In a pre-season poll late in the summer of 1983, 9 of the 10 Middlesex League football coaches chose Watertown as the team to beat. Care to guess which coach voted for another squad? Upon its entrance into the powerful league in 1970, only Woburn had posted more wins on the gridiron than the Red Raiders, so it wasn’t unusual for John Barbati’s talented unit to garner so much acclamation. In fact, the Hall of Fame Coach called this lineup “one of the most unselfish I have ever coached. The whole team loved the game of football, and they were incredibly self-motivated.” The main reason for being picked as the favorite was the high probability of a stifling Red Raider defense featuring 5 returning starters and led by co-captains Joe Connors at linebacker, and Billy Gagnon at safety. While the adage that “defense wins championships” is proven time and again, it certainly didn’t hurt to have a dynamic offense as well. With multi-talented Denny Flori at quarterback, and the running back committee of Kevin McMahon, Steve Paine, and John Soares, Barbati’s well-known style of run, run, and run again suited this team perfectly. In a late August scrimmage, perennial Division 1 powerhouse St. John’s Prep of Danvers found out the hard way just how talented these contenders could be, reportedly asking to end the tilt earlier than originally planned. The Raiders pounded the Eagles that day, but this was nothing that senior Tim Connors didn’t expect. He recalled that “we were a family as far back as the famed East-West football game when we were freshmen. That game was brutal, and we were enemies for the day, but we respected each other. After that game we just knew we’d be a good by the time we were seniors.”
September went exactly as planned. First up was a non-league 33-8 throttling of Bay State League contender Dedham. Then came a 7-0-league victory over Stoneham featuring a Gagnon pick-six as the only score of the day. A 26-6 win over Lexington was next, and finally a 13-7 nail biter against bitter rival Woburn. October roared in with a scoring differential of 79-21, and the groundwork had been set for the heart of the merciless schedule that was the Middlesex League. First, the month that brings us Halloween brought many a fright to the football teams from Wakefield and Winchester. The Warriors went down 33-0 and the Sachems 22-0, as the Raiders improved to 6-0 on the year with 2 dominating and imposing shut outs. The script had become redundant. The offense picked up the pace, and the defense continued to show why they were the best in the league. The box scores would read something like this: TD Paine, 2 yard run, PAT, Flori kick. TD Paine, 3 yard run, PAT, Paine pass to Connors. TD McMahon, 6 yard run, PAT, Flori kick. McMahon – 16 carries for 114 yards. Paine 16 carries for 108 yards. Total yards: 255-78. As with all good teams, new names began to pop up in the wrap ups, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Seniors Scott Mitchell, John Leneghan and Mark Messina, along with juniors Dennis Murphy and Nick Faggas contributed game changing plays. Linebackers Tim and Joe Connors (no relation) became the most dominant middle men in the league, punishing and suffocating any runner who dared try run up the A or B gap. The Boston Globe had them ranked at #2 in Division 1. But the offense had one minor flaw that occasionally reared its ugly head, and that was turnovers. Barbati told his team “we’ve got a smart and aggressive team that’s full of leaders, but we have to stop turning the ball over. We’ve been keeping our defense on the field for too long.” Unfortunately, his thoughts proved true in not one, but two straight contests, dashing any hopes of a possible undefeated season and a trip to the Super Bowl. A heartbreaking, last minute 12-7 loss to Melrose in game 7, and then an eerily similar and agonizing 9-6 loss to Reading in week 8 devastated the team. But “we were a big family,” Joe Connors explained. “All families face adversity, and this was ours. We remembered everything we had accomplished together, like Captain’s practices, flag tag, camp, and even the weight room in the clubhouse. With wins against Burlington and Belmont, we would still be League champs. We still had an opportunity, and nothing was going to stop us.”
Game 9 on the schedule was not supposed to be against Burlington on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. But that is when the Middlesex League re-scheduled the game after the Red Devils were a no show for the regularly scheduled game weeks before at Victory Field. There’s two sides to every story. One side will tell you “we will play in any weather, including a tremendous downpour. It’s perfect Red Raider football weather.” The other side will tell you “we told you we weren’t coming if the rain was too heavy.” The ref’s were present, and they declared the game a 1-0 forfeit. But the following week, the League intervened and made the teams play 5 days before Turkey Day, with a possible title on the line. So in front of a huge Red Raider crowd, and many coaches and players from their Middlesex League foes, play they did. In hindsight, maybe Burlington should have taken the 1-0 score. After 3 minutes it was 20-0. It was 40-0 at the half. The Red Raiders scored on every offensive possession in the 1st half. Messina added a 36-yard interception for a TD. It was total annihilation, Barbati style. “I came into the locker room before the game,” he told us. “I just knew. I knew I didn’t have to say anything. So I left the room and said nothing. This team had exceptional leadership, and played with tremendous heart and soul.” The 40-16 demolition left the Raiders with a 6-2-league record, and a share of 1st place. 7-2 would give them the elusive title, the school’s first since 1977. Only Belmont, with a 4-4-1 record, stood in their way.
On Thanksgiving morning, the rain held off, but Victory field was overflowing with fans from both towns who were four and five deep around the old white fence, surrounding the soggy playing field. But those conditions didn’t stop the hometown heroes from firing on all cylinders. Flori had 3 TD passes and 158 yards in the air, while the multi-headed ground attack gained 182 yards in the 34-7 white washing that wasn’t even that close. The defense had 4 interceptions as Gagnon and Jack Fucci had one apiece, while Messina added 2. After scores came in from around the league, at about 12:30pm, it was official. Coach Barbati and his 1983 team were Middlesex League Champs. Post-season accolades piled in. Joe Connors was named a Globe All-Scholastic, while John Leneghan was named a Herald All-Scholastic. Flori, Fucci, Paine, and Bob Cahill were named League all-stars on offense, while Connors, Gagnon, Leneghan and Mitchell garnered recognition on the defensive side of the ball. 181 points scored on offense, and only 71 allowed on defense. The 1983 Middlesex League champs were truly a well-rounded juggernaut.