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Rocky Nelson, inspirational football coach at Woburn High, dies at 74

Longtime Woburn football head coach Rocky Nelson died on Dec. 2.Barry Chin/Globe Staff/File

Despite not having a home and practice field for the 2005 season, head coach Rocky Nelson and his Woburn High football team persevered, winning the Division 1A Super Bowl championship.

Because of construction at the high school, the team the media called “the road warriors” would cross busy Montvale Avenue for afternoon practice at Shamrock Elementary School.

“I would go out there to stop traffic and the cars would wait patiently for the kids to cross. I think the neighborhood looked forward to that moment each day,” Mr. Nelson told the Globe that year, while joking that “I can probably get a job as a crossing guard after school now.”


Eric Skeffington, a captain of the 2005 squad, said Mr. Nelson “was the glue that held our team together. He made you feel proud to wear the uniform.”

Mr. Nelson, Woburn’s head coach from 1986 to 2016 and an inductee to the Massachusetts High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame, died Dec. 2 in his Woburn home of lung cancer. He was 74.

He had envisioned coaching football at Woburn since he was a two-way lineman on the undefeated Woburn squad that won the Northeastern Conference title in 1961, according to Tucker Quinn, a fellow cocaptain and lifelong friend.

“Rocky was big and strong and a leader, and above all a gentleman,” Quinn said.

Mr. Nelson’s teams posted a 208-116-7 record and played in three other Eastern Mass. championships. He previously served as Woburn head coach Peter Sullivan’s defensive coordinator for 16 seasons that included championships in 1975 and 1979.

“To be head coach in your home town is a tremendous thrill,” he told the Globe in 1987.

He credited Sullivan for rebuilding the program and added: “I learned a great deal about organization from Peter.”

Mr. Nelson was an assistant football coach the past two seasons for his son-in-law Duane Sigsbury, head coach at Billerica High.


“I approached him about the position and his first reaction was he’d like to think about it,” recalled Sigsbury, who formerly was Mr. Nelson’s assistant coach at Woburn. “About 25 minutes later he called me and said, ‘I’m in.’ ”

Sigsbury said Mr. Nelson “made his players feel like they could beat anybody.”

Woburn retired Mr. Nelson’s jersey number 75, which he had worn in high school, prior to his final victory, which came on Thanksgiving Day 2016 over visiting Winchester. That win gave Woburn a 6-5 winning season.

His grandchildren Quinn, Dylan, and Ali — each one wearing a number 75 jersey — helped lead the team onto the field at Edward Connolly Memorial Stadium.

After the 22-21 win his players carried Mr. Nelson on their shoulders chanting “Rocky, Rocky, Rocky.”

Mr. Nelson’s first name was Ronald. He was a sophomore in high school when assistant football coach Dick Skeffington nicknamed him Rocky, a reference to then-Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman Rocky Nelson.

Eric Skeffington, Dick’s grandson, is one of 10 family members, including eight captains, who played for Mr. Nelson.

“Coach Nelson really was a legend,” Eric said. “He was intense, but gregarious. He wouldn’t coddle you or accept excuses, but he could relate to players of every background.”

Mr. Nelson’s former assistant coach and close friend Mike McLaughlin admired him for his tenacity, upbeat personality, and loyalty.

“If you’re a parent and looking for someone for your kids to emulate,” McLaughlin said, “Rocky would be the guy because of how he cared for his own family and his football family.”


A son of Paul Nelson and the former Eleanor Lundholm, Ronald Paul Nelson was also a varsity hockey player in high school. He attended Bridgton Academy in Maine after graduating from Woburn.

He was recruited from Bridgton Academy by Old Town, Maine, native Dick MacPherson, who at the time was an assistant football coach at the University of Cincinnati. Mr. Nelson went on to play three varsity seasons at the university and earn All-Missouri Valley Conference honors at offensive tackle.

When MacPherson was head coach at the University of Massachusetts, he asked Mr. Nelson to join his staff. Mr. Nelson preferred to stay in Woburn as a coach and physical education teacher, but remained close friends with MacPherson.

Tom Kasprzak, former head football coach at Stoneham and Reading high schools, said opposing teams had to be extremely well-prepared against Woburn and Mr. Nelson “earned the greatest respect from the Middlesex League coaches.”

Mr. Nelson was formerly the league’s representative to the state football coaches association. He and Kasprzak began their coaching and teaching careers together at Woburn High in 1970, when they were co-coaches for the sophomore football team.

In 1971, Mr. Nelson married Alison Carney, who works in sales at Pro-Quip in Woburn. Her brother, Tom, and Mr. Nelson were teammates at Woburn High and Bridgton.

When Mr. Nelson’s daughter Tiffany was diagnosed with cancer in 1992 as a Woburn High freshman, he cofounded a summer football All-Star game between the Middlesex League and Merrimack Valley Conference seniors to benefit the Carole Fund, which enabled young cancer patients to attend summer camp in New Hampshire and take annual trips to Disney World.


“I found out in a hurry that the things I used to think were important were all of a sudden not very important,” Mr. Nelson recalled in a 2002 Globe interview.

Woburn’s football team inscribed Tiffany’s name on their helmets, and her father would drive her to a Boston hospital for radiation treatments, leaving at 6 a.m. and returning in time for morning classes at the high school.

“Dad was my hero,” recalled Tiffany Nelson-Boyd, who lives in Woburn and is Quinn and Ali’s mother. “He instilled in me a fighting spirit and a feeling that I could get through this, and I graduated with my class of 1996.”

For his dedication to the Carole Classic game, held until 2005, Mr. Nelson was honored as a Hero Among Us by the Boston Celtics. After his death, a billboard in his memory was posted along Route 128 by a former Woburn High student.

A service has been held for Mr. Nelson, who in addition to his wife, Alison, his daughter Tiffany, and three grandchildren leaves his other daughter, Courtney Sigsbury of Woburn.

The grandchildren loved visiting Mr. Nelson’s family room, where the framed jersey No. 75 was displayed with other memorabilia.


“I can honestly say Rocky was proud of every single second he spent at Woburn High and Billerica High,” his wife said. “When he was very sick, I asked Rocky, ‘Is there anything in life that you still want to do?’ And he told me, ‘No, I’ve had the best life.’ His glass was always half-full. He was the most positive person I have ever met.”

On the Thanksgiving morning of his last victory two years ago, Mr. Nelson gave his final pre-game pep talk while surrounded by his players in the locker room – a scene covered by WCVB-TV sports anchor Mike Lynch.

“This is not about me. It’s about you,” Mr. Nelson said in a raised, emotional voice. “You have done everything right. You have come from 2-5 to 5-5. Finish the deal. Play with great pride.”

Marvin Pave can be reached at