A remarkable turnaround, fueled by special inspiration, lands Pope John in Super Bowl
As head football coach at his alma mater, Pope John in Everett, Paul Sobolewski and his staff often reiterate a message to the team.
“We always tell them to play for themselves and one other person in their lives that isn’t fortunate enough to be on the field playing,” Sobolewski said. “When you feel like quitting, remember that you aren’t just playing for yourself.”
For Sobolewski and his brother Bob, his longtime offensive coordinator, the advice comes from a deeply personal place.
Over the summer, the brothers lost their mother, Patricia, who had Alzheimer’s disease. They dedicated the season to her memory, and what a dedication it has been.
In Sobolewski’s first season of his second stint at Pope John, the Tigers (12-0) have rolled through the competition en route to a Division 8 Super Bowl berth, averaging 34.6 points and yielding just 6.8 points per game.
Pope John will face Central champion St. Bernard’s of Fitchburg at Gillette Stadium Saturday morning at 9.
After leading Boston Cathedral to a D8 North title last season, Sobolewski has engineered a remarkable turnaround at Pope John, which finished last season 2-6 with just 13 students on the roster after failing to field a team the previous four years.
“In May, we had four kids starting for us,” Sobolewski said, explaining that nine of the 13 returners either graduated or decided not to play.
“We basically had to build a program from scratch. It all came together so quickly. Week-by-week we started to realize that we had a special group of kids.”
“I definitely think we’ve overachieved a bit. We thought we’d be really good, but I don’t think we expected to be undefeated and going to Gillette in year one.”
It came together quickly because it was far from the first season for Sobolewski and his staff.
In 1988, Bob Sobolewski finished a four-year career as quarterback at Stonehill College. The same season, Paul Sobolewski helped Pope John to a Catholic Central League title.
The Revere natives eventually returned home and by 1996, were on Mike Cella’s staff at Revere High, with Paul serving as defensive coordinator and Bob running the offense.
“I gave [Paul] an opportunity,” said Cella, the son of legendary Revere coach Silvia Cella. “But he made his own way. He’s a great leader, a great mind, and [Bob] is an offensive genius.”
In 2003, Sobolewski retired from the Revere police department after being injured in the line of duty, and began his first stint as coach at his alma mater, leading Pope John to a 19-2 record from 2003-05 with his brother as offensive coordinator.
From 2006-11, Sobolewski was the head coach at Winchester High, where he added Cella and Pope John graduates Carlos (’04) and Ronald Alonso (’06) to his staff.
The staff stuck together throughout a tumultuous stint at Georgetown High in which they posted a 4-29 record from 2011-13. Then they found success at Boston Cathedral the past two years, leading the Panthers to a CCL title in 2016 and a D8 North title in 2017.
“For us as a staff, [Georgetown] was a turning point in our careers,” Sobolewski said. “Because we had to work so hard in those years just to not be losing 42-0 at the half. It really made us learn how to relate to the kids.”
When the opportunity arose to become head coach and athletic director at Pope John, Sobolewski jumped on it. Eight Cathedral players decided to transfer and play once again for their coach.
Senior quarterback Anthony Mejia and Ajan Nelson, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in the Catholic Central League, were amongst the most important additions. New Mission transfer Roshad John quickly found a home at Pope John.
A lightning quick 5-foot-6-inch wide receiver from Roslindale, John made such an impact at preseason practices that he was selected as captain at his new school. He credits the coaching staff for easing the transition.
“They make it so easy,” John said. “It’s like a project where they do all the work behind the scenes and we come out and just execute on the field. If you pay attention, they set you up for greatness.”
Bob Sobolewski explained how he’s adjusted his offensive system, using some of the principles of double wing out of shotgun formations with four wide receivers.
That spread attack has turned one of the few returning starters, 5-5 Jesus Rivera, into a standout.
Inside, quick-footed sophomore John Smith Howell and bruising 6-2, 230-pound split end Greg Smith have combined for 25 touchdowns and nearly 2,000 rushing yards at an average of 12.2 yards per carry.
West Roxbury transfer Jose Davila leads the team with 384 receiving yards and six touchdowns.
“Coming in, we knew we had talent,” Bob Sobolewski said. “But with a lot of kids from different areas, the unfamiliarity was the hardest thing. They’ve come together and have a great bond.”
With only five seniors on the 32-man roster, the future is bright for Pope John football.
For the first time in over a decade, the program fielded a junior varsity team, which went 6-0, and Sobolewski hopes to add several talented eighth- and ninth-graders to varsity next season.
Coaching for the future of his alma mater, his family’s legacy, and for kids throughout Greater Boston with dreams of playing college football, Sobolewski lacks not for motivation.
“Our student-athletes bring up our mom often and it’s very special,” Sobolewski said. “We love these kids and thank them every day for the blessing to coach them. They, in conjunction with our mom, have given us the will to work harder than ever.”