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A fine kickoff for the town's 300th birthday bash (Boston.com)

Posted Wednesday, November 03, 2010 by Freshman VPs
By Katrina Ballard,Globe Correspondent

Walter Cardinali and Ed Eastman can’t remember a fonder moment during their year as cocaptains of Needham High’s football team in 1952 than the Thanksgiving Day game when they defeated Wellesley High, 51 to 0.

A mischievous smile creeps across Cardinali’s face when asked how it felt to beat Needham’s biggest foe in the oldest public high school football rivalry in the country.

‘‘It was good,’’ he said with a nod.

The famous match, first played in 1882, is just one aspect of Needham football’s rich history.

High school sports have been such a part of the town’s fabric over the years that the Needham 300 Committee will kick off a yearlong celebration of the town’s tercentennial with a football game, Needham vs. Dedham, tomorrow night. The committee has also commissioned a documentary, ‘‘100 Years of Needham Football,’’ in which Cardinali, Eastman, and other old- and not-so-old-timers talk about the glories of past Rockets squads. It will be shown at 6 p.m. on a drive-in-movie-sized screen at Memorial Field, with the game to follow at 7 p.m.

For the film, alumni who played football for Needham between 1940 and the 1970s shared their stories in front of a camera set up at the Village Club on Morton Avenue last month.

‘‘Needham High football games bring the whole community together,’’ said Kathy Walker, who worked with her husband, Jamie, on the documentary. ‘‘It’s a cool thing to do on a Friday night.’’

Needham football players and cheerleaders, past and present, will be invited onto the field to be recognized tomorrow night, she said. Walker, whose four children have all played football or been cheerleaders for Needham High, said the games are a chance for all generations to gather.

And the committee’s documentary is sure to capture a span of generations. One former player featured in the film, Bob Giumetti, 70, is part of the only known father-son pair of captains in Needham history. Giumetti coached his son, Rob, on a Pop Warner team, and Giumetti Jr. went to become captain of the high school squad in 1993.

‘‘I didn’t push him into it, but he became a great athlete,’’ Giumetti Sr. said. ‘‘He has a bunch of trophies; I’m really proud of him.’’ Giumetti Jr. said having his father for a coach made him work even harder in Pop Warner, and as captain he tried to live up to his father’s accomplishments.

‘‘At one point, you just want to be the best you can be,’’ he said.

Giumetti Sr., who played from 1956 to 1958, said one of his favorite football moments was speaking as captain at the Friday night pep rallies, back when the games were played on Saturday afternoons.

‘‘We didn’t have lights then, so we’d get the team motivated on Friday night,’’ he said. ‘‘Having your own teammates looking up to you ... it’s an honor I’ll never forget as long as I live.’’

Charlie Wright, who used to work on Needham’s local-access cable TV system and made a short documentary about the Needham-Wellesley rivalry in 1987, was chosen to help with the film project. His old videotape, however, had been lost, so Wright began his research from scratch.

‘‘I thought, let’s see if we can get some old-timers to come; they know this stuff,’’ he said.

Eastman and Cardinali were witnesses to many landmarks in the team’s history during their stint playing for Needham, from 1950 to 1952. Legendary physical education teacher Mario ‘‘Mike’’ DeFazio was the team’s assistant coach, the Booster Club was formed, and, Eastman said, the team’s nickname went from the Hilltoppers to the Rockets.

Back in their day, the rivalry between Needham and Wellesley was a respectful one, said Eastman, 75, and Cardinali, 76.

They even visited the Wellesley High pep rally the night before the Big Game when it was being played in Wellesley, and spoke in front of the opposing student body.

‘‘We demonstrated what a nice relationship we had. Weren’t you taken with one of the Wellesley cheerleaders?’’ Eastman asked Cardinali, who laughed.

Cardinali, however, said the seriousness of the rivalry could be seen at every Needham practice, when DeFazio would place the names and numbers of Wellesley players on the tackling dummies.

It all began when the section of town known as West Needham broke away in 1881 to form Wellesley, said Gloria Greis, executive director of the Needham Historical Society. In November 1882, the Wellesley team’s captain, Arthur Oldam, issued a challenge to continue the East Needham-West Needham game as an intertown match, she said.

‘‘They all knew each other; it was easy to make the challenge,’’ said Wright. ‘‘And the original games were mad chaos ... it was more like rugby. They played with ringers, their older brothers who had graduated, and Wellesley even claimed once Needham was using [someone’s] father.’’

The Needham football team didn’t become official until 1904, when the high school introduced rules of academic eligibility, said Roy Johan, a current assistant coach at Needham. The name back then was the Needham Athletic Association.

The reason behind the shift from Hilltoppers to Rockets is a bit uncertain.

Johan said the nickname was changed in 1954 to recognize the military’s new Nike missile site in town. Eastman, however, said a father of one of his hockey teammates dubbed Needham’s hockey players as ‘‘Rockets’’ in 1951, and then the name was adopted by the other teams three years later.

The nickname wasn’t the only change the team has seen: Equipment has evolved, the team’s games moved from Greene’s Field to Memorial Park, and the players have gotten bigger, said Cardinali.

One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is the strength of the football program’s involvement with the community, said Ralph Toran, who played from 1958 to 1960. Toran, whose wife is a former Needham cheerleader, remembers watching the older players and looking forward to his turn on the field.

‘‘Three-quarters of these guys still live in Needham, and they continue to give their time and effort to building the community,’’ said Toran, 67. ‘‘And in these hard times, young folks pushed to get appropriations and raise money for the turf field, and that tradition is continued.’’

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