New London - And so it turns out that the concepts of "football" and "religion" are not mutually exclusive ways to kill time on Sundays. Millions of fans in the south, for example, would call both of them vocations. Others are perhaps reduced to using the word "Jesus" in times of gridiron distress.
But then there's New London. Yes, the 06320 has its own preacher. For many years. The Rev. Tommie Major. He's not really an actual reverend. He's the city's Recreation Director.
But he has a voice that could peel paint on game day. You never know when the crescendo is coming. He claps his hands. He stalks. He hollers. Sometimes guttural, sometimes turbulent, sometimes hilarious. Like a revival meeting, only louder.
Major is a part of the fabric of the New London High School football sideline. He played for the Whalers in the late 1960s, perhaps the greatest player in the history of one of the Gatsbys of Connecticut football. He's been an assistant coach for what feels like forever. But much like Phil Rizzuto, he's become more famous after his playing days and because of his voice. Selected Major-isms come at violent intervals and high decibel levels in the hours and minutes before kickoff.
Visitors to theday.com will get their chance to hear him during the pregame show (10:15 a.m.) of the Saturday Morning Showdown, the latest rendition of the Ledyard-New London rivalry Saturday from Mignault Field. Major will be featured before the game, which coincides with The Day's foray into live video coverage on theday.com that will have the look, sound and feel of a network broadcast.
"I've dreamed for years of having a coach on my sideline, or being on his sideline, that gets me so fired up," New London coach Duane Maranda said. "It's a piece I've never really had. There's so much tradition here and Tommie is so much behind that. He's an institution in New London. It gets me fired up and gets my mind right before the game."
Major's greatest hits include:
"The train's comin'!"
"It's time to hit!"
"It's not Waterford County! It's not Ledyard County! It's New London County!"
Turns out Major used his city upbringing around men he called "characters" - Jim O'Neill, Frog Mei and Joe Basilica among them - with an old coach from college at Maryland Eastern Shore.
"Bob Taylor," Major said recently. "He played for the Giants before he coached us. He would hoot and holler. I went to a black school. You have to understand that back then, it was a little different than it is now. It was just the beginning of integration. A lot of times, that's how we would start the game.
"Back then, doing a lot jawing was called 'fatmouthing,'" Major said. "When we'd play Florida A&M or Morgan State, there would be a lot of fatmouthing. But all in good humor. It's all fun."
Major said his pregame shtick isn't meant to intimidate the other team, as has been suggested by opposing coaches over the years.
"It's really for them to expect what's coming," Major said. "You've got to understand something. No one will ever tell you the Whalers don't come to hit. We mean business."
Major proudly wears a green and gold cap trumpeting the letter "X." It stands for "ex"-Whalers. You only get one if you played. And if you don't get anything else about Major, just know this: He takes great pride in the idea that those hats could be worn by people back to the 1800s. He called playing for New London like a "social club."
"When I say, 'what's your number?' people look at me like, 'what's he talking about?'" Major said. "But you are based on how old your organization is. Ledyard was established by a great individual, (former coach) Bill Mignault. Give them credit. But I've got to ask: what's their number? Is it 6,000?"
Stand back. Major's rolling.
"Almost every little dinky town or city has a football team. But you don't have to be too smart to know our number. It's No. 1. We are (part of) the oldest high school traditional game in the world," he said, alluding to the New London-NFA football rivalry, the nation's longest game, now exceeding 150 years.
"Go anyplace in the world and they've heard of the Whalers. Some schools might have started in the '40s, '50s, or '60s. But we're 1800. How many people can say that you've been established with one of the oldest high school teams in the world?"
This is what makes Major exactly what Maranda called him: an institution.
The train's comin' again on Saturday.