In the 120-year history of the Cony-Gardiner football rivalry, the outcome has often come down to running backs. Both high schools have had some good ones.

The list of Cony stars includes Normie Merrill, Phil Coulombe, Terry Kaler and Mark O’Brien. Gardiner’s tradition of running the ball includes a long list of quality backs, among them Dave Cloutier, Frank Smith, Jim LeClair, Chris Whalen, Mike Madore and for the past two seasons, Alonzo Connor.

There may not have been a better matchup of top-notch backs than the 1984 game when Cony’s Joe Coleman went head to head with Gardiner’s Rick Lovely. The seniors were 1-2 among Pine Tree Conference running backs that season and led their teams to 6-2 records entering the game.

The fact that the host Rams had recorded four of the eight shutouts in the conference that season made them slight favorites. That notion didn’t include Gardiner coach John Wolfgram, Lovely or his teammates.

“They smoked us,” said Coleman, recalling the 41-8 loss. “That’s the biggest thing I remember.”

Lovely won the individual battle against Coleman, rushing for 212 yards and four touchdowns, including an 85-yard kickoff return. He entered the game 11 yards behind Coleman for the season but overtook him after Coleman gained 130 yards. Both players were aware of each other’s statistics and ability.

“Both teams followed each other in the paper and they knew each other all year,” Lovely said. “I’d been around Cony-Gardiner games all my life. That was one of the most built-up games I’d ever seen.”

The two runners were a contrast in styles. At 6 feet and 190 pounds, Coleman had a couple of inches and 10 pounds on Lovely.

“He was a big, strong, physical back,” Lovely said. “I just ran like I was in a street fight.”

They shared a toughness and were both very difficult to bring down. Cony defensive coach Bob Lippert recalled a fourth-down play early in the game when the Rams appeared to have Lovely stopped cold.

“We stuffed him on their favorite play,” Lippert said. “And he bounced to the left and he was gone.”

Later in the game, Lovely scored on a tailback counter, a play the Tigers ran for the first time. Assistant coach Rob Munzing remembered it worked just the way it was drawn up.

“We ran that play for years after that,” Munzing said.

Coleman was hampered by a pulled and heavily taped hamstring that limited his ability to cut, but that was incidental to the physical punishment he took when pass blocking.

“I just remember how disciplined and aggressive John Wolfgram’s teams were,” Coleman said in reference to Gardiner’s head coach. “They had a defensive end, on pass plays he would just light me up.”

Said Lovely: “That was Rob McKenzie. He was one of my best friends.”

Coleman met Wolfgram at the Kennebec Valley YMCA where they were both members as well as a football camp at Maine Maritime Academy.

“(He) was a huge influence on me,” he said. “He was always encouraging me.”

Lovely recalls how Wolfgram would tell him how much progress he saw Coleman making in the offseason in order to motivate him. Both players got to know one another at the University of Maine. Coleman lettered all four years playing safety and serving as special teams captain while Lovely’s career was cut short after one season by a motorcycle accident.

Lovely has stayed close to the football program at Gardiner, both as a parent (his two sons played) and as a youth coach. He was hired as the team’s head coach last year but had to resign a week later due to a health issue.

“I will be there Friday night,” he said of the game.

Coleman moved into an acting and modeling career in New York City. Currently married to Oscar nominated actress Janet McTeer, today he owns a fashion company. He recalls a pair of pants he previewed that were Gardiner orange on the inside of the cuffs.

“I said you can’t put that on the floor,” he said. “I made them change it to red.”

Added Lovely: “Those colors, they stick with you a lifetime.”

Gary Hawkins — 621-5638

[email protected]

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