The heartfelt story of Massachusetts’s winningest football coach
You’d think breaking the record for high school football wins would be Ken LaChapelle’s proudest achievement. You’d be wrong.
This story is featured in the Nov. 16 issue of the Magazine.
ABOUT 14 YEARS AGO, as Steve Falconer drove along a quiet two-lane road past a sleepy pond on the edge of the small Central Massachusetts mill town of Northbridge, a steel scoreboard caught his eye. Weatherworn maroon, it sat closer to the street than to the football field it watched over, but beyond that it was no different from any other scoreboard he’d seen.
On the side that faced Linwood Avenue, Falconer could see a greeting: “Home of the Rams.”
He chuckled. Cute sign, he thought. “I remember snickering at it. I knew nothing about Northbridge.” There were stories in that scoreboard, but all he knew about Northbridge was that his wife was from there.
Falconer didn’t know about the Northbridge football coach who had spent his life building a small but storied program in this town nestled in the Blackstone River Valley. He had no idea that the coach was stacking up wins like bricks, in an operation that celebrated teamwork even more than touchdowns, or that after every game, win or lose, a gaggle of the coach’s family engulfed him on the field like bees to honey. And Falconer certainly couldn’t know that this town’s coach would eventually, on a mild Halloween evening way out in the fall of 2014, win a football game that would give him more victories — 324 — than any other coach in the history of Massachusetts high school football, a count that stretches back to 1862.
All Steve Falconer did know was this: He was tired of his job at a Boston bank and was interested in coaching. And that’s how he ended up calling Northbridge coach Ken LaChapelle, who, it so happened, had an opening on his staff. Oh, and one more thing Falconer didn’t know when he made that call: That program he was about to join, it wasn’t just a football team. It was a family.
NORTHBRIDGE HAS ABOUT 16,000 people today. When LaChapelle was growing up, 68 of the town’s residents were his cousins. His father, Norman, was one of 19 kids. A strong work ethic was in his family’s makeup. His mother, Alfreda, worked different jobs as a secretary. For 16 years, Norman had what was called a garbage contract.
“He literally picked up the swill,” Ken LaChapelle says. ‘That’s what we did. That’s what I did in high school for my summer job. He drove trucks for a while. He was a hustler, like all my uncles . . . . If there was one thing the family all has — my father, my uncles, my aunts — they were all hard workers. Just hard, plain workers. We were valley people.”
No one in his family went to college. LaChapelle was expected to change that. In 1966, his senior year of high school, he was accepted to the University of Massachusetts and the University of Miami, and all of a sudden this 18-year-old kid from the valley faced a weighty decision.
“I thought I was going to be a big dude and say that UMass is too close, I want to go farther away.” Then it came time to actually get on a plane and fly to what may as well have been a foreign country. “I was throwing up on my way to the airport, for crying out loud. I didn’t even want to go.”
After one semester in Coral Gables, the pull of Northbridge was too hard to resist. “Thanksgiving and Christmas couldn’t come quick enough for me,” he remembers.
His family was there. So was his childhood sweetheart, Claire, who had been a football cheerleader to his football captain. He transferred to Quinsigamond Community College and then to UMass, and when he graduated in 1970, he made a beeline back to Northbridge, where he became a physical-education teacher in the public schools. He and Claire married in 1969, and they had five children, three boys (Trevor, Jess, and Jared) and two girls (Tessa and Kyle). Claire would work as a speech pathologist in both hospital and public school settings. When LaChapelle became the head football coach at Northbridge High in 1976, it was a family affair. All three sons played for him. His older daughter was on the cheerleading squad.
“Fall was a special time for the whole family,” he says, “and we just embraced it.” But winning never became more important than bonding, for his players or for his family.
“My kids for years didn’t think I had a job,” he says. “They’d see me go to teach my phys-ed classes and I’d always play with my kids and be active with them. So, as far as they were concerned, that can’t be a job. Again, I never thought I had a job. I got paid every two weeks, but that’s how the whole ball of wax started. As a family, we were just content to be here. We had no place to go. If the world around me ended and we just had this little valley, I’d be happy.”
LACHAPELLE IS 66. He’s been coaching football at Northbridge for two-thirds of his life. He’s a widower now; Claire passed away three years ago after battling non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. They had been married for 42 years. She was the thread that held the fabric of Northbridge football together. When they had dessert parties for the team at the LaChapelle house, she baked the brownies.
