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How John Rafferty moved past his own football disappointments to turn Wakefield into a Super Bowl contender

Six teams will ride into their Thanksgiving Day matchups with unbeaten records.JIM VENABLE

John Rafferty has dealt with his share of disappointment as a player and coach.

In 1999, Rafferty was an assistant for Melrose when the Red Raiders tied Wakefield, 14-14, on Thanksgiving. With a Super Bowl berth on the line, and no tiebreakers or overtime rules in place, the MIAA flipped a coin to determine who would go to the Division 2 Super Bowl. Melrose got the wrong side of the coin, and Wakefield went on to beat Acton-Boxborough for a state title.

In 1970, Rafferty led Wakefield to a 9-0 season as a running back and linebacker, but there were no Super Bowls until 1972.


Now the former Syracuse captain has Wakefield marching to Gillette Stadium for the Division 3 Super Bowl after the first 11-0 start in school history, all thanks to a “no excuses” attitude that has helped the Warriors overcome tough odds.

“A lot of people think [Rafferty] was one of — if not the best — player ever for Wakefield,” said athletic director Brendan Kent, who was a freshman at Melrose for that infamous coin toss game.

Kent is one of five brothers to have played football at Melrose, where his father, Jim, is a 22-year assistant. His older brother, Patrick, was a senior captain in 1999.

“I’ve been here for eight years now. We hired Rafferty in 2018, and at the time our program was in a bad spot. We kind of hit rock bottom. We just weren’t very competitive. It wasn’t a good situation and a lot of the youth football players in town were opting to go to other high schools. The turnaround he’s led has been simply amazing.”

John Rafferty took over Wakefield, his alma mater, in 2017 and five years later has it playing in the Division 3 Super Bowl.Winslow Townson for The Boston Globe

After 32 seasons as an assistant for various Middlesex League programs and serving as head coach at North Andover from 2001-14, Rafferty took over a stripped-down Wakefield program, and was forced to use a few freshmen in key roles on the varsity team.


Four years later, Javin Willis, Ian Dixon, and twins Christian and Nathan Delgado are carrying the Warriors, in part, because of the experienc they gained as underclassmen.

Two weeks ago, Nathan Delgado racked up 142 rushing yards and two touchdowns, with Christian Delgado producing a key pick to facilitate a 24-14 win at third-seeded Plymouth South, advancing the No. 6 Warriors to the state semifinals.

Following a scheduling quagmire, Wakefield traveled to a debatably neutral site, Milford, for a state semifinals matchup against No. 2 North Attleborough, and pulled out a dramatic 31-24 win, as Willis completed 18 of 23 passes for 217 yards and three touchdowns to Dixon.

“On any given day it’s anyone’s game,” said Willis, a 5-foot-8-inch, 145-pound senior with offers from Curry and Springfield College. “It’s just who wants it more, and I know my team really wants it. We go into any game ready to play our hearts out.”

Aside from Willis — who is saved for offense — Wakefield only has 11 players who typically see the field.

“We don’t have any depth,” Rafferty admitted. “This is a very tight existence for them. They’re all the same kids and they’re just busting their tails.”

The shorthanded Warriors took a pair of two-hour bus rides through traffic in each of their last two playoff games, and didn’t know where they were playing in the semifinals until Tuesday, but didn’t let that distraction affect their play.


“It’s just what we do,” Rafferty said. “It’s what these kids do. They’re resilient. They’re not fazed by that stuff, distractions or anything. As a coach organizing the situation, it’s less than ideal, but I guess it goes along with our philosophy. It doesn’t make a difference where we’re going to play, or who we’re going to play, we just prepare to the best of our ability.”

Before Wakefield takes on top-seeded Milton (10-0) in the Super Bowl, the Warriors will give their best effort against Melrose on Thanksgiving in the 112th installment of that rivalry. Last November, the Warriors snapped an 11-game losing streak to Melrose, finishing with a 6-4 record that propelled them into this season.

“We’ve never looked ahead of the task at hand and our focus is on Melrose,” said Rafferty. “We only look back to understand our flaws, and then we look ahead to the next game. We try to control those principles with the kids regardless of who we’re playing, so we can put our best foot forward come game day.”

Nathan Delgado's (21) big game in the quarterfinals allowed Wakefield's postseason run to continue.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Extra points

▪ Until Friday at 1 p.m., Lowell was planning for a Red & Gray scrimmage on Thanksgiving Day morning, less than 48 hours after their traditional holiday rival, Haverhill, abruptly suspended its season because of an alleged hazing incident.

But now, the Red Raiders are enthusiastically preparing for a 10 a.m. kickoff Thursday at Cawley Stadium against Winnacunnet High School (N.H.).


“The athletic world is a very, very small world, I’m humbled,” said Lowell athletic director Dave Lezinski, who started a conversation with Winnacunnet early Friday morning to see if there was interest in setting up a game.

“This happened because of relationships [developed] over a long period of time, and we’re thankful to their administration, their coaches, and their student-athletes.

“Everyone was down in the dumps, our kids were taking it roughly, thought it was over. [Now] the entire community is very happy. It is another moment to help teach life lessons. The seniors get to experience one more game. And the freshmen, sophomores, and juniors get to experience the routine, getting up early, and preparing for a 10 a.m. game.

“It’s our [Doug] Flutie to [Gerard] Phelan moment.”

Winnacunnet (2-7) had completed its regular season Oct. 28 with a 14-13 win over Spaulding (N.H.). Lowell is 3-7.

▪ Rivers (8-1) recorded its first NEPSAC postseason victory Saturday, taking the Moose Curtis Bowl over Canterbury, 27-9.

Junior quarterback Max Stevelman had three TD passes, senior Kalyl Lindsey reeled in two of the scores, and junior Amir Lindsey hauled in one and had an interception in the end zone.

The Lindseys’ father and coach, Randdy, said succeeding with his sons on the team helps them have a deeper connection as a family.

“It was awesome,” he said. “We have the same mind-set and we can do this together. Someone has to hold you accountable and I can do that.”


The school lost by a touchdown to Pingree in the Norm Walker Bowl in 2010 — when a blocked field goal was taken back 82 yards with 11 seconds left — and fell to Dexter Southfield, 46-35, last year.

“We understood getting into the situation of building a good program, loving each other, being good human beings, it was that we wanted to understand the process and it was going to be work,” added the coach.

(Craig Larson of the Globe staff and correspondent AJ Traub contributed to this story.)