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Island Cup

In recent years, we have had the annual privilege and pleasure of heading to Nantucket for a few days. I’ve given up trying to make sense of why we so enjoy our time there. Or why, by going every year, we thereby postpone visiting they many other places on our wish list. I suppose it comes under the heading of doing one thing well rather than many poorly, though I wouldn’t say we do such a good job of visiting Nantucket. For one thing, we have only the narrowest of perspectives on real life there. We always make it a point, when we find ourselves chatting with year-round residents, to ask them about the winters, which we have yet to experience. We gather that essential activities are reading, knitting, and drinking.

Come Tuesday, a book will appear that promises to offer additional perspective, James Sullivan’s Island Cup: Two Teams, Twelve Miles of Ocean, and Fifty Years of Football Rivalry. The blurb from the book’s website:

Before “Friday Night Lights” was a bestseller and a Hollywood franchise about high school football in Texas, author Buzz Bissinger had a different setting in mind: a remote island off the coast of Massachusetts. We may think of Nantucket as a resort destination for CEOs and senators, but it really belongs to a legendary coach named Vito Capizzo. After the tourists and jetsetters leave and the cold weather descends, for narly a half-century Capizzo and his Whalers have readied themselves for the main event: a spirited and unforgettable rivalry with the high school team from the neighboring island, Martha’s Vineyard.

For decades, these two teams have shaped their seasons around their fierce head-to-head matchups. They play for pride, a coveted trophy—the Island Cup—and quite often a shot at a state Super Bowl title. Despite their tiny year-round populations, both islands are perennially dangerous on the football field.

This far-reaching book tells the story not only of the unique Whaler-Vineyarder rivalry, but of two places without a country. Dotted with empty houses nine months of the year, Nantucket and the Vineyard have long, strange histories that include an attempt to secede from the United States, two traditionally diverse populations and lasting connections to the vanished whaling industry. Delving into the rich culture and sometimes hard realities of both places, Sullivan paints a picture of a bygone New England, a place that has never stopped fighting for its life—and the rights to the Island Cup.

Island Cup might have passed me by if not for Tony Horwitz’s Wall Street Journal review yesterday. I suspect the audience for it may be limited, but within that limited audience is us.

Horwitz, a distinguished writer, lives on Martha’s Vineyard with his wife, fellow writer Geraldine Brooks, and their sons. Here’s the opening of his review:

On a raw day last November, I rode a packed ferry from Martha’s Vineyard to Nantucket to see my son play in a high-school football game. The 1,500 passengers poured onto Nantucket’s cobbled streets like a marauding horde, waving purple banners and screaming from painted faces, “Harpoon the Whalers!” That night, we returned across the water to be greeted at the dock by fire-engine sirens and flashing lights as a raucous throng cheered its victorious warriors.

A newcomer to the Vineyard—to locals, a “wash-ashore”—I was stunned by this primal display from my normally taciturn neighbors. I knew my island took its sports seriously and disliked Nantucket. But I had no idea that football games between the two islands were blood feuds out of “Braveheart.”

The history of this New England rite is the subject of James Sullivan’s “Island Cup: Two Teams, Twelve Miles of Ocean, and Fifty Years of Football Rivalry.” Turns out, the frenzy I witnessed in 2011 was tame compared with earlier years. Visiting players used to stay overnight with families on the host island—until 1966, when police had to break up a brawl involving two Vineyard linebackers and Nantucket locals well after the team’s 9 p.m. curfew. Hotels proved no better; home-team fans blew air horns all night to deprive the visitors of sleep. Nantucketers once left a broken pipe seeping water on the sideline so that during the game, the visiting players and coaches stood deep in mud. Vineyarders replied by burning a mock coffin and declaring that the Nantucket coach was inside.

Island inhospitality has extended to other teams, too, with rocks and eggs thrown at visitors’ buses. One coach from a mainland team told his players after games on Nantucket: “Maybe we lost, but we’re lucky—we get to get off this damn island.”

All this may surprise summer tourists, who associate Nantucket with the homes of whaling captains and with sunburned WASPs in salmon pants. The Vineyard is likewise known for its affluent ease, a retreat for the Clintons, Kennedys and Obamas. But as Mr. Sullivan observes, these crowded resorts have a very different character in fall and winter. They’re small communities, mostly middle- and working-class, with large immigrant populations, isolated by fog and water from what islanders call “America.”

Sunburned WASPs in salmon pants? Is Horwitz talking about the famous Nantucket reds from Murray’s Toggery Shop? I’m no WASP, that’s for sure, but I happily wear them. And I never thought they were salmon.

In any case, I’m eager to find out more about what goes on there when we’re not around.

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Categories: Sports, Travel
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