It was in June of 1969 that I gave a speech in front of friends and family that began with “Today I have become a man…” Really? At thirteen years of age? It was at my Bar Mitzvah and according to the Jewish religion by turning thirteen and reading from the Torah, flawlessly I may add, I had become a man! From that moment on I would begin working relentlessly towards acquiring all the privileges afforded this testosterone-filled fraternity.
Not only had I become a man, but I began my growth spurt and that summer I weighed 126 pounds. For my height that may have been normal, but in order to play Pop Warner football for the Sharon Red Devils and have a chance to repeat as South Shore Champions, I would need to drop weight by the end of August and tip the scales at or below 115…
I wasn’t alone. Several of my teammates found themselves in the same dilemma. At practice we ran extra sprints. We were all instructed on how to eat. By the middle of August at least three of us were still too heavy to make weight.
The week before the weigh-in, three of us were asked if we could go to a steam room the night before the weigh-in with a parent from the team. My father was out of town and when he called later that night I asked him for permission to go to the Blue Hills Baths with Mr. Salemme. My father knew Mr. Salemme from Red Devil functions and without hesitation he told me I could go.
The next afternoon after practice three of us climbed into the back of Mr. Salemme’s Cadillac and headed towards Canton and the Blue Hills Baths.
The back seat was spacious and we had plenty of room to get comfortable for the ride. We were all on our best behavior. Mr. Salemme had always been involved in the Red Devils and been very generous with his time. This was just one more example. His son wasn’t in any danger of not making weight which made his offer even more munificent.
When we arrived at the Blue Hills Baths we were told to strip down into our gym shorts, which in those days were mid thigh in length. After some instruction, the three of us went into a steam room. In there three older men were already sweating up a storm. They were wrapped in white towels and smiled and told jokes that immediately had us laughing. Meanwhile the sweat pored from our bodies and after twenty minutes I knew this would be all I needed to get under 115 and make weight the following morning.
When we had had enough steam we went into the shower area and cooled down. Before we left the older men wished us good luck and we all received white tee shirts that said “Sit & Schvitz Blue Hills Baths”. On the way home, in the back of Mr. Salemme’s Cadillac, wrung out from the steam, we nearly fell asleep.
Before I went to bed that night my father called and asked me how it went. I told him there were some old guys in there and that it reminded me of a scene from a James Cagney or Edward G. Robinson movie. He laughed…
The following morning the weigh-in was at the Sharon Recreation Center at 8 o’clock. They had an official Doctor’s scale there and league officials who ran the weigh-in. If you weighed under 110 lbs. you did not have to get weighed again mid-season when 118 was the limit. I weighed in at 109 lbs. All but one of us made weight and I knew the reason I made it was the steam. I dropped three to five pounds and by weighing in under 110 and not needing another weigh-in I played at or around 125 the entire season. I wore number 90 and I was a big, angry middle linebacker who talked trash to opposing quarterbacks as soon as they approached the line of scrimmage, like I had been coached to do-
After our first road win the bus driver was instructed to go directly to the Bliss Dairy located in Sharon on the Foxboro line. We were told that all the players and the cheerleaders were getting hot fudge sundaes and that Mr. Salemme was treating. After every road win we headed for Bliss Dairy, Mr. Salemme’s treat.
Our coach Jack Cosgrove had boldly predicted in The Sports Reporter that we would go undefeated. And why not? Jimmy Morganelli was the best running back in all of Pop Warner football and our defense was equally as good. We scored a lot of points and gave up very few. By week seven we were undefeated and our momentum was building.
I delivered the Patriot Ledger newspaper after school and I was able to get home, deliver my papers and get to practice on time if I hustled. When I arrived home that afternoon I nonchalantly glanced at the tightly-wrapped bundle of Ledgers at the end of my driveway, like I always did, reading the titles on the top half of the front page. On this day there were black and white mugshots of ten men across the top with the title “FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives”. At the far right was a picture of Mr. Salemme and the caption below identifying him as Francis “Cadillac Frank” Salemme. The article said he was a mobster turned hitman. I was shocked! I went in and immediately called my friend Eddy. He had seen it too. I hurried and delivered my papers and headed to practice early.
