The Great Ghosts of 1962

Back in 1962 Westford Academy played its home football games at what is now known as the Abbot School, Depot Street. The field did not have lights, a public address system or an electronic scoreboard. Most fans stood along the sidelines because the field had few bleachers.

The games were played on Saturday afternoons and when you went to a game, it seemed that half the town was in attendance.   People would put away their chores on Saturday afternoons and head to the Academy for an afternoon of football. Fans would usually park in the school parking lot and walk up the granite steps that led onto the field.
You always knew when the football team was coming by the sound of the players’ cleats scraping as they ran across the parking lot. Then the band would start playing and everyone knew that the Grey Ghosts were on the way. The team would then spread out on the field and the co-captains would lead the squad in calisthenics.

Greg Peterson, Coach Steele and Don Parent

The Ghosts of 1962 were coached by Chet Steele and Pete Graham and co-captained by Donnie “Gunner”  Parent and Greg Peterson. They played a nine game schedule plus a mini game in the Greater Lowell Jamboree. Westford had won six games and lost two in 1961 and was looking forward to another good season.

 In 1962, high schools were placed into classes. Classes were decided by the size of the school. That is, the largest schools were in Class A and the smallest schools were in Class D. Since Westford was a small town in those days, they were in Class D.

 Championships were decided by a point system. Defeating a Class A team was worth 10 points, B schools eight, C squads six, and D teams garnered four points.  Thus, it was helpful for a high school in a lower class to defeat a team in a higher grade. There was no playoff system in 1962.

 Against this backdrop the Grey Ghosts opened their ’62 season at the Greater Lowell Jamboree against defending Lowell Suburban champion (now called the Merrimack Valley Conference),  Wilmington. Played at Cawley Stadium in Lowell, the Jamborees were an afternoon of 4 or 5 one quarter mini games between area schools.

 The Ghosts made the most of their Jamboree appearance and defeated the Wildcats 8-0 on a closing minute touchdown by Donnie Parent. Westford featured a strong running game and a tough defense. These features would be the hallmark of the 1962 season.

 Buoyed by their victory over Class C Wilmington, Westford Academy prepared for its regular season home opener against rival Lunenburg. Coach Steele was very wary of this team since W.A. had narrowly defeated the Blue Knights 26-22 on a late Grey Ghost touchdown the past season.

 But the game against Lunenburg would not be as close as the 1961 contest. Before a crowd of nearly 1,000 fans, Westford defeated the Blue Knights 20-6 in a sloppy game that featured nine fumbles.  Again, W. A. ‘s running game was paced by Don Parent and Steve Striebel who led the way for the Grey Ghosts.

After its convincing win over Lunenburg, Westford hoped to continue its winning ways against North Middlesex Regional High School. On paper, the game against the Patriots looked like an easy victory since North Middlesex was in its first year of varsity football and had lost its opening game to Hudson Catholic. 

 But because of rain the game could not take place on Saturday and had to be played on Monday afternoon. Rain would plague Westford during the 1962 season. It would be the first of four games that would be postponed by inclement weather. The weather would be one of the very few negative aspects of the entire season.

However, the postponement did not help North Middlesex as the visiting Ghosts routed them 46-0. Donnie Parent had another tremendous game rushing for an impressive 180 yards on just nine carries. The Westford running game was again the key as the Academy racked up 426 yards on the ground.

Although Westford had been impressive in their victories over Lunenburg and North Middlesex, both wins had come against Class D schools, and the Grey Ghosts would need victories over teams in higher classes to have a chance of winning the Class D title.

 W.A. would not have to wait long to get a crack at a Class C team since its next game was against Class C Burlington. Although Burlington was not having a good season, they were still a much larger school than Westford and could not be taken lightly.

During the weekend of the scheduled game against Burlington the area was hit by a Northeaster that dumped nine inches of rain on the Merrimack Valley. In fact, the storm was so severe that the game could not be played until Tuesday afternoon.

However, the record-breaking storm had negligible effect on Coach Steele’s team as it rolled over Burlington 36-8. Parent, who was emerging as one of the area’s best running backs again led the Ghosts scoring four touchdowns. Steve Striebel also scored twice as W.A. completely dominated Burlington and improved its record to 3-0.

