Gately. Both Crawford Cantave and Will Astorino were held to 2-yard gains, setting up a fourth and 1 from the 46.
That’s when senior Jack Marino blitzed the A-gap, meeting Gately with a crushing tackle in the backfield for a 2-yard loss and returning the ball to Franklin’s offense with 2:25 left. A couple of Mack Gulla first downs later and the Panthers were in victory formation.
“They’re going to go on and do a lot more great things,” Bain said of his seniors. “This isn’t the end. But for this to be their last high school memory, it couldn’t be more fitting for this group of kids.”
▪ With his three touchdown passes in a 36-34 win over Stoneham, Reading junior quarterback James Murphy finished with 27 for the season and 64 for his career. In a 10-1 season for the Rockets, Murphy had at least one touchdown pass in each game.
This season he passed Drew Belcher (45 career TD passes) to become Reading’s all-time TD passing leader as well as blowing by other well-known quarterbacks in state history including Harry Agganis (48) and Tim Hasselbeck (50). His success is one reason the 6-foot-5-inch Murphy is being recruited by some of the top colleges in the country, including Notre Dame and Alabama.
▪ The 27th Thanksgiving meeting between Plymouth North and Plymouth South had even more familiarity to it with cousins P.J. Murphy and Dallas Murphy leading their respective teams in a shootout. P.J. Murphy, a 5-11 senior tailback for South, rushed for four touchdowns — including two in overtime — to lead the Panthers in a 34-32 win. Dallas Murphy — a senior quarterback for the Eagles, rushed for three scores, but was denied on a 2-point attempt in the third overtime of a thrilling finish.
Correspondents Bob Holmes, Brendan Kurie, and Nate Weitzer contributed to this story.
Cam Kerry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.