OAK BLUFFS — The weathered sign outside the high school here lists year after year of past glory for Martha’s Vineyard football. Five Super Bowl championships and nine league titles, triumphs that created cherished memories across generations.
But this fall, the sign stands as a bittersweet reminder of what has been lost. For only the second time, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket will not renew their traditional rivalry Saturday to play for the prized Island Cup, a fall tradition that attracts thousands of fans and alumni and is a point of intense local pride.
Martha’s Vineyard reluctantly canceled the game early this month because its once powerhouse program had dwindled to just 14 varsity-level players. Some blame the fear of concussions for the decline, others point to the growing popularity of soccer. Whatever the reason, hundreds of Vineyarders will not be boarding a chartered ferry to Nantucket to root for their team, as is the custom.
For players on both sides, the cancellation is hard to accept.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said Zachary Moreis, a senior cocaptain who is the Martha’s Vineyard quarterback. “We’re two islands off the coast of Massachusetts, and one day a year we get to compete against each other.”
On Nantucket, football coach Brian Ryder said his team also took the news hard.
“They were crushed,” he said. “One of my captains spoke up and said, ‘You’re trying to tell me that I’ve been playing football since second grade and I can’t play in the Island Cup in my senior year?’ ”
“I’m not exactly 100 percent sure why this happened,” Ryder said. “We could have worked something out.”
The rivalry dates to 1953 — Nantucket leads Martha’s Vineyard, 36 to 30, with three ties — and Vineyard fans hope the cancellation does not signal the end of the tradition.
“It’s unfortunate,” said Richard White, who owns a clothing chain on the Vineyard. “There’s other sports and other options for kids.”
Martha’s Vineyard coach Ryan Kent said he had no choice. At the start of the season, his team had close to 40 players, but week after week of injuries, including concussions and broken bones, ravaged his roster. Other players were suspended for disciplinary reasons or quit as the losses piled up.
As much as the game means to both islands, Kent said that putting his overstretched team on the field against Nantucket might have exposed them to injury. Many of the players stayed on the field for both offense and defense and lost seven of nine games along the way. One of the wins came by forfeit when another team couldn’t field a full squad of 11 players.
“Way beyond winning and losing is my players’ safety,” said Kent, the first-year head coach at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, which has about 650 students. “You want me to put my players in jeopardy and roll the dice? That’s not acceptable.”
Ryder said Nantucket also is limited with only 23 varsity players, eight of whom play both offense and defense.
“I’m very disappointed,” said Ryder, who questioned whether Nantucket was being punished for canceling the game in 2009, citing financial pressures.
Vineyard officials denied the move was retaliatory. But not in dispute is the letdown for thousands of islanders who anticipate the game as the biggest sporting event of the year. A Steamship Authority ferry, chartered for about $11,000, carries hundreds of fans from one island to the other. Alumni and former players return for a homecoming that features parades, bonfires, and streets festooned with booster signs.
Vineyard cocaptain Cooper Bennett, a 135-pound senior who played wide receiver and defensive back, said he applauded the coaches for their decision, even though it deprived him of the last football game he might ever play.
“It’s one of those things, you know? You grow up playing in junior high, and you want to put on a helmet with a V on the side and go up against a helmet with a W on the side and duke it out,” said Bennett, referring to Nantucket’s nickname of Whalers.
Bennett said that a fear of concussions has discouraged some students from playing football, while others have turned to soccer instead.
That concern was echoed by Donald Herman, a native of Georgia who coached the Vineyarders for 28 seasons until 2015.
“I really feel like this concussion issue has turned a lot of moms away from football. But if you play a sport, you run a risk of being injured,” Herman said.
In 2009, the Vineyard began playing larger schools when it moved from the Mayflower League to the Eastern Athletic Conference. With the switch, Herman said, came fewer victories and a steady decline in interested players.
“I told them that if we [switched leagues], it could possibly lead to the destruction of football on the Vineyard,” Herman said. “I put my heart and soul into this program, and I would hate to see it not survive.”
Martha’s Vineyard athletic director, Mark McCarthy, said he does not intend to let that happen. As a former Vineyard quarterback who played in the Island Cup, McCarthy sees community benefits that go beyond football.
He also sees the warning signs. McCarthy has worked as an athletic trainer and began a youth sports concussion program in Connecticut, where he also served on a state concussion task force.
McCarthy said he will organize information sessions for parents concerned about football injuries and continue a rigorous safety program for the players.
Next year, the Vineyard football team is prepared to join the Cape & Islands League, which includes Nantucket and schools of similar size, with the hope that more competitive games could lead to greater participation.
“The pendulum is going to swing back,” said McCarthy, whose father was the school’s first football coach. “Our plan is we’ll have a team ready to play next year.”Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.