FRYEBURG – You can light one match and destroy bricks and mortar. You may melt crystal trophies and the padding and free weights that were used to win them. One hour of tearstained terror is capable of reducing more than a half-century of memories to rubble.

But kill a school’s pride or an athletic program’s spirit? No, you’ll have to work harder than that.

Twenty-three months ago, an arsonist’s dark desire eclipsed the sunrise over perhaps the darkest day in the history of Fryeburg Academy. That fire on an autumn Wednesday destroyed venerable Gibson Gymnasium, taking with it every pad, every practice jersey, every meeting place and every meaningful piece of equipment a football team called its own.

“It was Homecoming Weekend. We were honoring the 1965 state championship team (on its 40th anniversary), so those people and a lot of alumni were going to be here, anyway,” said Fryeburg football coach Jim “Fuzzy” Thurston. “They say everything happens for a reason.”

Playing that Saturday, with torrential rain bearing down and yellow police tape separating the football field from the crime scene, took courage and the kindness of strangers. Rebuilding that which was lost took community character, fierce alumni loyalty and a fortune.

Fryeburg football relishes a grand re-opening this Saturday, when the Raiders host the Falmouth Yachtsmen in a Western Class B season opener.

Coaches and players will convene in the stunning, state-of-the-art Harvey Dow Gibson Athletic Center, a $10 million project whose impact on the gridiron, hardwood and all other endeavors won’t be fully understood for generations to come.

An adjacent performing arts center, when completed, will bring the total price tag to $16 million.

Unveiled in June, Fryeburg’s sparkling sports complex already has played host to summer basketball and class reunions. Saturday’s game will be the first opportunity, however, for many donors to see the fruit of their labor.

“People notice now that we have a nice facility, nicer locker rooms, everything,” senior Tyler Thurston said while standing in the freshly paved, adjacent parking lot after Thursday’s afternoon practice. “That entire glass window right there, that whole area behind it is our weight room. What we used to have was the size of that car right there. One machine and a bench press.”

No Fryeburg football team has won a state title since that 1965 group, and the Raiders have lost more often than not since. They’ve never reached the playoffs since the Southern York League and Mountain Valley Conference merged to form the Campbell Super Conference.

Seventeen returning starters have combined with the spacious new headquarters to generate an excitement Fryeburg football hasn’t known in recent memory.

“It brings a lot more attention to our school. It’s already brought out a couple of dorm students who probably wouldn’t have played,” said senior Talon Chandler.

“We have 12 or 13 freshmen out for football,” added junior Dan Broyer, who played in the first varsity game after the fire as a ninth-grader. “They have their own team this year.”

Anyone who suited up in 2005 or 2006 lived through adversity that would have persuaded most schools to suspend their program for a year, if not forever.

Borrowed uniforms and team meetings in an industrial arts building were relative luxuries.

“That was a rough day,” recalled Tyler Thurston, the coach’s son. “Everyone thought we were going to cancel the season. Then all these schools called up and said they would donate their stuff, so we had practice that day, right on the field with jeans on.”

“Those are our old locker rooms, right over there,” Chandler noted, waving at a single-wide portable trailer.

Eight or more of those trailers would fit into the current training facility, a room packed with more Nautilus machines, treadmills and free weights than the average health club.

“We have a full-time trainer working here now,” said coach Thurston. “That’s the kind of thing that will pay off years down the road. I know there are Division III colleges in Maine that would be envious of our facility.”

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