With a victory over a Class C team under its belt, The Ghosts prepared for a game against Tewksbury who was another Class C team from the tough Lowell Suburban Conference. Unlike Burlington, Tewksbury had a winning record of two wins and one loss and featured one of the region’s top ball carriers in Connie Barry.

A victory over Tewksbury High School would not only give the Westford Academy Grey Ghosts six more valuable points toward a Class D championship, but it would also give them some much deserved respect from area football fans. 

For once the weather cooperated and the Ghosts were able to host Tewksbury on Saturday afternoon. Connie Barry lived up to his billing by gaining 98 yards on 14 carries. But “Gunner” Parent did the same when he rushed for 137 yards and Steve Striebel scored on a 10-yard run as W.A. edged Tewksbury 6-0.

Although Parent and Striebel were tremendous against Tewksbury, the real story of the game was the Westford defense. Led by Ernie Smith, Bob Herrmannn and Andy Tzikopoulas the Ghosts were able to thwart each Tewksbury scoring threat and kept one of the area’s top running backs out of the end zone and posted their second shutout of the season. 

However, the victory over Tewksbury had not come without a cost. Parent was injured in the game and would not play in the upcoming tilt against St. Bernard of Fitchburg. Although St. Bernard only sported a 2 and 2 record, playing the much larger school on the road without Donnie Parent would not be an easy task.

During the first half against the Fitchburg team, it appeared that Parent’s absence was having a profound negative effect on W.A.   The Lanemen played extremely well and led Coach Steele’s team at halftime 7-6. It was the first time that the Academy had trailed all season.

Again, W.A.’s defense was superb. Anchored by Tzikoupoulos, Smith and Gary Wilder, Westford was able to shut out St. Bernards in the second half. Coach Steele’s squad then rallied to score 28 unanswered points for the comeback win. For the fifth consecutive game the Ghosts defense had held its opponent under two touchdowns and helped keep the undefeated season and championship hopes alive. 

 Westford’s victory over St. Bernards had given the Grey Ghosts the lead in Class D; they were now 5-0 and had an excellent chance of winning the school’s first football championship. But there were still tough teams left in Westford’s schedule and one loss would probably cost them the title.

The Academy’s next test would come against Nashoba Regional High School in Bolton coached by Ev Ingalls. Nashoba, who had played a limited schedule in 1961, was in its first year of varsity football. Yet, they were making the most of their inaugural season and were 4-0 when they faced Westford.

During the opening half against Nashoba the Ghosts quickly learned why the Chieftains were undefeated. Nashoba completely dominated Westford in the first half. In fact, the tough Nashoba defense limited W.A. to only one play in the first quarter. The Academy fared little better in the second stanza and trailed the Chieftains at half time 6-0.

Faced with their first defeat of the season, Chet Steele’s team again came out strong in the second half. Behind the strong running of Steve Striebel and Rick Bradley who was playing for the injured Parent, Westford tallied on every possession to rack up 28 points enroute to a 28 to 6 victory over the determined Chieftains.

Still leading Class D, the Ghosts next prepared for a Saturday morning tilt against a tough 3-1 Lynn Trade High School at the Lynn Manning Bowl. Westford’s preparation would include the return of Don Parent to the lineup. Although Bradley and Striebel had been brilliant in Parent’s absence, Westford was looking forward to the return of its Co-Captain.

Parent wasted little time getting back to work against Lynn Trade as he ran for a 65-yard touchdown on Westford’s first play from scrimmage. “Gunner ” , showing negligible effect from his injury,  scored on another 75-yard jaunt as the Ghosts went to the locker room at halftime leading 14-0.

Both defenses played extremely well in the second half and neither team scored. The Academy’s defense which had been superb all morning limited Lynn Trade to just 23 yards for the entire game. Westford’s defense was helped by strong punting by Andy Tzitopoulos into a gusty wind that helped Coach Steele’s team hold on to its victory and remain undefeated.

