For Southern Vermont Storm's Gary Hewson, the field is his outlet
BENNINGTON — Gary Hewson doesn't put on the purple and green of the Southern Vermont Storm for the money.
In fact, he and his teammates all chip in to play for the semi-professional football team when it suits up on summer Saturdays at Willow Park, and at fields from here to the New Hampshire seacoast.
It's about $400 per season in dues, uniform costs and travel expenses, according to Storm general manager Chris Cipperley. That's better than it used to be; there was a time players had to buy their own helmets and pads.
But Hewson's not playing to get paid. Nor are his teammates, or the players of the semi-pro New England Football League's other 29 teams in three conferences across six New England states and eastern New York.
They're here because they love the game. And the way Hewson competes on Saturdays, that love is apparent.
A team captain, Hewson is impossible to mistake for anyone else, even in a sport where helmets make it difficult to tell the players apart. If you don't spot his No. 1 jersey, look for the player with a heroic red beard. And if you somehow miss the beard, Hewson's bright orange cleats will let you know where he is on the field.
And when you meet him up close, his piercing blue eyes will certainly command your attention.
'I wanted to hit somebody'
Hewson's love of football started with his own boredom in a youth baseball outfield.
"I played instructional league baseball and they put me in the outfield," Hewson said. "The quickest way to lose interest for me was to play outfield. I went home and told my parents that I wanted to hit somebody, so they signed me up for football."
The rest is history for Hewson, 28, who plays linebacker for the Storm. From the first time he played the sport in the third grade through the Mount Anthony Youth Athletic Association (MAYAA), the thrill of making the big hit and the adrenaline rush of a big win gave him life.
He honed his craft on Spinelli Field at Mount Anthony Union High School and was a critical piece of a strong MAU defense in high school. Teaming with players including defensive end Will Cole, linebacker CJ Davendonis, safeties Emmanuel Whyte and Ethan Burdick, among others, the Patriots finished 5-4 his junior and senior seasons.
For his efforts, Hewson was an all-state honorable mention selection his senior year.
Cole, who has been the quarterback of the Storm throughout Hewon's tenure, played alongside the linebacker on those MAU teams.
Hewson's relentless nature stood out to Cole when they were donning the Patriot blue and it still does now.
"He's always been the same ever since I've played football with him, all the way up through MAYAA," Cole said. "He was always always relentless, flying around the field, just making plays. Gary has a non-stop motor."
The opportunity to play again, and so close to home, was an intriguing one for Hewson, a 2009 Mount Anthony graduate. When former player and team co-founder Tighe Stratton reached out to Hewson before the 2012 season, the timing was perfect.
"Tighe knew I played locally. He wanted me to help keep the tradition going, that we have successfully built," Hewson said. "He reached out to me and asked if I wanted to play and by luck of the draw, I was coming back to town. I said 'why not?'"
Stratton always admired Hewson's toughness, having known him since Hewson was about 13 years old.
"We used to play tackle football all the time at Willow Park without pads on and a friend of mine had a brother that was friends with Gary and brought him along to play," Stratton said. "[Gary] was tough as nails, even at that age. He goes out there and plays the game hard and physical and makes plays all over the field. He's the ideal player you want on your team."
For the love of the game
For most young players, the National Football League is the ultimate goal. But the reality is a microscopic percentage of athletes will ever reach that level; and most of those who do will see their careers end in three years or less.
According to the NCAA, only 7.1 percent of the roughly 1 million high school football players in America make the rosters of all college programs, from tiny Castleton to mighty Clemson. Of the 16,346 players are draft eligible when the NFL's 32 teams choose amateur players, only 256 are called — less than 2 percent. And the player chosen with pick No. 256 gets a nickname that predicts the odds of his career prospects: "Mister Irrelevant."
But for most who want to keep playing, it's leagues such the NEFL and teams like the Storm where the game lives on. Once the whistle blows on game day, they take it as seriously as the pros, showering their teammates with encouragement, and occasionally, tough love.