Now all of their children live within 4 miles of him. And he has 18 grandchildren, and every Friday night, they swarm him at the end of the Northbridge games.
On the other end of the life cycle, his own father just turned 90 and his mother is 86, but barring extreme weather, they still come to see him coach. They take their lawn chairs and sit in the same corner by the end zone. “It’s one of those things where Friday nights are a pretty damn special night,” LaChapelle says. “Win or lose, they’re all on the field after, and they’re all on the field buzzing around after. They could care less whether we won or lost. It really is a family thing.”
And then, of course, there is his other family. The players.
In his 39 years of coaching Northbridge, he’s had 36 winning seasons, including 10 Super Bowl titles and two undefeated seasons, in 1989 and 2002. Winning became routine.
But the first victory didn’t come immediately. When LaChapelle took over as head coach, replacing head coach Joe Jackman, he was a 28-year-old running a self-imposed DIY operation. He was coaching offense, defense, and special teams. It was the only way he knew.
“I even sprinted with the kids after,” he says. “That’s part of the learning process.”
But there were questions from game one about whether he was in over his head. His first night on the sidelines, he was nervous. He was facing Ayer High School, which had a machine at running back by the name of Joe Morris, a two-sport all-state athlete who went on to start for four years at Syracuse University, where he set the school’s all-time rushing record, passing Jim Brown and Larry Csonka, and to star in the NFL with the New York Giants. Coming out of his first game with a 0-0 tie felt like a victory, and the Northbridge Rams went 4-5-1 that season. “There were people who were questioning whether they made the right decision,” LaChapelle says.
The next season, Morris was back to terrorize the Rams, leading Ayer to a 26-0 win. But then Northbridge ripped off nine straight wins and started a streak of five straight nine-win seasons. LaChapelle began to build the framework for something bigger — not just a team, but a program, a family. He developed an intramural flag football program on Saturday mornings. His assistant coaches ran it, but his players coached it. “It was a throwing and catching league, and it fed right in to what we wanted to do.”
It was also the start of a football culture in town. “We got to the point where kids couldn’t wait to play for Northbridge,” LaChapelle says.
And then there are the water boys. Every Friday, they rush the field to get water bottles to the huddle between plays. They’re on the sideline having water fights in grass-stained jeans and maroon hoodies that hang down to their knees, often oblivious to the game, caught up in their own world of pitch, catch, and tag. They occupy the space like bite-sized versions of the football team itself. It’s been that way for nearly four decades. “We have more water boys than we have water bottles,” Northbridge athletic director Allan Richards jokes.
Those water boys struck Falconer, who worked his way up from being LaChapelle’s eighth-grade football coach to his lead assistant. “Everybody wants to be a water boy,” Falconer says. “And you know what’s funny? As we get closer and closer to the playoffs, [we get] more and more water boys.”
Before he was the school’s dean of students, John Susienka was one of the original water boys. Before he was a receiver at Harvard, Danny Brown was a water boy. All three of LaChapelle’s sons were water boys. His grandson Koby Schofer is now the team’s starting quarterback, but before that he was fetching bottles. “I remember Koby as a little kid being a water boy,” Falconer says, “and I was yelling at him during timeouts to come get the water.”
The water boys have become as much a part of the town’s culture as the football games, a reflection of the town’s spirit and socioeconomic mix.
“Our diversity out here is not ethnic or racial. It’s socioeconomic,” says Northbridge High School principal Michael Gauthier. “For a town this size, we have three sections of subsidized housing, which is very unusual. But we have million-dollar homes. You go some places in town, you go up on Hill Street, you have million-dollar homes there. Then we have homeless people.”
What Gauthier sees in LaChapelle is an ability to relate to both. “Kenny has the ability to talk to that gentleman right there who went to Tufts and potentially West Point,” he says, “and the kid who’s going straight into the manufacturing business or going into the military.”
THE WINS OUTNUMBERED the losses, but one loss stung especially hard, in 1996, on the 100th anniversary of Northbridge football. There were fireworks planned to commemorate the game against rival Uxbridge, and at halftime Northbridge was sitting on a 14-6 lead. The Rams never scored again, and LaChapelle had to swallow a 25-14 loss.
