By Ed Niser
TOWNSEND -- Pen Burnham has been a sturdy fixture on the North Middlesex Regional High School's soccer sidelines for the last 13 years -- including a two-year stint as the junior varsity coach. His players, past and present, drive past his house, which is conveniently located one-mile from campus. Just how the coach likes it.
"I am really going to miss the kids," Burnham said. "They would drive by my house, and I knew exactly who it was racing past. I would not single them out at practice, but I would tell them I know everyone in town. I always told them to not screw up. The kids need someone to put a thumb on them and tell them 'hey, don't do that.'
"They listened to me -- maybe, it's because I am a big guy." He joked.
After 10 seasons at the helm of the boys' soccer program, back issues prompted the competitive soccer coach to put an end to his coaching career -- at least for the near future.
"I can't work all day and then stand up for three more hours with my bad back," Burnham said. "It is just not fair to the kids. I have been involved with Pepperell youth soccer and North Middlesex soccer for a total of 23 years. It has been a long time that I have been involved with the sport. It is really different for me not to be setup and doing something this time of the year. I want to get out to watch the kids play.
Burnham, a 1968 graduate of North Middlesex Regional High School, has a strong allegiance to his alma mater Burnham remembers when John E. Young Memorial Field did not have lights and the soccer program took whoever came out for the program.
"I am a North Middlesex kid who has lived in town all my life," Burnham said. "I still get chills when I walk out onto that football field. Whenever the soccer team played a game there I would get chills up-and-down my spine every time. It never went away.
Memories flood you. All of the guys who I played football with have changed shape, but you never forget those plays. "I am going to really miss the kids. That is what kept me young. They always wondered what the heck I was talking about when I told them about my years at North Middlesex. They'd say, 'there goes the old man talking about the glory days again.' The kids need to know their history."
In his 10 seasons as head coach, the Patriots made it to the District tournament twice, but it never was able to advance out of the opening round.
"I have gotten coach out of the year once -- When I received the award, I said it was not about me, it's about the kids,"' he said. "We had quite a few players become Central Mass. All-Stars over the years and had a couple of state All-Stars. As far as league titles, we came close with Asa Okerman in 2011."
Burnham, like many coaches, put a large emphasis on his athletes being a student first.
One of the things Burnham is most proud about during his time with the program is the number of players who filtered through his program and moved on to college as students and/or athletes.
Last season, when James Bunnell stepped in as athletic director, he and Burnham developed an instant bond.
Both Bunnell and Burnham care about the future of the kids after they leave North Middlesex.
"That, to me is what it is all about," he said. "James Bunnell is the real deal. It was hard for me putting in my resignation in to James."
Burnham and Waldron certainly have their differences when it comes to coaching philosophy.
"Jeff is an offense-first coach, while I am a defense-first guy. I am going to really miss talking and riding on the bus with the kids. I am going to miss the strategy of the game, but more importantly, I am going to miss the kids. They kept me young."
Burnham admits that stepping away from the game is difficult, but he has a potential game plan for the future
"It is time for me to move to the next phase," Burnham said. "If my back straightens out and it is feeling good -- I might jump back into coaching. It doesn't matter what level I coach at.
"Maybe, I can help Jeff scout the other team from up above. Jeff reminds me a lot of myself when I first started out with his energy level and excitement.
"I think if there ever was a good time for me to step down, this is it."
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