It's a catharsis and an opportunity. While Hewson and his teammates may not reach that pinnacle of the sport, they can be involved in the game they love long after their high school or college days are over.
"That's what it's all about. One percent gets to go on and live their dream," Hewson said. "We all shared the same dream of reaching the NFL, but that didn't happen, so this is the next best thing. You love the game. We're not getting paid, so we obviously love something. Either that or we're pretty stupid."
Hewson's day job is as a lineman for Green Mountain Power.
The work is demanding, physical, and unpredictable; when bad weather chases most folks indoors, that's when Hewson gets in the truck and goes into the storm to restore service. Normal hours for his job are from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., but employees are always on call.
"It's a tough balance. I miss more practices than not lately," Hewson said. "Let's face it, this doesn't pay the bills. This just keeps me sane."
Hewson doesn't have children and his life basically revolves around his job and the Storm. He sees the struggle it can be for guys with more responsibilities than his.
"It's difficult to juggle, but everyone finds time to fit in crazier schedules than I do, that's for sure," Hewson said. "There's plenty of fathers on the team. They work just as crazy hours, so I get it. There's always the complaint about not enough practice, but we don't get paid to be here. It's just the nature of the beast."
Keeping the team together
Finances can sometimes be an issue for some players, and at times, that can create a revolving door for the roster from year to year.
Also, balancing time between football and work is something nearly every player on the Storm must deal with. Between fatherhood, jobs and whatever else crosses their plate, it can be hard to find time for training on the gridiron.
"When [Gary] isn't working, he's here. It's definitely a tough balance," Cipperley added. "A lot of these guys have a lot of different jobs and come from a lot of different places. Trying to make it work all the time is difficult, but for the most part, they do a heck of a job."
Not knowing if they can count on their core group of guys to return can be a challenge for the Storm.
Especially on defense, that uncertainty can hurt in a big way. Strong defense is all based on camaraderie, knowing that a teammate will be in the right spot and trusting in them to make a play.
For Hewson, communication is key.
"It's kind of like a revolving door around here with a lot of new faces year after year," Hewson said. "It's very rare to have the same guys back. Communication is very key and as long as we know who we have where we have them, we can make plays happen. We've been lucky to do that over the years. We've historically been a good defensive team."
The heart of the Storm
Hewson quickly made an impact donning the purple and green in 2012, and entering his eighth NEFL season, he's still making plays all over the field.
The Storm's defense starts with Hewson pointing and directing teammates where to be in certain spots, calling out certain formations he sees from the opposing offense. In the moments before the play begins, he crouches at the knees, waiting, then springs into motion when the ball is snapped.
"For me, especially on the defense, everything runs through Gary," said Cipperley, who is also the team's defensive coordinator. "Gary pretty much takes care of most of the game plan. During the game, we have a good relationship, where we can change things on the fly. He's always up for different ideas. He's such a difference-maker."
When a teammate doesn't hold up their end of the bargain, Hewson is willing to be the one to let them know about it. He'll chat them up on the sidelines, and tell the coaches what he's seeing on the field.
"He has the ability to know what people are good at as well," Cipperley said. "If there's something we can take advantage of, he's willing to get after somebody and say 'hey, you need to do something different' and they'll do it."
Hewson has seen the team develop into a perennial contender in his time playing with the team. He's seen roster numbers grow and fall and then grow again.
He went through the 2016 season, when the Storm nearly folded due to low roster numbers.
He's seen his team find a permanent home in his hometown after years of bouncing from field to field in Vermont and nearby New York state.
He's broken ribs to get his team to a Maritime Conference championship and has felt every high and low the game of football has to offer him.
Now in his eighth year playing for the Storm, what keeps him coming back?
Hewson puts it matter-of-fact.
"You get addicted to the pain."
Adam Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed at @AAucoin_Banner on Twitter.
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