At practice we all gathered and collectively shook our heads in disbelief. We waited to see if Frankie Jr. was coming. Just as we were preparing to head towards the practice field, a black Cadillac pulled up in front of the Ames Street Playground and across three lined parking spaces parallel to the curb. Two men in dark suits and sunglasses got out and opened the back door closest to the curb and out walked 12 year old Frankie Salemme, in uniform and ready to practice. He made his way over to where we were all standing with his helmet already on and didn’t have much to say.
While “Cadillac Frank” remained a fugitive at large, the Sharon Red Devils went undefeated, beating a tough Walpole team to capture their second straight South Shore Pop Warner Championship.
Young Frankie had been a great kid. He was always well-dressed and well-mannered. I admired the great looking sweaters he wore. He was a good outside linebacker on a defense that prided itself in blitzing. I was in the middle and called the defense, sharing the opportunities with Frankie and Jimmy Sweetman, our other outside linebacker.
Mr. Salemme was eventually captured by the FBI in 1972 while walking a Manhattan street in New York City and later sentenced to 16 years imprisonment . At first he was in the maximum security prison MCI-Walpole (now called MCI-Cedar Junction), but later as a result of good behavior, he was moved to MCI-Norfolk, a medium security prison and the largest state prison in Massachusetts. Malcolm X had done time there.
It was during the spring of my senior year, 1974, that Carlos Vargas, a foreign exchange student from Pueblo, Mexico, asked me to play spring soccer. I told him I was a football player and that I had never played organized soccer before. He insisted I could play defense. All the guys on the team were friends and so I agreed to play the 16 game schedule.
I had so much fun and I didn’t miss the angry whistles that had chased me around practice fields on the gridiron. Soccer practices were looser and games were fun. Carlos was an incredible player and I learned to respect the sport and all my friends who chose soccer over football.
It was mid-season and we had a game against a local prison, MCI Norfolk. We knew that was where Mr. Salemme was being incarcerated and some of us couldn’t wait to see him. Frankie Jr. wasn’t a soccer player, but he suited up and attempted to get in for a visit as a member of our team. After being searched and showing ID he was led away from the facility. Apparently family members needed visitation approval from the Warden in advance.
When we got inside the prison we immediately saw the familiar maroon and gold of a Sharon Eagles hooded sweatshirt and then the familiar smile of Mr. Salemme. We rushed over to talk with him. He looked fit and in good spirits, asking each one of us how we were doing.
When the game was about to start we were told the prison team was one player short and that they needed one of us to play for them. My teammates quickly gave me up, I was still regarded as a football player, and I removed my Sharon Eagles jersey and put on a Norfolk Prison tee shirt. They put me on defense where I was best suited to play.
It wasn’t long before the Eagles sent one toward the net and I made a play on it. I could kick the ball deep, but not accurately like my friends who had played four years of high school soccer. I kicked this ball hard and it went high in the air and deep, but it was hooking towards the tall prison wall- over the concrete and barbed-wire too. All of a sudden this older guy with gray hair and a face embedded with intimidating wrinkles charged towards me in an angry way and started yelling obscenities. Apparently he was the senior member of the team and prison rules say anything that goes over the wall does not get returned and I had just cost him one soccer ball. The other guys on the prison team quickly came to my aid and reminded this guy that I was not one of them, that I was a kid from Sharon High School helping them out. His angry expression at once turned into a wise-guy smile and all was forgiven.
The game was close, but I do remember Sharon winning by a goal. At the end I tried to keep the Norfolk Prison shirt in exchange for a Sharon Eagles jersey, but the guards quickly discouraged it.
We were able to say goodbye to Mr. Salemme and I can’t say I didn’t enjoy seeing him, despite all the things I had read about him. To me and to all the kids on the Sharon Red Devils, Mr. Salemme had been a very generous guy with a kind heart and a big smile. Who knew?