By Dan Guttenplan
---- — WEST NEWBURY — Steve Hayden would rather be anywhere else in the world than in a room in which people reflect glowingly on his career as the Pentucket football coach, but that’s exactly where he’ll be Sunday night.
Hayden will be inducted into the Massachusetts High School Football Coaches Association (MHSFCA) at the annual awards banquet at Lantana’s in Randolph. Hayden will be part of an induction class that also includes Rich Cullen (Malden), Kevin MacDonald (Milton Academy), Ed Nizwantoski (Peabody) and Richard Priestly (West Boylston).
“I’d rather hide under a rock than be out in public for something like that,” Hayden said. “But I’m happy for everyone in our school — our kids, our coaches, our parents, the administration. It’s a nice thing to go through.”
Hayden finished his 31st season as Pentucket’s head coach last fall, and he has no plans to retire in the near future. The Pentucket Regional High physical education teacher has a career record of 183-146-2 as the head football coach. He has led teams to five Cape Ann League titles, three Super Bowl appearances and one Super Bowl win (1999).
“Every year is a highlight with the kids you have and the moments you have with them,” Hayden said. “Some of the teams that did really well were awesome. Some that maybe record-wise weren’t as good were equally enjoyable. If you ask the kids if they had a good experience, 99 percent would say yes. That’s the bottom line: helping kids to be better and having a good experience.”
Hayden was nominated by Central Catholic football coach Chuck Adamopoulos, who coached the linemen on Hayden’s first team in 1982. Hayden and Tom Flaherty are the only two Pentucket head football coaches since 1963. Haden and Flaherty had the press box at the Pentucket football field named in their honor in 2011.
“Steve’s a remarkable man and a phenomenal person,” Flaherty said. “The kids enjoy playing for him. His life skills approach is very strong. He’s fun. He’s tough when he has to be.”
Many of Hayden’s former assistants will attend the induction ceremony, including Chris Perry, who has been on the Pentucket football staff since 1985. Perry and Hayden are like-minded in their general disinterest for attention or self-promotion.
“Steve’s one of those guys who gets up and goes to work every day,” Perry said. “He keeps banging away at it. What helps with Steve is he stresses fundamentals, nothing fancy. It’s high school football. He teaches blocking and tackling. He’s enthusiastic. He goes hard every day, and he does a lot of stuff in the weight room during the offseason. Things like that make a big difference.”
The Hall of Fame induction attendee with the longest commute will be former Pentucket player and assistant coach Justin Bartholomew. The Chapel Hill, N.C., resident will fly in Sunday morning and return to Chapel Hill first thing Monday. The 1994 Pentucket graduate served as an assistant coach under Hayden while he was a teacher at the school in 1998 and 1999. Bartholomew is now the principal of a school in Chapel Hill.
“For me, (Hayden) has always been a father figure,” Bartholomew said. “He’s the perfect role model. He knew how far good character could take you. He believed that, at the end of the day, you might not have money or fancy things, but you have your integrity and character.”
Bartholomew credits Hayden for having a fair approach to all players, regardless of their talent level. He remembers that when a player had a disciplinary issue, Hayden was able to cause a player to feel remorse with a single glance.
“His expectations on good morals and ethics never wavered,” Bartholomew said. “When he looked at you because you did something bad — not performance-wise on the field — you just knew you were wrong. His look was devastating. That’s the respect he commanded with everybody.”
Bartholomew remembers Hayden would start just about every conversation with a player by asking how things were going at home. Whenever a family member of one of Hayden’s players died, Bartholomew remembers the coach attending the funeral.
Pentucket athletic director Dan Thornton said he often stops by his own office at the school on Sunday mornings during the fall to pick up something he might need for the upcoming week. Without fail, Hayden is almost always in the athletic office with his coaching staff watching film and planning for the next week’s game.
“He’s as competitive as anybody out there,” Thornton said. “But he has the right perspective. I remember this past fall, we played a pretty big game against Amesbury with the playoffs on the line. Pentucket scored a touchdown with under a minute to go to take the lead. Amesbury got the kickoff, and made some phenomenal plays to take it down the field. They ended up winning on the last play of the game.
“I went to the locker room after the game, and I expected everyone to be dejected. Coach Hayden was talking to the kids about it being a positive learning experience. He told them they lost a game, but it’s not the worst thing in the world. That’s Steve. He’s always looking for you to be the best person you can be.”