By Dan Guttenplan
Walt Sheridan came to the Newburyport football program as a 26-year-old World War II veteran in 1951. The Holy Cross graduate needed a transfer from the Kelley Elementary School to earn his first coaching opportunity as a varsity assistant.
But more than anything, Sheridan needed a new car.
"My first memory of Walt was that he received the transfer from the Kelley School, and we all had to help push his old, broken-down car up the hill to the high school," said Paul Riley, the first quarterback to play under Sheridan from 1952 to 1954.
Many more memories of Sheridan are likely to be shared this weekend, as he will be remembered with calling hours and a funeral following his death Wednesday at the age of 85. The Twomey, LeBlanc and Conte Funeral Home will host calling hours today from 4 to 8 p.m. The funeral Mass will be held at Immaculate Conception Parish tomorrow at 10:30 a.m.
Sheridan served as an assistant for one year at Newburyport before serving as the head coach from 1952 to 1957. He is largely credited for a quick restoration of the Newburyport football program following its lowest point as a program from 1943 to 1951. That low point included nine straight losses to Amesbury on Thanksgiving Day, the last of which will forever be remembered for its 93-point margin of defeat (99-6 in 1951).
Sheridan's teams improved quickly; his first team suffered the 10th consecutive Thanksgiving loss to Amesbury, albeit an easier one to stomach with a 15-12 score. The following season, Newburyport ended the streak with a 42-13 victory, the first of four in a row for Newburyport over Amesbury. Since Sheridan left Newburyport in 1957, the Clippers have posted a 34-19 record against Amesbury on Thanksgiving.
Sheridan commented to The Daily News in 2006 about what he felt was the turning point in the history of the Newburyport football program.
"Those are the two biggest Newburyport/Amesbury games," Sheridan said of the 15-12 loss in 1952 and the 42-13 victory in 1953. "They meant so much for Newburyport and Newburyport football."
Riley said the key to Sheridan's success was his trust in his players.
"He left it up to the kids to complement him," Riley said. "He didn't even call the plays for the quarterback. He'd give us options and let us call them. Once in a while, he'd send in a play, but if the quarterback didn't want to call it, he didn't have to. There was no fighting between the coaches and ballplayers."
Sheridan's successful rebuilding project with the Clippers earned him an offer to coach at Salem High School in 1958. He accepted the opportunity to coach the Class A representative and routinely had one of the top teams in the state before accepting another coaching position at Saugus in 1963. He finished his coaching career after five seasons at Saugus.
Tom Flaherty quarterbacked the Clippers under Sheridan from 1952 to 1955. He went on to play at Amherst College before suffering a career-ending injury. He then transferred to Northeastern University in pursuit of a degree in accounting. That is, until Sheridan contacted him in 1958 and asked him to do some scouting for him in Salem's conference — what was then known Essex County League.
"It was so inspiring watching Walt coach that I changed my major from accounting to English because I wanted to become a coach like him," Flaherty said. "He was a remarkable man, and I owe him so much. He changed the culture and the expectations in Newburyport."
Flaherty eventually served on Sheridan's staff at Salem. When Sheridan moved to Saugus, Flaherty became the head coach at Pentucket, a job he held for 16 years.
Amesbury resident Bob Comeau played under Sheridan at Salem High in 1962 and 1963. The fullback remembers Sheridan leading his team to an 8-1 record in Class A during his senior year.
"He was very well organized," Comeau said. "He did everything by the book. Before games, he gave very inspirational speeches. He just had a way with kids. When you think of his impact on football in this area, he's going to be remembered for a long time."