“He always curses at me when anyone brings up the 100th-year game,” Richards says. That’s because Richards’s father, the legendary Ernie Richards, was Uxbridge’s head coach at the time, and he was the rare opponent who had figured out how to beat LaChapelle regularly, including three straight once. Allan was on his dad’s staff then, and in 1998, he would become head coach at Uxbridge for one season.
A few years later, LaChapelle and Allan Richards met up on LaChapelle’s front porch. LaChapelle prides himself on being “predictably unpredictable.” He was running an offense that spread the ball around to multiple players and involved more passing than most high schools. He never saw a trick play he didn’t like. It turned out, however, that his unpredictability had become predictable. “My kids can tell you what you’re running just by your motions,” Richards told LaChapelle. “Just by your formations.”
It steamed LaChapelle to hear it, but he couldn’t help being impressed by Richards. LaChapelle was never a fan of watching film of opponents. But Richards was a big believer in film and scouting, and he looked hard at Northbridge. “We would go and scout everything we could,” Richards says. “We saw all their games, you know what I mean? So we had film, and it didn’t change.”
LaChapelle had no intention of altering his ways, but he also didn’t like the idea of this guy figuring him out, so he told him: “All right. Well, I’m going to keep you with me. You’ve got to keep me out of my tendencies.”
Richards became a coach on LaChapelle’s staff and then, in 2006, Northbridge High’s athletic director. “By the way,” he jokes, “it hasn’t worked. He still has tendencies.”
BUT TO SAY LaChapelle hasn’t changed with the times isn’t true. Remember how he hated watching video? Now Northbridge, like most schools, uses sophisticated software that allows the coaches to break down video by play type, down, distance, and defense as well as a seemingly endless list of other details. “It spits out this data that’s just mind-blowing,” Falconer says. “We used to get sent out with a clipboard.”
LaChapelle had even balked at the idea of e-mail when the school system introduced it. “He called it f-mail,” Richards remembers.
He finally got a smartphone, and he’s gone from holding it like an alien baby to embracing all the ways he can use it to study opponents. “People laugh because I have an iPhone,” LaChapelle says. “And I’ve never been into that. But the last couple years I have been, because it’s so easy to go on, type in my password, and I’m watching film.”
Watching all that film can also be sobering, a reminder of the violence of football. There’s more awareness about the physical risks of the game and the long-term impact it will likely have on players’ bodies. During one midweek practice in late October, LaChapelle points out all of his players with injury issues just two days before a game.
There’s the linebacker with chronic knee problems. “He’s probably the kind of kid when he’s 30 he’s going to have to have knee replacement,” LaChapelle says. “He’s a tough-ass kid.” LaChapelle gives him a day off every week. Two if needed.
There’s the tailback with back problems. He missed half the game the previous week. “So he’s dealing with it now; he’s going to a chiropractor.”
Back injuries are one thing. Head injuries, and their long-term effects, are the plague football coaches can no longer ignore. Every year, the Department of Public Health requires that every team report the number of players who sustained concussions during the year. Richards does the impact testing, which goes down a list of memory, visual, and motor exercises to determine a base line for how the brain is functioning.
“That’s a serious subject,” Richards says. “But it’s one that when we played — even five years ago — my son was playing. I know he had a couple. I know he did. Pull him out, sit him down. But we didn’t have impact testing then, all this documentation we’ve got to do.”
There’s also a heightened awareness of hazing, how the players treat one another and drawing a line between teasing and bullying. Just a year ago, LaChapelle’s team got caught up in a hazing incident, when a freshman who lost a “sled pad” race to another freshman took a sip as punishment from a jug filled with water and urine. The police investigated but no charges were filed.
“I’m not saying we’re perfect here, but I’ve never been afraid to handle situations when they’ve come up,” LaChapelle says. “It’s one of those situations, you don’t hide anything. That’s the worst thing you can try to do.”
Gauthier says that LaChapelle handled the hazing incident from the team standpoint but that there was a separate disciplinary process through the school administration.
“It’s a humbling thing,” Gauthier says of dealing with hazing. “Very rarely are there discipline concerns with his kids. Very rarely is there disrespect. He takes care of those things immediately. People know before you even step foot on this field, he’s the boss and that there’s respect.”
