2016-06-24 / Front Page

Quarterback Club plays its last down

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

Marking the passing of the South Portland Quarterback Club, Maine’s first incorporated athletic booster club, on Tuesday, at the concession stand they helped build, are, from left, club directors John King, Liz McGouldrick Flaherty, founding member Nellie Romano, volunteer Tracy Bissonnette, and directors Carol Romano and Sue Borelli. (Duke Harrington photo) Marking the passing of the South Portland Quarterback Club, Maine’s first incorporated athletic booster club, on Tuesday, at the concession stand they helped build, are, from left, club directors John King, Liz McGouldrick Flaherty, founding member Nellie Romano, volunteer Tracy Bissonnette, and directors Carol Romano and Sue Borelli. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND – The South Portland High School Quarterback Club has played its last down, packing up its collective cleats and calling it a career after 66 seasons.

Founded in 1950 by a group of residents to help support high school sports teams at a time when that meant pretty much just football and basketball, the Quarterback Club is believed to be the first athletic booster club incorporated in the state of Maine. Even today, when there are booster groups for just about every extra-curricular event at South Portland High School, on and off the field, and dedicated to dozens of teams for boys and girls, the Quarterback Club is reportedly the only one officially sanctioned by the school department.

Over the years, as new programs were added, the club used its concession stand sales to donate profits each year to different teams beyond those it was formed to support, giving more than $100,000 for equipment ranging from lacrosse nets and track and field starting blocks to weight room equipment and the Martin Field sound and lighting systems. Adjusting those donations for inflation, those donations could ap- proach $1 million.

That’s a lot of hot dogs. But through it all, club members said, they prided themselves on doing it for the school in general, not for any particular team their children may have been playing on.

“We did it because we bleed the Red Riot blood,” said Liz McGouldrick Flaherty, on Tuesday, as some of the remaining club members met at the concession stand they helped build in 2002 at cost of $45,000 and donated to the school.

"My husband was everything for the school, he would push everything" said founding member Nellie Romano, who's husband Sam was instrumental in founding the club

A plaque on the concession stand wall lists the founding members of the club, including the Romanos, who built the first wooden concession stand at what is now Mahoney Middle School, back when it served as the city high school. The second stand, a cinderblock structure, was built at Martin Field in 1965 when athletic contests were moved there.

But the group has aged out over the years, with fewer young parents joining its ranks, leaving the older members, some of whom have served a quarter century or more, with little wherewithal to continue the cause.

In a May 31 letter to South Portland Athletic Director Todd Livingston, club secretary Carol Romano wrote, "As you are aware, we have had great difficulty providing staff to meet the concession needs of the South Portland athletic community. By (instead) leasing our equipment to interested booster groups we dilute the effectiveness of our fund raising and do not meet our basic financial needs for liability insurance, equipment maintenance and replacement and other administrative fees."

Romano said the club will donate its equipment to the high school, to be doled out as it sees fit. The last $5,000 in its treasury will be donated to help build a new equipment storage shed beside Martin Field.

“For 66 years the Quarterback Club has provided incredible service to the boys and girls athletic programs in South Portland, supporting generations of Red Riot athletes and enabling us to build strong programs,” said Superintendent Ken Kunin. “The list of donations and the countless hours of service are truly remarkable and greatly appreciated. We are forever grateful for their selfless service to our students. We are working now on plans to continue concessions at Martin Field and Beal Gym. Our athletic director will be in communication with our booster groups as we develop plans to continue the legacy of strong community support for our programs.”

Still, although club members say they hated to do it, folding their tent has been talked about since at least 2002.

"Over these past 65 years, the number of sports we open the concession stand for has exploded, just skyrocketed, and, along with that, comes an increased demand for the donation of man-hours to work the games and management hours to run the operation," Romano said. "As late as the '90s we could run things with a core group of about 12 to 14 people. These days, we need a pool of at least 30 people to pull from, because we have afternoon games and evening games, and not everybody can do everything."

In addition to increased need, there has come a decrease in volunteers, partly because of the rise of so-called travel teams and targeted booster groups, which consume the time of potential parent help, and partly because lives are simply too crowded these days for most people to give of themselves after their own children have passed though the school system.

"One of the things that was always unique about this group is that most members were alumni parents," club board member

Sue Borelli said. "Most booster clubs in the state raise money only for their organization, and the parents work only for their kids, and only as long as their kids are on that team. This club from the start has mainly been parents with kids who are out of the school system, who are just giving back."

But with so little new blood coming in, and current members getting older, the recent resignation of John King as operations manager after seven years became what

Borelli called a "house of cards" that finally stopped the club just short of the 70-year goal line.

"It's a shame it happens this way, we always had a lot of fun," King said. "But it's a major commitment, up to 1,000 hours per school year just to run that concession stand. Now, this is a different age. People

just don't have the time anymore. They have too many things going on in their lives. I don't blame anyone."

"I don't blame parents for not converting from their individual booster clubs to the

Quarterback Club," said Carol Romano.

"Once they've done that for six or eight years, they're frickin' worn out. They've been run ragged and they need a break."

"I grew up coming to every game with my grandparents and working the stands.

Filling soda cups, that was my job," club volunteer Tracy Bissonnette said. "I was raised to give to something that has no direct benefit to myself, and I wish that could continue. But people my age don't care. The biggest thing is that parents today only want to give to booster groups that benefit their own kids."

With no un-aligned booster club running concessions at high school games, some club members worry about what will come next.

"I've watched this over the years, from the point my dad started it," Stephen Romano said. "This group was always unselfish with who they are donating for. It was for the school, for all the kids. I'm not sure what this is going to look like down the road, because most all of the parents today are in it for their individual booster clubs and their own kids, and some even have to raise money to pay their own coaches. I think it's going to become a big political thing. I'm afraid there will be lots of fights over scheduling and money."

The South Portland Board of Education recently agreed to sell commercial advertising space at Martin Field and Beal Gymnasium, in part to help reduce the fundraising demands on boosters. Most club members aren't wild about that idea, but say the timing of their shut down is coincidental.

Still, the club closure comes with a few tears, gives the end of a 66-year tradition.

"I live near here and it's going to be a hard thing come the last two weeks of August and I can hear the marching band begin to practice," Borelli said, starting to tear up at the thought. "That's going to be hard. Very hard."

"The one thing that will stay with me is just the fresh faces, the boys and the girls being silly, coming up to the concession window," Carol Romano said. "That's one things that never changed, and every year, every game, despite all the bad things that have happened in the world over the years, those kids always restored my faith in humanity."

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