The Philadelphia Eagles enter Sunday’s final NFL regular-season game with a chance to win the NFC East. All the Eagles need is a win or tie over the homestanding Dallas Cowboys.
And there’s a small group of Mainers who will be rooting very hard for Philadelphia.
Rich Buzzell and Mike Zamarchi, respectively the athletic director and boys’ basketball coach at Marshwood High in South Berwick, and Lee Petrie, the Hawks’ former girls’ basketball coach, are among a group of southern Mainers who consider Eagles Coach Chip Kelly more than just a face on the television screen.
For nearly a decade they and Kelly have been close friends. Several have attended Kelly’s biggest games in his coaching career from Oregon (including the 2011 BCS national championship game, a game the Ducks lost 22-19 to Cam Newton-led Auburn) to Philadelphia.
Sunday night they may be in Jerry Jones’ palatial AT&T Stadium. Or they may gather in someone’s living room and watch it together.
“A couple of us are trying to find flights,’’ said Buzzell. “If we’re crazy enough, we might get a flight down Sunday morning.’’
The association began in the mid-1990s, when they were all just beginning their careers. Kelly, a Manchester, N.H., boy who returned to coach at the University of New Hampshire in 1994, ran into them one night in a downtown Portsmouth, N.H., restaurant. They found they had common interests – coaching and sports – and began to meet weekly.
They have spoken about coaching strategies and philosophies, or just life in general.
“I tell people that I have probably taken more from him in what I do professionally than anyone else,’’ said Buzzell. “He has the best work ethic I’ve ever been around. And his attention to detail is amazing. I know how close to perfection he tries to get in everything he does. He’s just relentless in his work ethic. He doesn’t let anyone beat him that way.’’
And as Kelly’s coaching star has risen – his teams were considered among the most offensively-creative wherever he was – he never lost contact with his friends here.
“When I first met him it was very evident that Chip was very loyal to the people he is closest to,’’ said Buzzell. “I thought after a while that Chip would always be a friend of mine, a friend of ours. But I never imagined this.’’
Over the years he has invited several of them to home games at Oregon after he was named coach in 2009, bowl games with the Ducks, and home and road games for the Eagles. The Mainers pay for their flights and tickets to road games.
Buzzell, Zamarchi and Chris Ouellette, a former quarterback at Marshwood, attended Kelly’s first home game in Philadelphia (a 33-20 loss to San Diego) and met Eagles legend Chuck Bednarik before the game. They also went to Green Bay (a 27-13 Philadelphia win) to see Lambeau Field.
“That’s the Fenway Park of football,’’ said Buzzell. “That was awesome.’’
In each game the crew gets field passes for before the game. At Philadelphia they watch the game from Kelly’s suite.
And they now find they are securely seated in Kelly’s corner. Where they once rooted for other teams – Zamarchi and Buzzell the Patriots, Petrie the Kansas City Chiefs – the Eagles now own their loyalties.
Earlier this year Philadelphia played the Chiefs, a team Petrie followed since his youth. “I cheered for the Eagles,’’ said Petrie. “You’ve got to back your friends. We all want to see Chip do well.’’
Zamarchi still likes the Patriots but watches the Eagles whenever he can. “That’s how it is,’’ he said. “When a good friend coaches a team, your allegiance changes.’’
Buzzell took it a step further. If, somehow, the Patriots and Eagles advance to the Super Bowl in early February, “I honestly have to root for the Eagles,’’ he said. “We have personal ties to Chip. Chip’s been great to us. He certainly wants what’s best for us and we certainly want what’s best for him.’’
Kelly, an extremely private man, would not be interviewed for this story. And even his friends here were reluctant to say too much. They respect his wishes.
But they also want everyone to know just how much Kelly deserves the success he’s achieving.
“He’s creative in everything he does,’’ said Buzzell. “And there is a method to everything he does. What makes him a player’s coach, in my view, is that he tells people why he is doing things; he explains it to them.
“He’s a really good teacher. It’s not, ‘You’re doing this because I said you’re doing it.’ And they understand why they’re doing it. He’s carried that everywhere he’s gone.’’
While he coached at UNH, Kelly sometimes crossed the river to watch a Marshwood football practice. He would often attend the basketball camp that Zamarchi ran. “His connection to (Zamarchi) is real special and it’s been great to get to know him through that,’’ said Petrie.
But Kelly has been great to all his Maine friends. “From a friend’s standpoint, Chip’s just someone you can always count on when you need advice on something,’’ said Buzzell. “He’ll always give you his honest opinion.’’
Kelly doesn’t have the time to devote to the Mainers that he did when he coached at New Hampshire. The demands of being an NFL coach are relentless.
But Buzzell and the others know he’s thinking of them.
“We know Chip is 100 percent focused on his task at hand; he always has been,’’ said Buzzell. “During the season the most important thing to him is his team. And when he’s home, his most important thing is his friends.’’
Mike Lowe can be reached at 791-6422 or at: