AUGUSTA — In a room full of big, burly linemen, past and present, swapping stories about life in the trenches, no one told the tale better than Matt Archer. And he could do it without saying a word.

Archer’s left arm hangs from a sling draped over a bulky, padded immobilizer wedged under his surgically-repaired shoulder. He played most of the 2010 football season for Mt. Blue with the labrum in the front and back of his left shoulder torn, yet still somehow dominated on both sides of the ball, earning all-Pine Tree Conference and Sun Journal all-region honors as a two-way lineman for the PTC semifinals-bound Cougars.

“It didn’t hurt too much until I could actually dislocate it,” a matter-of-fact Archer said.

Archer played through the pain, even wrestled through it for the Cougars this winter, until he underwent surgery last Wednesday. He never played with regrets, though.

“My whole team was behind me and kept pushing me to push through it,” he said. “We thought it was just a pulled muscle or something like that at first. But I had a lot of support and I didn’t want to let the team down.”

Archer, a senior tackle, was the most visibly jarring example of the toughness, courage and sacrifice it takes to be a lineman. But there were 10 other young men, and a couple of dozen ex-linemen, in the Augusta Civic Center for the inaugural Frank J. Gaziano Memorial Offensive and Defensive Lineman Awards who could empathize.

The best among them, according to a selection committee, were Matt Welch of South Portland, who was named the Offensive Lineman of the Year, and Bonny Eagle’s Nate Martel, who picked up the Defensive Lineman of the Year.

As the first winners of the awards, Welch and Martel received a $2,500 scholarship award provided by National Distributors, whose founder was Gaziano, an All-American lineman at Holy Cross who went on to play professionally for the Boston Yanks. Their schools received a large trophy of a lineman in a typical stance (three-point for offensive linemen, four-point for defensive linemen) which will rotate annually among the schools of the winners.

Welch and Martel emerged from a pool of five offensive line finalists and six defensive line finalists, all seniors. A committee consisting of high school coaches, former players and coaches and Gaziano family members evaluated the finalists on academics, community service and football. Finalists had to submit an essay and complete an interview with the selection committee, while their coaches submitted game film of their on-field exploits.

Mountain Valley defensive end Christian Durland was one of two runners-up for the defensive line, along with Chris Desmond of John Bapst. They each received a $500 scholarship award and a crystal trophy. All finalists received either commemorative jackets or hoodies.

“It’s an honor to be recognized for an award such as this,” said Durland, who was the Campbell Conference’s Player of the Year and a Sun Journal all-region selection. “It definitely wouldn’t have been possible without my coaches or teammates or my family or the families of my teammates supporting me.”

Were it not for the Gazianos, only coaches, teammates and families would acknowledge an otherwise thankless job.

The award fills a recognition void for Maine’s high school linemen. The Chet Bulger Award, named after the legendary Rumford lineman, was discontinued recently. The Fitzpatrick Trophy, given annually to the state’s top senior high school player, is almost exclusively awarded to quarterbacks and running backs. Only the SMAA recognizes linemen as a conference, annually presenting the Gerry Raymond Award, named after the legendary Lewiston lineman.

Raymond remains the only lineman to receive the Fitzpatrick Trophy and was the featured speaker at Sunday’s banquet. He outlined the lessons he learned from his high school coaches over 30 years ago and noted they will always apply, no matter how much the game changes.

“It is the same lessons of life — how to make yourself successful, how to work hard, how to be honest and never settle for anything but your best,” Raymond said. “In short, the lessons of how to be a better man that football teaches all of us. The responsibility for teaching these lessons now passes to the young men we are honoring today. I know the lessons you have learned, the experiences you’ve had, will help you achieve whatever you want to in life and to me, that makes you all winners.”

Even for the winners, lineman is not a glamorous position. University of Maine defensive tackle and former Windham lineman Raibonne Charles emphasized the fact by comparing linemen to mules, “smart as a horse, tough as a donkey.”

“You guys are tough, you’re smart and you have all the heart in the world,” Charles said. “You guys are the heart and soul of the team.”

Some theorized the Gazianos may add a touch of glamour to the trenches and attract more kids to the most physically-demanding positions in football.

“I think it’s going to give linemen a big incentive to really go above and beyond now,” said Durland, who is searching for a school where he can study to become an air traffic controller and play college football. “I think they’re going to see a big increase in the talent of linemen in the state after bringing this award to attention.”

“(The recognition) means a lot,” said Archer, who has college visits lined up at Husson, Plymouth State and Maine Maritime and expects to be ready to play in the fall. “It’s good for the linemen to finally be recognized for what we do.”

Zach Dulac of Cheverus and Nick Ramsdell of Windham were the runners-up among offensive linemen. The other finalists were Jake Huerfano of Waterville, Trevor Bates of Westbrook, Jack Horton of Falmouth and Cape Elizabeth’s Connor McAleney.


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