Sporting a 7-0 record W.A. needed just two more wins for an undefeated season and a Class D title. Parent’s return had been the key against Lynn Trade. “Gunner” had rushed for an amazing 181 yards on only 11 attempts! But there were still two more obstacles in the Grey Ghosts championship path and the next hurdle would be against a dangerous Bishop Fenwick team of Danvers.

 Bishop Fenwick had a very respectable 4-2 record and promised to be a very worthy opponent for the undefeated Westford team. Also, the squad from Danvers had nearly 500 male students which almost equaled the entire student body of Westford Academy.

 The game against Bishop Fenwick was scheduled to be played at St. John’s Prep of Peabody and for the third time during the season the game was postponed because of rain. Westford would have to wait until Monday afternoon to try for their eighth victory of the season.

 However, neither the rain nor the trip to Peabody seemed to bother W.A. as they defeated the strong Bishops 28-6. Parent continued his torrid season as he rushed for 191 yards. Greg Peterson scored on a 43-yard touchdown pass from unsung quarterback Ron Hildreth, and Rick Bradley tallied on a 31-yard run as Westford took a huge step toward winning the Class D crown.

 On defense, Mike Fitzpatrick had a key interception, and the multi-talented Parent recovered a fumble on the opening kickoff to completely frustrate Bishop Fenwick. The game marked the eighth consecutive game in which W. A. had not allowed more than eight points. In fact, Westford had only allowed 33 points for the entire season.

 Coach Steele’s team only needed to defeat traditional rival Ayer on Thanksgiving Day to complete their perfect season. The game was scheduled to be played at Westford and a large crowd was expected to see Westford Academy win its first-Class D championship.

 Fittingly, the Turkey Day game was rained out and was rescheduled for the following Saturday. However, it would take more than another postponement to keep W.A. from reaching its goals as they completely dismantled the Panthers 46-0 before a near capacity crowd.

 The Ayer game featured a balanced attack by Westford Academy. Parent was his usual self rushing for 132 yards and backfield mate Steve Striebel added a 65-yard touchdown run to balance out the Grey Ghost running game. In the air, Ron Hildreth connected with Greg Peterson on a 36-yard scoring pass to balance out the scoring,

 Westford’s defense completed the season by posting its fourth shutout of the year. The Academy defenders even contributed to the scoring as Mike Fitzpatrick tallied on a 30-yard pass interception. W.A.’s defense completed the season allowing less than four points per game. They had proven themselves as one of the finest defensive units in the state.

 The Grey Ghosts of 1962 were primarily a running team that featured three superb running backs in Don Parent, Rick Bradley, and Steve Striebel. But they were also blessed with an excellent offensive line that opened huge holes for their talented backs. The offensive line of Paul MacMillan, Andy Tzikopoulos, Mike and Pete Sudak, Bob Herrmann, Ernie Smith, Gary Wilder, Greg Peterson, and Bruce Scott were a major reason for Westford’s undefeated season.

 The ’62 Westford Academy football team was a remarkable squad. On most weeks, the team would play schools which had much larger student bodies than Westford had. Yet, despite this drawback they were able to dominate most opponents. They outscored their opponents an eye popping 252 to 33 for the season. Despite the small size of the school, they were one of the best teams in the state at any level. 

 Today, Westford Academy, now Patten Road, plays its home football games at Alumni Stadium under the lights on Friday nights. They have long had an electronic scoreboard, a P.A. system and now play on a new turf field. The current field features a new concession stand and heated bathrooms. This is quite a change from the old facility at the now Abbot School on Depot Street.. 

It must be said that today’s players are bigger and faster than Coach Steele’s 1962 team. Current teams have better equipment (the “62” team wore leather helmets) and better fitness programs than did the team of ’62.  Today’s coaching staffs are much larger and more specialized than Chet Steele’s teams. 

But the next time you drive down Fisher Way, peek at the old field. The goal posts are still there and so are the granite stairs that lead onto the field where the “Great Ghosts” of 1962 were Class D champions. 

Sources: Information for this article was taken from the Lowell Sun.

Note. The 1962 Westford Academy football team was the last undefeated and untied team in school history. The ’63 team again won the Class D title but did suffer a tie against Nashoba Regional High School.

(By James VanBever 2022)