High school sports was life changing

Making first team was a surprise that opened so many opportunities for Joe McNamara

Posted 2/7/24

It was a few weeks after Thanksgiving in 1968. Joe McNamara was a Pilgrim High senior who had just completed what he felt was a good season as a member of the Pilgrim High football team. He was about …

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High school sports was life changing

Making first team was a surprise that opened so many opportunities for Joe McNamara


It was a few weeks after Thanksgiving in 1968. Joe McNamara was a Pilgrim High senior who had just completed what he felt was a good season as a member of the Pilgrim High football team. He was about to find out it was an even better season than he had realized.

“My coach called me down to the locker room at the end of the school day, gave me my game shirt and shoulder pads and told me to go down to the Providence Journal because they wanted to take my picture So I walked out to Warwick Ave. and took the bus down to Providence,” McNamara related recently.

The photographer at the Journal told McNamara he thought he had won some kind of award. A few days later when the Sunday Providence Journal reached McNamara’s home, he learned he had made first-team All State. It meant McNamara had become only the fourth football player in history of what was then a six-year-old Pilgrim High School to earn Providence Journal First Team All-State selection.

“It was the most exciting day of my life.” McNamara recalled about that day in 1968. “It certainly changed the trajectory of my life,” McNamara is the member of the Pilgrim Class of 1969.

To this day McNamara feels that All-State recognition is what spurted some out-of-state college coaches to recruit him. He decided to attend Boston University, which at the time had a very successful Division I football program.

Caught to attention of college recruiters

“It opened a whole new world of opportunities for me” McNamara offered about being recruited by out-of-state college football coaches. “No one in my family had ever gone to school outside Rhode Island. I never would have looked at schools outside Rhode Island. Going to college in Boston affected my decision making at that time in my life”

He played two years of football at BU before an injury ended his football playing days. McNamara feels attending college in Boston gave him insight into other people’s lives that he might not have experienced if he attended college in Rhode Island.

“During my junior and senior years at BU, I taught swimming at Perkins School for the Blind and I also had an opportunity to get involved in setting up programs for people with special needs who were institutionalized,” said McNamara.

After four years at BU and another year in Boston working for Massachusetts Gov. Francis Sargent he returned to Rhode Island and began what would become a 30-plus year career in the Pawtucket School system, first as a teacher and then an administrator.

He married and he and his wife, Diane, began raising a family of two children in Warwick. But he never forgot how his life was changed through athletics and education.

Giving back

“I was given a very precious opportunity that some people don’t have,” said McNamara. “I felt I owed something to give back.”

So, in 1994 McNamara began a career in public service as an elected state representative. He now has been a state representative for 30 consecutive years, representing District 19 in Warwick and Cranston.

Now, in a sense, that life trajectory that began with his All-State selection has come full cycle for McNamara.

Recently the Rhode Island Chapter of National Football Foundation selected McNamara to be the recipient of the chapter’s 2024 Distinguished American award. The NFFs Distinguished American award is presented annually to an adult, often a former high school football player, who went on to a distinguished career in areas such as public service, business, science and medicine.

McNamara is being honored by the Rhode Island NFF Chapter for a long state legislative career that has had a major focus on the education of Rhode Island children.

On May 6 McNamara will be the guest of honor at the RI Chapter NFF annual awards dinner at the Crowne Plaza in Warwick.

Recognizing outstanding academic and athletic achievement by high school football players has been one of the National Football Foundation’s primary programs for generations.

So, on May 6 McNamara will share the spotlight with the Rhode Island “Golden Dozen” – the 12 Outstanding Scholar/Athletes among seniors who played high school football in Rhode Island this past fall. The 2024 Rhode Island Golden Dozen, along with approximately 25 Silver Award winners, will be announced this month.

“It is an honor,” McNamara said of being named Rhode Island’s NFF Distinguished American. “Growing up all of my coaches were teacher/coaches so I looked up to them as both teachers and coaches”.

As a state legislator through the decades McNamara has played a role in major legislation that benefited Rhode Island students. He was the sponsor of the legislation that created both the Promise and Hope scholarship programs for R.I. high school students. Currently, Chairman of the R.I. House Education Committee in the 2023 legislative session he sponsored several education related bills that are law.

Currently he is spearheading a legislature initiative to combat chronic absenteeism by Rhode Island students. In Rhode Island chronic absenteeism is defined as any student who is absent 10 percent (18 days) of the state’s mandatory 180 school days.

“Chronic absenteeism is a national problem and it’s not just an urban problem,” said McNamara. “It’s an urban/suburban problem. In Warwick 50 percent of students at the secondary level were chronically absent. Some of it may be a hold-over from Covid when some students felt they didn’t need to be in school. We have the data of those people who were chronically absence last year throughout the state and now we have a pilot program that can intervene early and help these students and their parents before the situation becomes chronic”

McNamara joins an illustrious list of former Rhode Island high school football players who have earned the R.I. Distinguished American award. U.S Senator Jack Reed, who played for La Salle was the 1999 award recipient. Former R.I. governor Don Carcieri, who played at East Greenwich High was the 2005 recipient; Rev. Brian Shanley, the former Providence College president who played at Toll Gate was the 2008 recipient and Terry Murray, the former Fleet Bank chairman, who played at PCD was the 2013 recipient. The 2023 recipient was Mike Tranficante, the former Cranston mayor and an All-State football player during his high school days at Cranston High in the 1950s.

A retired Providence Journal sports reporter, John Gillooly’s column “Then and Now” appears periodically in Beacon Communications newspapers.


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