Justin Zukowski of Portland was a frequently requested interview by the media after football games this season. After all, Zukowski led Eastern Class A in rushing, was second in tackles and was named the region’s player of the year.
But on this particular Friday night after another victory, Zukowski brought along a teammate for the postgame questions – his cousin and fellow linebacker, Joe Esposito, a sophomore.
“He’s the one responsible for our defense tonight,” said Zukowski, nodding toward Esposito.
Esposito, in perhaps his first interview as a varsity player, went on to explain how the defense set the tone for the game. Zukowski, a senior, looked out for his cousin on the field and later with the media.
The cousins will be side by side one final time Thursday when Portland (8-2) and Deering (1-7) meet in the 102nd Thanksgiving Day game at Fitzpatrick Stadium at 10:30 a.m.
Going from freshman football to the varsity is a big jump, but Zukowski helped Esposito make the transition.
Zukowski plays strong-side linebacker and wears No. 32, and Esposito with No. 31 on his jersey is on the weak side. Zukowski rushed for more than 1,600 yards. Esposito filled in for his cousin at fullback during the season and, according to Coach Jim Hartman, has the inside track for the starting spot next season.
“It’s been pretty cool to have him beside me,” said Zukowski.
“We’ve been watching Portland games since we were little.”
This isn’t the first time the cousins have been teammates.
“He was on my youth football team, too,” said Zukowski. “My dad was the coach. We’re kind of used to being on the same team but this season has been fun just the same.”
Esposito’s father, Neil, and Zukowski’s mother, Lisa, are brother and sister.
At any given game, there are 12 to 15 family members watching. Zukowski’s father, Todd, who met his future wife as Bates College students, said he expects a dozen family members in the stands for Turkey Day.
Later, 21 people from both sides of the family will gather for Thanksgiving dinner at Zukowski’s home.
“It’s been a real family affair at games,” said Todd. “It’s been a blast. I figured Portland would be pretty good this season but they exceeded our expectations. It’s been a lot of fun this season. It will be kind of sad to see it end.”
Portland fell one game short of reaching last Saturday’s Class A state final.
The Bulldogs lost to Cheverus 22-19 in the Eastern Class A final Nov. 16.
After the disappointing loss, Portland has been slowly building up for Thanksgiving.
“At first it was hard focusing on winning a game that was two weeks away,” said Zukowski.
That aside, the Bulldogs will be ready. With their eight-win season that included a 45-19 victory against Deering on Sept. 12, the Bulldogs are heavy favorites.
“We have to make a statement this year. Portland has won only once in the last 11 Thanksgiving Day games,” said Zukowski.
Esposito said a win over Deering could help take some of the sting out of losing to Cheverus.
Zukowski and Esposito bring different personalities to the field, said Hartman.
“Joe is more vocal,” he said, “but they’re both super competitors.”
Zukowski, a tri-captain, has grown into his role as a leader. Wanting to give his cousin some early-season media attention was an example.
“He has a ton of respect from his teammates,” said Hartman.
The cousins’ running styles differ, just like their personalities. Zukowski runs more like a tailback than a fullback.
“Justin is pretty slippery. He’s good at avoiding tackles. Joe is more of your typical fullback,” said Hartman.
While elusive, Zukowski also has taken on tacklers.
Esposito said his cousin has been a big help in his first varsity season.
“It’s a big adjustment going to the varsity,” said Esposito. “The kids are bigger, stronger and faster. He’s helped me to keep my focus when I’ve lost it. He’s taught me the importance of going hard on every play.”
Being the team’s top offensive threat and then having to switch gears to play defense, Zukowski appreciates that his cousin takes the defensive calls from assistant coach Mark Renna.
“That’s taken a lot of weight of my shoulders,” said Zukowski.
Zukowski, selected to the Eastern Maine Class A All-Academic team, has applied for an early decision to Bates College.
Zukowski, one of the Bulldogs’ top basketball players, wants to play basketball in college but could wind up playing football as well.
Last weekend, Zukowski traveled to South Bend, Ind., with his girlfriend and her family to watch Notre Dame play football and basketball.
Back home, Esposito was trying out for the Bulldogs’ varsity basketball team.
The cousins could be basketball teammates as well.
Tom Chard can be contacted at 791-6419 or at [email protected]