There was a noticeable feeling of loss around the Vineyard this week.
“I can’t believe we’re not playing Nantucket this weekend,” one man lamented Monday while waiting for a haircut at Bert’s barber shop in Vineyard Haven. “What is the world coming to?”
For the first time in nearly 50 years, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard will not play the Island Cup football game this weekend, one of the most celebrated and storied traditions for both Islands that was cancelled this year for financial reasons.
The loss of the game comes at a time when the national recession is clamping down hard on the Vineyard, and for many Islanders it signals the loss of one more cherished tradition, like diving for coins off the steamship pier or horse races through the state forest on Thanksgiving day.
An no one feels the loss more than Coach Donald Herman, who has played a major role in the history of the Island Cup rivalry.
“It just feels weird this week not playing Nantucket,” he said. “Traditions are the fabric of our lives, and we have lost one of the most important traditions there is — not just for the Vineyard, but for Nantucket too.”
The game was cancelled chiefly because Nantucket could no longer afford the travel costs to the Vineyard. The two Islands annually play each other in football, soccer, field hockey, basketball and lacrosse.
At one point there was talk about playing the Island Cup game at a neutral site like Falmouth or Barnstable to cut down on travel costs. But the idea never took hold and was scrapped. Then in July Vineyard school officials learned that Nantucket had dropped the Vineyard from their schedule.
E-mails and phone messages went unanswered, and the Vineyard reluctantly dropped the game and filled the open date with a game against Brighton.
Coach Herman said he doubts the Island Cup will resume next year, largely because the Vineyard entered into a two-year commitment with Brighton. Until recently the Whalers won the Island Cup on a regular basis, and from 1993 to 1998 won five out of six and four in a row over the Vineyard.
But things have turned around under Coach Herman, who led the Vineyarders to six wins a row; including last year’s 43-22 win on Nantucket. The Whalers finished last season with a record of 0-10, while the Vineyarders went 12-1 and advanced to the Division 3A Superbowl.
After last year’s game, longtime Whalers coach Vito Capizzo, who is as storied as the rivalry, announced he was retiring after 45 years. Coach Capizzo is one of the most successful high school football coaches in Massachusetts history, with 293 wins over four decades.
And while the game has lost its luster in recent years, Coach Herman said he never though it would be cancelled. “Living here I always thought there were three things you could be sure of: death, taxes and the Island Cup,” he said.
The sense of loss was also felt on Nantucket this week, said Dick Herman, longtime television announcer for the Whalers. “There is no question this week has a different feel. It’s kind of a sad feeling not playing the Island Cup,” he said.
Coach Herman said the travel cost problem could be solved. He said the Steamship Authority offered a discount for the fan boat, and Nantucket boosters could raise the travel money.
“We’re not talking about a lot of money, around $5,500. They could have raised that through ticket sales for cars coming over on the boat. The bottom line is that people on both sides would have been happy to help pay the tab.”
Dick Herman said he is optimistic the Island Cup will return.
“There are some important money issues to work out on both sides, but I think it will be back. It has to come back,” he said.
The Island Cup has caught the fascination of the national media and has been the subject of stories in The Boston Globe, New York Times and Wall Street Journal. But at its core it remains a deeply personal contest for both Islands. Some families can trace their ties to the game back generations.
For 364 days out of the year the two Islands that share weather patterns, ocean tides and even a boat line stare at each other across the sound, barely acknowledging that the other exists.
But for one glorious day in late November, they clash on the football field while fans reunite with old friends, teammates and sometimes old rivals in the stands.
Peter Lambos, a member of the Vineyard’s 1997 team that beat Nantucket by a score of 21-8, recalls going to Nantucket in 1992 as a young boy and watching quarterback Jason Dyer lead the Vineyarder to an improbable comeback win late in the game. With only four minutes left, Dyer hit Keith Devine with a sideline pass to give the Vineyarders a 14-12 win in a game widely regarded as one of the best in Island Cup history.
And although Mr. Lambos’s 1997 team went undefeated and won the Island Cup, he still compares his squad to the 1992 team that he idolized as a kid.
“I can remember being over there and watching Jason Dyer and Keith Devine rushing the field. When the Island Cup is played every year I always seem to run into some of those players from the 1992 team, including Jason, and we always wind up talking about which was better — the 1992 team or the 1997 team,” he said, adding:
“The answer is the 1997 team, of course.”
The game serves as a reunion for old rivals, too.
Mr. Lambos said he struck up a friendship with Nantucket player Travis Lombardi after playing against him in the 1997 Island Cup. He was a safety in the game and Mr. Lombardi was a wide receiver. There was a play toward the end of the game that the two argued about for years afterwards.
“He caught the ball late in the game when I was covering him. And I always thought the ref should have called pass interference . . . to this day I think the ref got it wrong,” Mr. Lambos said.
The two players became friends after both attended Springfield College, and Mr. Lombardi stayed with Mr. Lambos’ family one year while visiting the Vineyard for the Island Cup game. “That’s what the Island Cup is, it’s one big reunion . . . you see people you otherwise might not see all year,” he said.
Bob Tankard, a former player and head coach for the Vineyarders, said he feels bad for the players who grew up watching the Island Cup.
“These kids grow up running up and down the sidelines cheering the players, dreaming one day of running out on that field to represent the Vineyard. All those years of waiting and hoping, and now these kids might not get a chance [to play],” he said.
Mr. Tankard played in one of the first games against Nantucket in 1961, as a freshman on the newly created Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School football team. (An all-star team, made up of players from the three high schools here, played Nantucket in 1953 and 1954.)
Mr. Tankard said back in his day the two teams played each other twice a year, and would often form close friendships. This was before players flew over, and would travel by ferry and stay with the families of the players from the other island.
He made friends with a Nantucket player named Joe Santos, who later helped him out when he was in a tough spot. Mr. Tankard had to drive down to New Jersey for a family emergency, and somehow a suitcase containing a large sum of money got misplaced and wound up on boat headed for Nantucket.
So he called up his old friend. “Somehow he found the bag and got it back to me. We played together in that game all those years ago, but still I could call him as a friend,” he said.
“Everyone who lives on the Vineyard and Nantucket has these stories, they are part of our history, the games are part of our way of life. This is what we know. We all stand to lose something with this game. I never thought I would have to say these words, but I hope we play Nantucket again in the Island Cup,” he said.
The Vineyard plays its final game of the season tomorrow against Brighton; kickoff is at 1 p.m.