KENNEBUNK – Joe Rafferty looked down at this feet and may have sighed. For one of the few times all day, those 59-year-old feet weren’t moving.

Wednesday was the first day of the new school year for Rafferty, a Kennebunk High physical education teacher. He matched new names with new faces and went through the file cards of his brain to remember the familiar ones.

Saturday is Kennebunk’s first football game this season, at Fryeburg Academy. For Rafferty, the head football coach, it’s been a mental scramble for days. After last season’s run to the Class B state championship game, expectations are high again. A handful of his better two-way players are hurt and he must juggle depth charts that typically offer more hope than experience. Maybe he’ll resort to some Rafferty magic.

And not to pile on, but Kelly, the eldest of his three daughters, is getting married next weekend. The rehearsal dinner is next Friday night, which will conflict with Kennebunk’s game against York, traditionally a very good team.

When the day of the big event was set, Rafferty had to turn to his first-born. “Whose house did you grow up in?”

“Yeah, this is a busy week,” said Rafferty, who prefers understatement to hyperbole. “But I’ve been around so long, I know how to hit the ground running.”


How long? Thirty-seven years as a teacher at Kennebunk and 36 as the head football coach. In a world where communities are at odds over everything from school-lunch menus to a coach’s qualifications, 36 seasons in one place is astonishing. By comparison over the same 36-year period, Cheverus Coach John Wolfgram has coached at two other high schools and Bowdoin College.

“I’ve been fortunate,” said Rafferty. “This community has been awesome, especially early in my career. Obviously they’ve been very patient.”

That may be because Rafferty has been very good to their sons. As we sat on a bench outside the football locker room, players left for the day but not without saying goodbye to their coach. The words were casual but caring. The mission, Rafferty explains, is to treat players like they were sons.

Every summer for the past 10, the Kennebunk football team spends a week at Camp Skylemar in Naples. It’s a week of football, bonding and the possibility of mischief. Some worry that the week could backfire. “You’ve got to put kids in a situation where they’ve got to make their own choices,” Rafferty said.

This summer Rafferty heard from the camp owner again: Kennebunk football players acquitted themselves nicely.

“He treats the 45th player on the team the same way he treats the No. 1 player,” said Joe Bush, who was a junior wide receiver when Rafferty became the head coach in 1978. Now a phys ed teacher himself, Bush was an assistant coach at Massabesic for many years before returning recently to Kennebunk.


“The kids respect that. They know he wants to win. He’s very competitive. But he’s able to balance that passion for winning with his caring for them.”

Players are responsible for the cost of their own football shoes. If money is tight at home, a new pair of cleats will appear by their locker. No one needs to ask who or how. That’s one example. Assistant coaches say there are others.

“I see someone who watches out for his players on and off the field,” said Susan Cressey, the Kennebunk High principal. “As a member of the faculty at KHS he is the first to come forward to help a student in need, whether we are collecting for a food drive, for a family that has experienced a tragedy. To say that Joe bleeds blue and white is an understatement.”

Jamie Cook, who played football and competed in track at Kennebunk at championship levels 20 years ago, said Coach Raff helped him through his father’s death and the deaths of both his grandmothers. Cook became an accomplished decathlete at Penn State, and is now a track coach at the University of Oregon. The man who’s been one of his influences? Rafferty.

“I’m 51,” said Bush. “He’s still teaching me.”

Rafferty can’t tell you his career won-loss record. “Maybe it’s one or two games to the good. Might be one or two games to the bad.” He shakes his head. A coach whose teams win as many as they lose is usually defined as mediocre. That word simply doesn’t fit.


Rafferty was a high school running back in Woburn, Massachusetts, and played at Springfield College. He installed the I-formation for his offensive scheme when he started at Kennebunk and has moved on to the triple-option to his own variations of the spread offense or pro sets more in vogue today.

“He is knowledgeable and creative on both sides of the ball,” said Wolfgram. “He has definitely kept up with current trends. He keeps things in perspective and cares about kids first.”

But then, in some ways Rafferty is still a kid. He has fun coaching. During Kennebunk scrimmages, he’s the quarterback on the “look” team, meant to emulate the next game’s opponent for Kennebunk’s defensive starters.

“We don’t keep track of the touchdowns he throws,” said Bush, laughing. “We keep track of his interceptions and that number is climbing. He’s running around, thinking he’s Michael Vick sometimes.”

Last year the football team galvanized the Kennebunk community with a string of victories through the season and playoffs, meeting Cony in the state championship game. Kennebunk led for much of the way until quarterback Ben Lucas took Cony on a 99-yard scoring drive in the fourth quarter to win.

Afterward, a broken-hearted Rafferty stood in front of the Cony team and verbally applauded their victory. “To beat us like that, going 99 yards, they deserved all the credit. I was fighting back tears but they were a good team and I know how much it meant to their community (which hadn’t seen a football championship since 1932).


“We have good kids and I know how much it hurt them and our community to lose that game, too.”

When he and the future Mrs. Norma Rafferty first came to Kennebunk from Massachusetts in a purple AMC Gremlin, they had no idea this would be their home for decades. “It was her car, the only one between us that could get us to Maine. I had applied for jobs in Houston, Texas, and Fairbanks, Alaska, but this is the one that fell into place.”

Next Friday, Rafferty’s longtime assistant coaches will manage the football game without him. Rafferty will try to follow the Rams’ progress through texts but he’s not optimistic. “I’m not real good at texting and things like that.”

He hopes his two younger daughters are paying attention and learn their lesson: At best the football season lasts three months. That leaves nine other months for a wedding.

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