This is a story about Mike and Mikey, both of whom played a role in Marblehead’s big win over Swampscott on Thanksgiving Day – one of them more prominent, but not necessarily more important, at least in the eyes of this observer.
Meet Mike Giardi. Chances are, if you have followed Marblehead High sports at all over the last 20 years, you already know him. Defensive coordinator in football. In his second stint as varsity boys basketball coach. Head baseball coach. Math department chair for the last 15 years.
Giardi was literally born into teaching and coaching. You could argue he was always meant to lead teams that have red as a uniform color, but you would have thought it would be the red and white of Salem and not the red and black of Marblehead. His father, Al, was a legendary head baseball and assistant football coach at Salem High for more than three decades and Mike grew up watching and playing for him.
“I watched my dad for so many years in Salem in football and baseball,” he said. “I am literally a mirror of my dad and I couldn’t be prouder.”
Knowing the elder Giardi and having watched him in action many times, he would have loved the reaction his son had when he didn’t like the body language of Marblehead quarterback Miles O’Neill after an incomplete pass in the first half.
“Tell him to get off the field,” Giardi barked from his perch on the upper level of the gymnasium overlooking Sgt. Christopher N. Piper Field. “Get him on the headset.”
Young Mr. O’Neill really had no choice but to take that call, but he was in for an earful as Giardi reminded him of the responsibilities of a quarterback, i.e. look and act like a leader at all times.
“You have to walk off the field with poise,” said Giardi. “I hold him to a high standard. Whether (the quarterback) is a captain or not, he’s a leader on the field. I get on Miles because he has so much upside. He’s got a bigger arm than anybody I’ve seen in a long time.”
O’Neill certainly looks the part and his performance on Thanksgiving backed up his coach’s praise: 11-for-14 passing for 199 yards and 3 touchdowns, 20 yards rushing and a TD. Giardi knows a little bit about the QB position, starring at Salem High and Harvard, where he was a two-time team MVP. He was also the Ivy League Baseball Player of the Year in 1994.
Giardi, who played on state championship baseball and basketball teams at Salem and played pro baseball several years, was asked after the game, how does a Salem-born, Harvard-educated guy end up as a career teacher-coach in Marblehead?
“Just lucky,” he said. “I love teaching and I love coaching. My first year teaching I started right before Sept. 11, 2001. You watch what was happening and you don’t know what to do. You see all these kids and being there and connecting with them was so important.”
Giardi is a broadcaster on Harvard football games on radio and has occasion to cross paths with friends and former teammates. And while most of them may be in a higher tax bracket, none is happier with his lot in life.
“I see friends and roommates that have done really well financially,” he said. “You come in as a teacher your first year and you’re making about $45,000 and some of them are making $45,000 a month,” he said. “It’s a little different. But when we get together, a lot of guys say they wish they could do what I’m doing.”
By now, you’re curious about the Mikey part of this equation, as well you should be. Flash back to Thanksgiving Day 2013. Like this year, the Magicians are blowing out the Big Blue. With a few minutes left, the crowd erupts in a manner you would not expect in a 51-13 rout.
“Coming into the game for Marblehead, No. 61, Mikey Simmons,” PA man Mike Lavender said, to the roar of the home crowd at Piper Field.
That’s Mikey Simmons, a senior and one of the captains for that game. It was the end of a long and loyal football career for Simmons, who started playing youth football in Marblehead as a third-grader, but had never played in a high school game before that day.
OK, senior back-up gets into the game with the score out of hand. Why all the fuss?
Mikey Simmons has autism, which, on paper says he has a disability, but if bringing a smile to the faces of others counts, he is more able than most people on the planet.
As if it couldn’t get any better, Simmons makes a tackle on his very first play. Now, you could hear the roar in Swampscott.
“Mikey is a special kid,” Marblehead Coach Jim Rudloff told me after the game. “He has been a part of our program for four years and never asked for any special consideration. He went to all the camps, fully participated in all the drills and never missed a meeting or weightlifting session. He has always been a part of everything we do.”
Brooks Tyrrell ran for 300 yards and 6 touchdowns in that game, but he was happy to not only share the spotlight, but move aside for a beloved teammate.
“Mikey brings something special to our locker room,” Tyrrell said. “He puts a smile on everyone’s face. You couldn’t meet a happier kid. He would do anything for the team. To see him be a captain meant a lot to the team. He’s been playing football his whole life, you couldn’t have had a better way to end it.”
I caught up with Simmons in the gym after the game and he was understandably thrilled.
“It was very exciting,” he said, “my first varsity game. It was a special moment for me and for my teammates.”
Not to mention those of us lucky enough to share in the experience.
Charged with chronicling the Thanksgiving game for The Daily Item and Marblehead Weekly News this year, I made my way down to the field an hour before kickoff. As I approached the far end of the field, there was Mikey Simmons, manning the gate and still smiling.
“Hi, Paul,” he greeted me, with the type of genuine enthusiasm that would warm your heart on a mid-winter day in Alaska.
Mikey told me he lives in a group home in Newton and works 18 hours a week at CVS, stocking shelves and cleaning. He attends most Boston College football games, plays flag football and basketball and is a Special Olympian. And he loves working as part of the site management at Marblehead sporting events.
I really don’t have adequate words to properly describe how happy it made me. (Where’s David Shribman when you need him?) Maybe because Mikey is only a few years older than my daughter, Martha, who also has autism. What I can say with absolute certainty is that before many people completed their turkey trots, before one second of football had been played, my Thanksgiving Day was made.
And for that I was truly thankful.