Major quietly retires from coaching ... but we’re not letting him off that easy
The question was innocent enough, one the Reverend Tommie Major gets a lot this time of year.
“So, Tom, how are the Whalers looking?” I asked him recently, alluding to the upcoming high school football season.
“Mikey,” the Reverend answered, “the next football game I watch will be at Yale, drinking wine, relaxing, watching Major and Hunter.”
He was talking about New London alums Major and Hunter Roman, who play at Yale.
And there it was.
Tommie Major’s retirement speech. His uncharacteristically understated retirement speech.
Sorry, Reverend. You’re not getting off that easy.
OK. So we start here. Tommie Major isn’t a reverend. He’s just played one every Friday night for the last four decades, the voice of New London football. Assistant coach in name only. Truly the preeminent preacher of the 06320, inspiring the Whalers on game nights with word spasms of hope.
He’d clap his hands. Stalk. Holler. Sometimes guttural, sometimes turbulent, sometimes hilarious. Like a revival meeting, only louder.
His greatest hits, familiar to friend and foe, are like the best movie lines. You’ve heard them repeatedly, but they get funnier with each rendition. To wit:
“It’s not Ledyard County! It’s not Norwich County! It’s NEW LONDON County!”
“It’s time to hit!”
“The train’s comin!”
“We’re just a small, little country school.”
Every year, when I’d ask how the Whalers are looking, he’d always say they have a transfer coming in from Arkansas. Always Arkansas. It was always the same name, too: Shabazz Walter Sutton.
Before most games, he’d see me on the field and yell to the kids, “see that guy? He’s from the New York Times! The New York Times is here to see the Whalers!”
On it went.
Hard to believe it’s over.
We will miss the voice of high school football around here.
Just know that Tommie Major was always more than his voice.
He raised five children with the late, great Barbara Major. Melissa, Alexis, Tommie, Todd and Tyler grew up in the quintessential New London family: biracial, inclusive, opinionated, loyal.
Their home was the epicenter of the city. Their home was everybody else’s, too. Like the great story Barbara Major once told about Rajai Davis, who would become one of the city’s favorite sons, aspiring to Major League Baseball.
Barbara awakened at 3 a.m. one morning, walked into her kitchen and found Davis snacking at the table.
“You go right on eating Rajai,” Barbara remembered saying, as she went back to bed.
Davis later said, “They helped me out when it was tough. I didn’t have any money. I didn’t really have ways to eat the way I wanted to. Their house was always open. The Majors were very good to me.”
They were very good to Jordan Reed, too, the Jordan Reed who plays for the Washington Redskins. They assumed legal guardianship of Tyler Major’s best friend, adding more responsibility to plates that already runneth over with two full-time jobs and a lifetime of raising their own kids.
And so when Tommie Major would yell on Friday nights about the power and poignancy of New London, remember this: He lived it.
Major is perhaps the greatest player in the history of the region’s greatest program. Old No. 51 was a linebacker on the undefeated 1968 team that many local sports observers consider our gold standard.
“He changed the game back in the day,” Kent Reyes, who played and coached with him, said. “The (Capital District Conference) was a lot different. We played all the Hartford schools. And even they were always looking for No. 51.”
But much like Phil Rizzuto, Major became more famous after his playing days and because of his voice. Selected Major-isms would come at violent intervals and high decibel levels in the hours and minutes before kickoff.
“Bob Taylor,” Major said once about the man who inspired him, his old coach from Maryland Eastern Shore, then a black college in the 1970s. “He played for the Giants before he coached us. He would hoot and holler. You have to understand that back then, it was a little different than it is now. It was just the beginning of integration. A lot of times, that’s how we would start the game.”
“Back then, doing a lot jawing was called ‘fatmouthing,’” Major said. “When we’d play Florida A&M or Morgan State, there would be a lot of fatmouthing. But all in good humor. It’s all fun.”
Nobody made it more fun here. Because if The Reverend wasn’t yelling, “It’s time to hit!” he would ask a more basic question:
“What’s your number?”
Or as Major would say, “num-buh.”
“When I say, ‘what’s your number?’ people look at me like, ‘what’s he talking about?’” Major said. “But you are based on how old your organization is. Ledyard was established by a great individual, (former coach) Bill Mignault. Give them credit. But I’ve got to ask: what’s their number? Is it 6,000?
“Almost every little dinky town or city has a football team. But you don’t have to be too smart to know our number. It’s No. 1. We are (part of) the oldest high school traditional game in the world,” he said, alluding to the New London-NFA football rivalry, the nation’s longest game, now exceeding 150 years.
“Go anyplace in the world and they’ve heard of the Whalers. Some schools might have started in the ’40s, ‘50s, or ’60s. But we’re 1800. How many people can say that you’ve been established with one of the oldest high school teams in the world?”
I don’t even know how much of that is true.
Don’t care, either.
Because it’s Tommie Major.
A man who never took himself too seriously and so gloriously entertained all of us.
A man who also mistakenly thought his retirement from coaching would happen without fanfare.
Ha. Good one.
So we’ll start planning Maj’s retirement party forthwith.
Should be a hoot.
Meantime, we’ll thank the Reverend for all the laughs. And for being the embodiment of the city he loves.
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro