John Theberge didn’t know it at the time, but he was truly among a dying breed of athlete.
A solid scholar in the classroom, Theberge was also gifted athletically, but he was never among the elite in any one sport.
Rather, he was among the elite in three different endeavors, a concept that has gradually but noticeably disappeared in a sporting world intent on specialization.
“When I grew up in Lewiston, I had no choice, there was no such thing as specialization,” Theberge said. “You played the sport that was in season. My father never allowed me to play a sport out of season, so I was very limited in playing any kind of summer hockey, which now is certainly the norm, almost necessary.”
Lack of specialization certainly didn’t do anything to slow Theberge down, though. A three-sport star at Lewiston High School, Theberge went on to play all three — football, hockey and baseball — at least briefly, at Bowdoin College. There, his name still dots the football and hockey record books, and he’s been inducted into the school’s athletic hall of honor.
This weekend, he’ll add another accomplishment fueled by his love of three sports: Theberge is among the Class of 2010 being inducted into the Auburn-Lewiston Sports Hall of Fame.
“I knew the hall of fame existed, but it certainly wasn’t on my radar as far as something I’d be inducted into,” Theberge said. “I’m very happy, very pleased and certainly very honored.”
Theberge had even pushed many of the memories of his sporting past, particularly his days at Lewiston High School, into the back of his mind.
“I can’t tell you I’ve given it a lot of thought over the last 30 years,” Theberge admitted. “Frankly, it wasn’t until I talked to Fern (Masse) that he kind of reminded me of some of those events. They were, at their time, big events, but it isn’t something I’ve given a lot of thought to over the years.”
MOLDING A QUARTERBACK
For all of his accomplishments as a three-sport athlete, perhaps what Theberge was best known for was his prowess on the gridiron.
That, he said, wasn’t even a thought until he got to high school.
“I owe my football career to (former Lewiston coach) Mike Haley,” Theberge said. “He came from Waterville, he had just taken a quarterback there to the Fitzpatrick Award, and he came in as an offensive coach focused on quarterbacks. He took my level of skill and maybe some raw talent into everything from understanding how to throw a ball, the strategies. He was terrific, he was instrumental in getting me through Lewiston, Hotchkiss and eventually Bowdoin.”
Haley, who’s since coached, taught and been an administrator at several area schools, molded Theberge from a hand-off quarterback to a field general.
“It was something I never thought about, being a quarterback, until the eighth or ninth grade,” Theberge said. “We had such great running backs at the time, Mike Ouellette and Jim Erskine, all you had to do was give them the ball. Quarterback in the eighth and ninth grade, it was, get the ball, hand it off.”
“I recruited him hard,” Haley said. “The top of my list of things I remember about John, and I know it sounds like a trite term, but he was a born leader. He really commanded a lot of respect, from the kids and the coaches. He was very coachable, he listened, and did what we asked him to do, and he did it well.”
Of course, Theberge made his share of mistakes. But that, Haley said, helped make him a better player.
“If had something he needed to do better with, he did it,” Haley said.
Theberge parlayed three years with Haley, and a fourth with coach Dick Collins, into a healthy collegiate career. After a year at Hotchkiss for prep school, Theberge enrolled at Bowdoin, where he started for four years as the Polar Bears’ quarterback.
“He was obviously a smart guy, went to Bowdoin and did very well there,” Haley said.
Academically, Theberge was solid, and he shone on the gridiron. He’s held several football records at the Brunswick school, and his name continues to dot the football record book there. He’s still No. 1 in most rushing yards in a season by a quarterback (544), most rushing yards in a career by a quarterback (1,622), and most rushing attempts by a quarterback in a career (392). Theberge is also fifth all-time at Bowdoin in total yards for a career with 3,174.
But football wasn’t Theberge’s only passion. An elbow surgery freshman year derailed his plan to play three seasons’ worth of sports at Bowdoin, but he still had hockey, another of his favorite pastimes.
“He never could have played just one sport; it would have driven him nuts,” Haley said. “There wasn’t a sport he didn’t like, and there wasn’t a sport he didn’t do well in. I was the athletic director at the time, too, and I had the chance to see him play all of his other sports, and I can remember saying to myself, ‘Gee, I’m glad we have him playing football.'”
After high school, after a year at Hotchkiss, Theberge had offers to play elsewhere.
“It’s the reason I went to Bowdoin,” Theberge said. “I had other offers, some from Division I schools. The promise was always that you could play multiple sports, but the reality was that it was almost impossible, especially two back-to-back sports.”
But Bowdoin allowed him to do it. And he took full advantage.
“Being able to go from football to hockey, it requires two things,” Theberge said. “It requires the willingness of the coaches to allow you to do that … and I was lucky enough, athletically, to be able to pull it off.”
It also helped to have some friends in the right places.
“I’d get the guys in the rink to open up at 5 a.m., just so I could get some skating in during football season,” Theberge said. “So I wasn’t coming in so far behind everyone who was probably skating six, seven weeks before I got there.”
Playing sports in different seasons was just about all the conditioning Theberge did in those days.
“I did enough running and outdoor work to get me by, and going from football to hockey without a break I was in pretty good shape,” Theberge said. “I wasn’t necessarily in great hockey shape but Sid (Watson, a longtime coach at Bowdoin) made sure I was there as soon as possible. From a hockey perspective, as much as Mike Haley was my inspiration and someone who took me to the next level in football, certainly Sid was from a hockey perspective, and from a mentor perspective.”
Theberge made his name as a gritty forward, known for solid penalty-killing and hard-nosed play, as one might expect from a football player. He also found the time to score some goals. Theberge has the ninth best single-season goal-scoring mark at Bowdoin, and is 31st all-time for a career. He’s also sixth in most career shorthanded goals, and fifth in career penalty minutes. His final season at Bowdoin was also Watson’s final year as the head coach.
“To finish my senior year in his last year of coaching was a special moment,” Theberge said.
The offers to play professional sports were there after graduation, Theberge said.
“I got a lot of letters from a football perspective to come to some NFL training camps,” Theberge said, “but I kind of knew where my talent-level was, and I’m not sure at the time it was right. It was nice to get the letters, but at the time I had no interest in pursuing football any longer. I think my father was more proud to get the letters than anyone else, at the time, and my mother probably still has them somewhere stored.”
Hockey was another story, though.
“On the hockey front, there was more interest,” Theberge said. “There were a couple of teammates who went on to play in Europe, and it certainly crossed my mind. If I had any regrets at all, it’s not having done any years in Europe, but I had a great four years at Bowdoin and I was kind of done for a while.”
Theberge now works for a hi-tech data storage company and is based in Sherborn, Mass. A father of four, Theberge remains committed to the ideal that being a multi-sport athlete is truly the way to go.
“These kids are specializing in sports at a very young age, and I think it’s unfortunate,” Theberge said. “It’s partly due to a lot of the pressures of getting into college and focusing on one sport, but, at least in Massachusetts, we’re seeing a lot of the detriments to that. We’re seeing a lot of single-sport injuries from repetitive use. I can tell you as a parent of three boys, it’s something that my wife and I think about a lot. We expose them to everything, but I think the three-sport athlete is a dying breed.”
Good thing for Theberge, Lewiston High School and Bowdoin College that it waited a generation or two.