Sunday, July 02, 2006

Young Irvin Gets the Varsity Blues

(This article was originally published by Sports Media Watch on December 2, 2005.)

Hours before he was supposed to lead my hometown's high school into the playoffs, their first appearance in a decade, the team's QB got arrested for drunk driving and possession of marijuana. There’s a Michael Irvin joke in here somewhere, although I guarantee you this player wasn’t smiling in his mug shot. A lot of people were pissed at him, and from what little I know about the kid, he was in that group too.

I went to high school at the public high school in Merrimack, NH. My dad was always a big fan of local sports, and so even before I was a student there I went with him to football games. I was in Concord, NH, in 1987, in frigid, ice bowl, like temperatures when Merrimack finished a 10-0 season to take the state championship. It was so cold that they didn’t even sell hot chocolate. That sucks when you’re 9.

In 1995, the Merrimack Tomahawks football team went to the state championship game again, having dramatically beaten state powerhouse Pinkerton Academy in the first round of the playoffs, to face Manchester Central. This time I was 16 and in the marching band (insert appropriate “This one time at band camp…” joke here), old enough to care more about losing the game than not having hot chocolate.

This was the first year since then that Merrimack was in the playoffs, and according to my dad (who, for the purposes of this column, has apparently become a media outlet in and of himself) the aforementioned QB, Damien Tacito, was their leader. A starter since his sophomore year, he had worked hard to get the team the third seed in the post season. This was his team. They had a good coach in Rick Urda, a strong defense, and Tacito at quarterback. On November 12, Tacito was going to lead them into Eustis Field at Exeter High School, as the number three seed in the playoffs. Exeter was favored, but Merrimack had a good shot at pulling off an upset to face Bishop Guertin in the Division II championship.

At least, until Tacito stopped his car clock at 4:20 and declared happy hour in his shaggin’ wagon.

The local papers have handled the news very matter of factly. The Union Leader article was written by staff reporters – as if trying to remove any human subjective element from the reporting of the story – and had the tone of a police blotter. They contacted Urda, who only responded with a “no comment.” “No comment” was also echoed by Tacito’s mother, who was contacted by the Merrimack Journal following her son’s arrest. In some ways, this is quite a scoop for the Journal, as it’s so small it doesn’t even have a sports section.

But if nothing else, the Journal’s coverage of the arrest was better than the Nashua Telegraph’s, which didn’t cover the story at all. What else was more important that weekend? How about an article entitled “Skunks Create Stinky Pet Situation.” God bless fringe media.

Tacito was suspended for the game and Merrimack got spanked, 43-22 – a score, I’m told, that makes the game look far closer than it actually was. The Union Leader’s article on the game quoted Urda as saying that it was “an opportunity for kids who’ve played a backup role all year.” Yeah, cause that’s usually the way coaches view playoff games.

I’m not entirely sure how to take the coverage of this. Granted, even among the non-media centers of New Hampshire, Merrimack is a non-media center. The readers of the Union Leader and Nashua Telegraph certainly don’t care as much about what happens in my hometown as their hometowns. But the arrest of the quarterback of a playoff bound football team from a local high school hours before the game on charges of drunk driving and pot possession seems like it should be more newsworthy.

Shouldn’t a story like this invite questions about high school sports, teenagers as student athletes, and responsibility among youth? Or maybe a column explaining that kids who do stupid things shouldn’t be crucified for them, or even if they should be how they won’t always make stupid decisions. This is like a bizarre hypothetical situation you read in a philosophy textbook, one that invites all sorts of random questions about culture and growing up.

Having said that, though, maybe these papers are actually performing a civic duty by not writing about Damien, or at least performing a compassionate act. He probably feels terrible as it is. He probably hears at least once a day from his friends and family how badly he screwed up and how much he let the team down. The last thing he needs now is the paper telling him he let the school and town down as well.

And if that’s what those papers are doing, then fine. But they should say so. “We don’t feel it’s appropriate for this matter to drag out in front of our readers. We are choosing to give this teenager some privacy in order for him to sort his problems on his own.” That is mature and responsible journalism.

But they have to say it. Otherwise, they aren’t commenting on a fairly important local story. I would feel this way if it were the quarterback of an even smaller school from an even smaller town in the area. The kid worked for a long time to accomplish a sports goal with his team – that others in the school and town looked to with anticipation – and right before reaching that goal he self destructs. To me, that’s worth more than a passing reference in the paper. That type of story should be what local/fringe media covers.

And for those of you who are interested, Bishop Guertin went on to beat Exeter 28-7 to win the Division II state championship, and Pinkerton Academy beat Salem High 7-0. The Union Leader focused largely on Pinkerton in its articles, one about the couch and another about a linebacker/running back (Hooray for two-way football) who got a concussion in the game and came back. The Nashua Telegraph focused a great deal on BG’s victory and also the school’s chances of repeating next year.

Would these championship articles have been different if Tacito had played? Honestly, probably not. Exeter had already beaten Merrimack once this year, and the school’s team was really good. But I wish the Merrimack Tomahawks could have tried with a full arsenal. And I wish none of this had happened to Damien Tacito, if only for his sake.

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