Don Mahler: Cardigan’s Mountain of a Man

Tuesday, October 29, 2013
Canaan — You don’t have to look far to see Jim Marrion’s influence at Cardigan Mountain School.

There’s the football field that bears his name, the generations of students who revere him, and now, after an Oct. 19 ceremony, there’s a massive granite boulder that bears a plaque with his likeness and achievements.

The words echo the man’s philosophy: Play hard. Play fair.

But while friends and family came out to honor Cardigan’s old man of the mountain, the 78-year-old Marrion was more interested in watching a feisty ninth-grader in the CMS green jersey in action on the football field.

That would be Nick Spaulding: No. 16 in your program. No. 1 in Marrion’s heart. Where else would you expect him to put his grandson?

“It’s just wonderful to be here and see Nick play,” said the grandfather.

The soft eyes cannot hide the pride in his heart. The wide smile makes words unnecessary:

“It’s just such a great day.”

This day almost didn’t happen, however. Nick Spaulding is lucky to be walking around pain-free, let alone playing tackle football.

Three years ago, as a sixth-grader at Kearsarge Middle School, Spaulding was going off jumps with friends in a freestyle ski park. He’d done it dozens of times before — except this time he went just a little too fast. Losing control, he landed flat on his back.

At New London Hospital, he was told he had compressed eight vertebrae. And that wasn’t even the bad news. Then they told him that he might be done playing sports.

Apparently, the doctors didn’t know Nick Spaulding too well. Or the genes that laid the foundation for his athleticism. He is, after all, Jim Marrion’s grandson.

For four months, he wore a back brace. No playing, no exercising, no nothing. He was out of shape and out of sorts.

As summer rolled around, Spaulding finally got the OK from the doctors to start physical activity. Football was fast approaching, so he teamed up with personal trainer Ben Dearman in Lebanon and threw himself into a physical regimen to get himself ready to be an athlete again.

His drive and competitiveness paid off: He was on the field opening day of seventh-grade football.

“I’m fine,” he says today, smiling. “And I ski a lot more cautiously.”

Driven on the field, Spaulding takes to his studies the same way. It was he who decided to take the private school route.

“I set high goals and have high expectations for myself,” said Spaulding. “I want to push myself, to challenge myself. It’s an opportunity to do things not a lot of kids get a chance to do.”

And if he was going to go to private school, there was only one real option on the table: the family legacy — Cardigan Mountain.

“All my uncles on my mom’s side went there,” Spaulding points out. “And, of course, there was my grandfather.”

As he sits underneath the football scoreboard, you can tell that Jim Marrion is home. For some 40 years, his loud — he was a football coach, after all — but gentle demeanor shaped generations of young Cardigan students.

He was a legend in his own time: Swimming across the lake to classes or skating across the ice of Canaan Street Lake, he brought his own personal brand of optimism and friendliness that affected the entire school. All refer to him with just a one word description: Coach.

He, on the other hand, refers to them as Tiger. And they love him for it.

Dave McCusker was one of those Cardigan students. A 1980 grad, today McCusker is in his sixth year as CMS headmaster. He unashamedly points to Marrion as one of the most important people in his life — and the life of many other students.

“He set the bar for this community,” says McCusker. “He valued respect, courtesy and friendship. It was a powerful example for boys in this community, at this age.

“Jim was famous for ending a conversation with, ‘How may I help you?’ ”

McCusker heads up a school of 224 boys, with at least one-third from outside the country. All come to Cardigan at a critical time in their development — socially, culturally and academically. And for 40 years, all were influenced by Jim Marrion, comforted by his generosity and humanity.

“Jim was able to give the students an innate sense that this person cares about me,” said McCusker. “You knew you were in the presence of someone who cares.”

Marrion was honored back in June 2007 when he retired from his coaching and athletic director positions. That one was a Cardigan celebration. Earlier this month, Marrion was on hand for the unveiling of his plaque on the granite rock under the scoreboard. This one was a family celebration.

Though to Jim Marrion and Nick Spaulding, there is no distinction: Cardigan is family.

“It was a great moment,” said his grandson proudly. “It reminded everyone of the impact he made on this school. The best part is now we all play on his field.”

Nick Spaulding carries himself like a football player. It’s not so much a swagger, but the confident walk of an athlete at home in his sport.

He takes hits and returns the favor with equal relish. When he’s not the focus of the offense, he is looking for someone to put a helmet on. When he carries the ball, his head is up, legs churning all with one aim in mind — get to the end zone.

His attitude and impact can be seen on the field, but also within the group where he was named one of the team captains despite only being in school a few weeks.

But Nick isn’t all about football, though he loves it like the wind loves the sun. It’s just that he didn’t make the decision to come to Cardigan for football alone.

“I knew coming here would give me the opportunity to develop a greater appreciation for academics,” he says. “If I can’t play football after this, that’s OK; I’ve already had so much. My roommate is from Mexico. What an experience to meet and live with kids from all over the country and the world.”

Spaulding spent last week looking at New England prep schools where he hopes to matriculate for his high school years. His decision to come to Cardigan is already paying dividends.

“It’s an amazing feeling to be a part of this — the connection I have with my family,” he says looking out the window toward the expanse of the campus.

“Being the last grandson to play on my grandfather’s field … scoring a touchdown last week … it’s just unexplainable. Every day, I just look out on that field and see his name above the scoreboard. That’s my grandfather.”

Born of the same blood, each with the same heritage: the old man of the mountain and his grandson.


Don Mahler can be reached at dmahler@vnews.com or 603-727-3225.