The player who sipped the liquid chose to leave the team, but Gauthier insists the incident stuck with the rest of the team and that their coach handled it appropriately. “He doesn’t play favorites, but he’s fair and honest, and once you’re a player for him, you’re a friend for life.”
MORE THAN ANYTHING, as he approached the record win, LaChapelle found himself reflecting on his coaching lifetime. About six months ago, he bumped into a former player inside a Walmart. They shared small talk, and then the player told him he was going to be a grandfather. “It just hit me,” LaChapelle recalls. Time suddenly felt tangible. His coaching lifetime had spanned generations.
“You don’t start coaching thinking you’re going to get into a milestone like this,” LaChapelle says a few days before the game in which he would break the state record. “It just sort of happens. I can’t imagine anyone saying, ‘I’m going to start coaching in 1970 and I’m not leaving until I get 324 wins.’ It just doesn’t work that way. It just sort of happens. You have fun doing what you’re doing. It’s never work, and before you know it, I’m in my 39th year doing this.”
It was that way for the man he would eventually surpass. Armond Colombo carved out a legacy at Brockton High School for the same reasons that LaChapelle did in Northbridge. It was his hometown. It’s where he played high school football. His wife is the sister of Brockton boxing legend Rocky Marciano.
“I love coaching football and I consider myself, like Lou Gehrig said, the luckiest man alive, because I did something that I love to do on every single day that I did it,” Colombo says. “And I’m sure than Ken feels the same way.”
The two men also share the same feeling that they’d rather not be remembered for the wins but for their impact on their community. It’s why, even after health issues forced him to retire in 2003, Colombo still walks the sidelines as a volunteer assistant working alongside his son Peter, who took the reins as head coach when he left. “I still try to help as much as I can,” Armond Colombo says. “I’m there every day. I’m still enjoying the game. I love the game. I love winning, and I hate losing. It’s still there.”
He also knows that if he hadn’t won as much as he did at Brockton, he wouldn’t have lasted as long as he did. “I might’ve either got fired or I might’ve decided this is no way to live,” Colombo says.
The thought has hit LaChapelle. “Maybe I’m incapable of coaching somewhere else,” he says.
A decade ago, Northbridge was facing a budget crisis, and there was talk about killing the football program to save money. There was a job opening a town over in Uxbridge. The superintendent there always wondered how LaChapelle made everything work in Northbridge, and the two spoke. “It never got serious,” LaChapelle says. “But it was one of those things where we got frustrated. They’re going to tell us we’re not going to have football?”
It never got to that point, but if it had, another option could have been college coaching. He’s been asked more than a few times over four decades about coaching at the college level, but it’s not his style. “I don’t want to recruit some 17-year-old and he’s the reason I have a job or don’t have a job,” he says. “You know, content, back to being content. I don’t need that. I don’t need the notoriety. Didn’t make any difference. No desire to go anywhere else. No need to.”
That doesn’t mean the thought of just walking away from the game hasn’t crossed his mind. Koby, his grandson quarterback, will be a senior next season, and for the record-setting 324th win on October 31, a 61-21 playoff win over Clinton, he scored five touchdowns. LaChapelle’s assistant coaches help the program run seamlessly. “I feel I’m doing less and less coaching than I’ve ever done before because of the people around me,” he says. “Everyone’s got a role on the team, and I think they’re happy.”
Winning breeds happiness, he admits. But it’s more than that. “I think what we’ve accomplished here is sort of a testament, not to me . . . but it’s the kid who played, it’s the families who were a part of this town. Everyone’s had a hand in this.”
No one more than Falconer in recent years. LaChapelle assumes Falconer is itching to be a head coach. Offense is still LaChapelle’s strength, and he gives Falconer complete autonomy with the defense. But Falconer can’t imagine walking the sidelines without the man he’s coached with since the day he spotted that worn maroon scoreboard. He also didn’t want LaChapelle to break the state record for wins and retire. “This is not a record that just comes around,” Falconer says. “Bury it. I don’t want it to be 10, I don’t want it to be 20. We’ll do what we have to do to keep him around.”
Plus, the assistant coach says, his own sons are both water boys now. “They’re going to play football here. I’m hoping coach sticks around. I want Ken to coach my kids.”