September 26, 2010

Steve Solloway: Remember Portland's Sea Hawks

PORTLAND - After the football games, big Mike DeSimon would remove his cleats and gingerly roll socks off feet already turned purple and swelling. The bruised flesh was a lineman's wound from too much contact with his opponents' feet.

Fifty years later, the memories were still fresh in DeSimon's mind. Standing next to him Saturday night, Willie Greenlaw showed no sympathy. Considering all the running he did on his ankles, Greenlaw said, his looked fine.

"That's because I protected you so well," said DeSimon. "You're the reason my ankles looked that way." The former Portland Sea Hawks teammates looked at each other, waiting to see who would smile first.

This is what happens at reunions of men who dripped blood and sweat together on the grass at Portland Stadium a long, long time ago. In 1960 and for four or five years afterward, the Portland Sea Hawks were bigger than the Maine Mariners, who arrived in town a decade later. Bigger than the Portland Pirates, Sea Dogs and Red Claws.

Crowds estimated at 10,000 and more would fill what is now Fitzpatrick Stadium. When he had a moment, Ken Peterson recalled, he would look around and not see an empty seat or a bare spot of ground on which to stand.

The Sea Hawks and later the Mustangs and the Griffin Club were teams of high school and college graduates, many from the Portland area. They were men who reported to work on Mondays as teachers, salesmen, factory workers, policemen, all nursing bodies that ached from the intense and sometimes vicious contact from the day before.

"You went to work with a couple of broken ribs," said Mike DeSimon. "You had to."

"I got $45 (a game) and I would have paid that to play," said Jerry Davis, a former high school history teacher and coach who now represents Falmouth in the Maine Senate. Back then, he was a center and nose guard and a team captain. "I played at Bates after high school and I didn't want it to end."

Fifty years ago, Portland was a small city with the neighborliness of a small town. When Davis walked down Congress Street, people talked to him about the last game and wished him well in the next.

They played in the New England Semi-Pro Football League and were conference champions in 1960 and 1961. Two years later the Sea Hawks joined the more competitive Atlantic Coast Football League, which took them to Newark to play the Bears and Pittsburgh to play the Ironmen.

"We'd travel by a chartered bus mostly, but sometimes we took a C-47 left over from World War II," said Dave Parker of Portland. "I was never more scared. I'd look around and see other guys with their eyes this big. It was the noise. You never heard anything like it."

Portland Press Herald sportswriters sometimes traveled on the team bus. Coming back from Boston after one game against the Sweepers, the bus stopped near the Merrimack River Bridge for a bathroom break. The late sportswriter Chubby McPhee, a small man, was held over the bridge railing, his feet pointed to the water.

"Stop insulting me," said big Jim Patterson, a defensive end and Native American who some Sea Hawks said was a grandson of Jim Thorpe. "Tell me you'll stop and I won't drop you."

More men and their wives walked through the doors at the Columbia Club in Portland's East Deering neighborhood. They were in their 70s, mostly. Some had less hair and more weight but all carried themselves with the grace of athletes. They embraced each other with the gruff tenderness of teammates.

(Continued on page 2)

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