Retired Coach Revisits Passion Sparked by Football Rivalry

November 22, 2023
For many years, leading the BHS football program were Head Coach Armand Sabourin, left, and Assistant Coach Bob Petrillo. Courtesy photo

Bedford and Burlington High Schools meet Thursday morning in what should be a competitive and exciting football game featuring two dynamic, balanced teams with records of success.

The holiday also marks the 50th anniversary of the first edition of the Bedford-Concord Carlisle Thanksgiving game, which was discontinued after the 2019 contest.

There wasn’t much of an outcry when the season-ending matchups were restored to pre-1973 Concord-Lexington and Bedford-Burlington. The rationale, based on years of results, was that the C-C program was too strong for the Bucs. (Ironically, Bedford is 2-0 vs the Patriots since the Thanksgiving games switched.)

The rivalry is history, but one former member of the coaching staff savors the memories.

“The game is always special, no matter who you play, because of the fact that it’s Thanksgiving,” said retired Assistant Coach Bob Petrillo during an interview last weekend. “But nobody was more passionate about Concord-Carlisle than I was.”

Petrillo retired 20 years ago as BHS director of athletics. He is 78 now. His detailed recollection of players and plays through a 30-year career as BHS assistant football coach is infallible.

That career began in the fall of 1968, alongside a new head coach, Armand Sabourin. That season, and the next four ended with Thanksgiving match-ups against Burlington. But in 1973, driven by leagues’ realignment, the Bucs began a 47-year holiday tradition vs. Concord-Carlisle.

First of all, Petrillo stressed, “The kids were well-behaved on both teams. A lot of them knew each other. It was about bragging rights more than anything else. There was a lot of pride, but also a lot of mutual respect. It was a healthy rivalry.”

That being said, Petrillo pointed out the Thanksgiving game set the tone for most other sports throughout the year. Teams were locked into Dual County League schedules, and many times the football players would encounter the same opponents on the court, the ice, or the baseball diamond.

The rivalry was intense, Petrillo explained, because the towns were contiguous, “next door.” Of course, Burlington also borders Bedford, on the east side. But Route 3 and the surrounding commercial real estate is a psychological as well a physical separator, he said.

Through the 1970s and ’80s and into the ’90s, Petrillo related, there was a Thanksgiving Eve routine at BHS: a half-day of school followed by a walk-through on the field, a team meeting, a dinner with football alumni (“there was an enormous cake”), followed by a pep rally in the gym and a bonfire on what is now the outfield of Field E. Volunteers spent the day collecting wood pallets from Millipore and other donors and building a tower for ignition. 

Football alumni – “the old guys – were excited about being back, and they would tell the players about what happened in the past and get the kids all jacked up.”

Petrillo was a creative and demonstrative pregame motivator. Most of the stories of his techniques are not apocryphal. 

“There always had to be a gimmick,” he explained. “Emotionally, football is different from most other sports. When the kids are geared up and their whole life was the Concord game, it was really easy to get them fired up.”

During pregame meetings, Sabourin would address players and coaches, “and he was so emotional, so genuine. He would talk to the kids and I would be crying. You could hear a pin drop,” Petrillo recalled.

“Then it would be my turn and I started to talk myself into a frenzy,” he said, a little sheepishly, “I would be throwing things around and then the kids would leave and then I would clean up whatever I threw around. Sometimes I used steel wool and took the finish right off the bricks.”

He mentioned a sportswriter for “The Concord Journal” back in the ’70s who, for a few years, disparaged Bedford – in an attempt to be funny – with comments about how the Bedford Minutemen were late to the battle, or there were fast-food restaurants in town. Petrillo labeled the accounts as “inflammatory.”

So, each year the coach dispatched the team captains to purchase a couple of copies of the paper, which came out on Thanksgiving Eve. And when the team gathered in the BHS cafeteria before the pep rally, the coach would read the article, and “the place would go nutty.” 

Then one year Petrillo discovered on Wednesday morning that the writer was no longer on the “Journal” staff.  So, there was no gimmick for the pregame meeting. But there was always the next morning.

Petrillo said he bought some spray paint – the Patriot colors, maroon and gold – and told the police he would be at the high school late Wednesday, after the festivities. Then he painted some messages on the exterior walls – “Concord Is Number 1” and “Bedford Stinks.” When the players started arriving at 7 a.m., the assistant coach was waiting for them, “jumping up and down, foaming at the mouth,” blaming the vandalism on the arch-rivals.

Coach Sabourin arrived and quietly asked about the maroon and gold paint on his assistant’s fingers. “I don’t know if the kids noticed it,” Petrillo said. He added, “Do you know how many hours it took me to get that paint off after the game?”

One Thanksgiving, in a legendary move, Petrillo said he head-butted the team bus as it was preparing to leave for Concord. The following Monday he got a call from Superintendent of Schools Joseph Buckley. “He wanted to know who threw rocks at the bus.”

All season, “there were traditions and nutty things going on,” Petrillo said. “But there was more geared toward Concord because of the rivalry.”

“The kids played for Armand because they didn’t want to disappoint him,” Petrillo recounted. Sabourin retired after the 1999 season, and Petrillo said “it was different for me. Armand was like my father. You can know all the X’s and O’s, but if you cannot communicate with the kids and have them believe, respect, and trust you, you are not going to be successful. The X’s and O’s come after that.”

A physical education teacher throughout his BHS career, Petrillo said when coaches of interscholastic sports are also on the BHS faculty, “you see the kids at different times during the day. It’s like a big family.”

He has vivid memories of what seemed like the entire local culture mobilizing for the Thanksgiving football game, with spectators from the towns and Hanscom filling the bleachers and standing around the field circumference, five or six deep. “It was the thing to do,” he explained. “It was special.”

Petrillo retired as BHS athletic director in 2003. But he still found a way to be involved in football. As recently as a few years ago, Petrillo was active in helping coach youth football in Pelham, NH, a perennial high school state championship program. 

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