When Governor’s Academy football coach Jim O’Leary first met Gardner Cousins, he could tell right away that the young Newburyport resident had potential. He already had all the physical tools coming out of middle school, it was only a matter of time before he adjusted to the next level and took the Independent School League by storm.
“People looked at him as a big boy, but he was a young kid in a big body,” O’Leary said. “Once he felt he belonged there was no stopping him.”
Four years later, Cousins leaves Governor’s Academy as one of the program’s most important players of the past half decade. A dominant linebacker and a jack-of-all-trades on offense, Cousins played a key role in leading the team to a 7-2 record this past fall, a season that culminated in an appearance in the Todd Marble Bowl.
Those successes helped Cousins earn the opportunity to play Division 2 college football at Stonehill College, where he will begin fall workouts in the coming weeks. Though the coronavirus pandemic has forced the postponement of Stonehill’s fall season, Cousins says he’s excited for the opportunity and is hopeful to make an impact whenever the team is able to compete.
If the past is any indication, Cousins should have a bright future once he gets the opportunity.
Coming out of the Immaculate Conception School, Cousins opted to attend Governor’s Academy over St. John’s Prep and Bishop Fenwick in large part because of his prior connections to the school. Growing up he often played sports against future Governor’s teammates Shane and Peyton O’Leary — coach Jim O’Leary’s sons — and in the course of getting to know the O’Leary family wound up attending a lot of Governor’s football and basketball games in much the same way that other local kids might grow up going to Newburyport High games.
“I always dreamed of going there,” Cousins said.
Having played a variety of sports growing up, Cousins proved adept at everything he tried. He played football, basketball, baseball and lacrosse at various points in high school, and on the gridiron he proved himself a versatile contributor who could make an impact in a variety of roles.
“Gardner is tough, he doesn’t back down from anybody,” O’Leary said. “As his body developed and he got bigger and stronger and more confident, he was a dominant linebacker for us. On offense we could use him anywhere, he played fullback, running back, receiver, so we could use him anywhere.”
This past fall Cousins enjoyed his best season, dominating at linebacker while adding 11 catches for 231 yards and three touchdowns as a receiver. The team ranked among the best in the ISL, losing only in overtime to Milton Academy and then in their bowl game to the Brunswick School in Connecticut.
Among the highlights, Cousins said, was the team’s goal-line stand to beat BB&N capped off by teammate Zack Clough’s game-clinching interception. Overall he said it was a joy to enjoy such a breakthrough with a group of guys he’d been playing alongside for years.
“That was the best sports team I’ve ever played on,” Cousins said. “Just because of the kids, I could trust all of them and know I’d do my thing and they’d do theirs, and we all just played together.”
The rest of Cousins’ senior year unfortunately didn’t turn out as well. Though he didn’t realize it at the time, Cousins tore his labrum in the football team’s penultimate game, which sidelined him for basketball season and eventually required shoulder surgery. Then the pandemic hit in March and cut the rest of his senior year short.
“The first month was really hard not seeing my friends again, but I’ve just been working out, getting my shoulder ready, trying to stay busy,” Cousins said. “It wasn’t ideal but you couldn’t do anything about it, just roll with the punches and try to stay motivated.”
While the pandemic’s disruption to college football has few silver linings, the shutdown has given Cousins more time to fully recover. For now the Northeast-10 Conference is hoping to play games in the spring, but whether its in small group workouts or full team activities, Cousins is looking forward to starting the next chapter of his football journey.
If you think the name Cousins rings a bell, there’s a good reason why. Gardner Cousins’ father, Frank Cousins, was the longtime Essex County Sheriff, serving in the role from 1996 to 2017. Prior to that Cousins also spent time on the Newburyport City Council and served three years in the state house as 1st Essex District representative.