By Nick Curcuru
---- — The Orange Bowl Team.
Utter those words around the city of Gloucester and they are immediately attributed to the 1956, Class B state champion Fishermen football team. During that season Gloucester ran the table in the regular season (9-0) and earned a trip to the Orange Bowl in Miami, Fla. to square off with Miami Sr. High School.
Even five decades later, the ‘56 team, the last of four state championships under head coach Nate Ross, is still widely regarded as one of the best, and in some corners the best football team to ever grace the gridiron of Newell Stadium.
Gloucester won the Class B title that fall, but its undefeated record also gave it enough points to win the Class A state title if it had played in that division. The dominance Gloucester displayed in its championship seasons in 1955 and 1956 forced the state to move the program up to Class A the following season despite the fact that it had the smallest enrollment in the division.
All over the lineup Nate Ross had talented athletes at his disposal. The single-wing offense was ran with superb efficiency as the Fishermen scored 25 points per game on the season and did not allow more than two touchdowns in a game on defense until a 20-7 loss to Miami at the Orange Bowl.
While the ‘56 team did not finish unbeaten, no Gloucester team can ever be expected to take down a school as big as Miami Sr. High School, which was ranked No. 3 in the state of Florida at the time.
The 1956 team has withstood the test of time, and all the Gloucester football success that came after it. Considering the quality of football that has been played at Newell Stadium in the five plus decades after the ‘56 team took home the Class B title, it’s pretty safe to say that this team was for real, and one of the best to ever put on a Gloucester football uniform.
The 1956 team was simply loaded from top to bottom with several players returning from the 1955 Class B State champions.
While Gloucester has been known for the wing-t offense in recent years, it was the single wing offense (known today as the wild cat) that Gloucester perfected back in the Nate Ross era. In that offense, the quarterback was seen as more of a blocking back while the running backs do all of the passing.
The combination of the scheme along with Gloucester’s usual crop of tough, relentless players made the ‘56 team one of the school’s most talented groups.
As Fishermen football fans have grown accustomed to over the decades, the Gloucester backfield was a four-headed monster attack led by the running quartet of captain Larry Harding, Jack Radcliffe, Bobby Andersen and Peter Hickey, who were all called upon to run, block and throw the football. Fullback Gardner Parsons was the first man off the bench in the stacked backfield.
Quarteback John Hagstrom, who went on to play at Princeton, was used in the passing game and as a devastating lead blocker.
Captain Paul Niemi and Bob Morrissey, who went on to play at Boston University, anchored a strong offensive line next to Cliff Adams, Russ Gray and Jack Babson. Gerry Greely manned the end spot in the single-wing offense.
On the defensive end, Gloucester may have been even more dominant allowing just 50 points over nine regular season games.
Buddy Walsh and Bobby Curcuru joined Morrissey and Niemi, an All Scholastic selection that season, to form a devastating defensive line. Radcliffe, Parsons, Harding, Gray and John Latassa rounded out the hard-hitting Fishermen defense that had a knack for creating turnovers which led to Gloucester points.
The Fishermen may not have had the biggest team in 1956, but at each spot in the lineup there was a player to be feared.
Gloucester’s run through its regular season schedule is one of the biggest indicators of just how dominant of a team it was. Only Saugus and Lynn Classical came within two touchdowns of the mighty Fishermen, who were regarded by some publications as the top team in the entire state of Massachusetts that fall.
The Fishermen made a difficult schedule appear soft, trouncing every opponent that came there way in the regular season by an average score of 27-6.
Gloucester hit the ground running in the regular season opening with shutout wins over Lynn Classical (14-0) and Salem (20-0) with a 34-6 win over Salem sandwiched in between.
At 3-0, the Fishermen really put themselves on the map in Week 4 against a powerful Marblehead squad. Marblehead was also 3-0 winning those three games by a combined score of 96-13. It even took an early 6-0 lead on its home turf on a 56 yard opening-drive touchdown run, but that’s all the Gloucester defense would allow.
The Fishermen responded with a pair of touchdowns from Hickey to take a 13-6 lead and controlled the remainder of the game.
Hickey and Harding each added two more rushing touchdowns and Harding scored another on a pass from Hickey in the final minutes to cap the scoring at 25-6.
While Gloucester was expected to be a force in 1956, it was the blowout win over Marblehead on the road that really opened the eyes of football fans on the North Shore as some referred to Ross’ Fishermen as the best team in the state after the win.
Gloucester rolled through Beverly and Peabody in the next two weeks to move to 6-0 and a date with Saugus awaited in Week 7.
The Sachems also broke out to an early 7-0 lead but Gloucester pulled even late in the first half on a Dick Barrows touchdown.
It was the second half where Gloucester showed off its championship pedigree as a Harding touchdown made it 13-7 and an insurance score from Hickey in the fourth quarter gave Gloucester the hard-fought, two touchdown win and more importantly a 7-0 record.
At 7-0, a win in Week 8 over Melrose would give the Fishermen their second straight Class B state title, and they played as if the title was on the line.
A strong Melrose team was put away early as first quarter touchdowns from Parsons, Hickey and Harding led to a 33-6 rout and another state championship.
After the Melrose win, rumors of a trip to the Orange Bowl to play Miami Sr. High School swirled around the city. Ross, however, cautioned his team that they had one more game to go, a Thanksgiving Day tilt with Wakefield.
“We are forgetting we still have Wakefield to meet and beat,” Ross told the Gloucester Daily Times that season in the midst of the Florida rumors.
The Fishermen took care of business against Wakefield opening up a 26-0 halftime lead en route to a 46-12 drubbing.
Gloucester finished the regular season as 9-0 state champs, the first unbeaten and untied regular season in school history. But there was still one more order of business, a date with Miami Sr. High School in its home town at the iconic Orange Bowl.
Miami entered the game with a massive size advantage as no linemen weighed under 190. That size advantage, and the humid Miami weather would end up being a huge factor in the contest.
The contest was also a contrast in styles as it pitted Gloucester’s single wing offense, which made Miami nervous because it had seen that system just once all season, against Miami’s passing attack. Prior to the game Ross predicted a high scoring game due to both teams talent at the skill positions, but it would end up being a defensive struggle.
The Fishermen proved that they were not intimidated by the larger Stingarees and that they were not outclassed by one of the top teams in one of the top high school football states as the teams were tied at the half 7-7. Harding’s 33 yard touchdown gave Gloucester its points.
But Miami’s size and the humidity began to wear on the Fishermen in the second half. The Stingarees switched to an unheard of nine-man front on defense after the Gloucester touchdown and it worked as the Fishermen couldn’t get anything going on offense the rest of the way. Miami would add two second half scores to come away with a hard fought 20-7 win.
It was a tough loss on a big stage, but the 1956 season was nothing short of a dream season in Gloucester. The Fishermen were the first team to get through the regular season unbeaten and untied and the fact that they stayed right with one of the best teams in Florida proves that the ‘56 squad was downright special, and one of the best teams in program history.
Information from the books “Fishermen Football: First Century” and “Nate” by former Gloucester Daily Times reporter John “Doc” Enos were used in this report.
1956 Gloucester Football Schedule Gloucester 14 Lynn Classical 0 Gloucester 34 Newburyport 6 Gloucester 20 Salem 0 Gloucester 25 Marblehead 6 Gloucester 26 Beverly 7 Gloucester 28 Peabody 6 Gloucester 20 Saugus 7 Gloucester 33 Melrose 6 Gloucester 46 Wakefield 12 Gloucester 7 Miami, Fla. 20