High school football: Pioneer Valley Regional's Noah Gamache to receive Francis X. Keating Award for overcoming adversity

Greenfield’€s Noah Gamache (77), who attends Pioneer Valley Regional, carries the ball up the middle for positive yardage against Franklin Tech during action last fall at Vets Field in Greenfield.

Greenfield’€s Noah Gamache (77), who attends Pioneer Valley Regional, carries the ball up the middle for positive yardage against Franklin Tech during action last fall at Vets Field in Greenfield. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL Franz

By THOMAS JOHNSTON

Staff Writer

Published: 04-05-2024 4:37 PM

Not many 9-year-old kids are faced with the type of decision Noah Gamache had to make. 

Gamache — now a senior at Pioneer Valley Regional — was born with clubfoot, a birth defect in which the foot is twisted out of shape or position. As he grew up, two options emerged: have reconstructive surgery or amputate the leg. 

Gamache and his family spent months figuring out the best route to go, even flying to St. Louis to meet with the best amputation doctors in the country. At the end of all the research, he made the difficult decision to amputate his right leg. 

“It was difficult,” Gamache said. “It took my family months and months to figure out. We got all the best info on the matter. It was either amputation or try to do the reconstructive surgery and in my opinion, getting the one and done surgery was the best choice. I wanted to be able to live my life the best I could with a prosthetic and I feel like I’ve done that.” 

Has he ever.

At 9 years old, Gamache had the leg amputated at the end of the school year. He took the summer to recover and that following school year, returned to the basketball court and baseball field determined to not let the amputation deter him from doing the things he loved. 

When he got to seventh grade he decided to play football, and he continued to play in eighth grade before stopping when he got to ninth grade as Pioneer no longer had a varsity football team. 

While Gamache and fellow students held practices at Pioneer his freshman and sophomore years, there wasn’t enough interest to field a team. As a junior, he decided to play for Mike Kuchieski at Greenfield in the school’s co-op, and quickly earned his way through the ranks to became an integral cog, starting on both the offensive and defensive line for the Green Wave during his two seasons there.

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On Sunday, the Western Mass. Chapter of the National Football Foundation will hold its annual scholar-athlete dinner at Wyckoff Country Club in Holyoke. There, for all he accomplished on the gridiron, Gamache will be presented with the Francis X. Keating Award, which goes to a student-athlete who has overcome adversity.

“I’m ecstatic,” Gamache said. “It was great news when [Greenfield football coach Mike Kuchieski] texted me that I got it. I didn’t know what it was so I researched it and saw all the stories from the people who won it in the past. I’m very happy to be receiving it.”

Kuchieski, who will be presenting Gamache with the award on Sunday, said Gamache was a joy to have on the team and noted how hard he worked to be a key member of the Greenfield program these past two seasons. 

“It’s so well deserved,” Kuchieski said. “It’s pretty amazing to see a guy do the things he can do. If you didn’t know who he was, you wouldn’t think he only has one leg. It’s amazing how mature and grown up he is.

“He’s a tough kid,” Kuchieski added. “He’s strong and he’s a beast out there. He’s a hard worker. You have to be to get that extra edge in. He did a great job and was a pleasure to have on the team.” 

As to be expected, it took Gamache some time post surgery to adjust to life with a prosthetic, but through hard work and months of physical therapy, he was ready to get back into sports. 

“It was strange at first,” Gamache said. “It’s like learning how to ride a bike for the first time. It’s super awkward. Your balance is just off. I had some training wheels along the way. After a few months of physical therapy, I was good to go. It was a pretty smooth process.”

After playing sports like basketball and baseball, Gamache wanted to give football a try when he got to seventh grade. His father played college football and encouraged him to give the sport a try. 

“I used to watch the Patriots a lot with my dad,” Gamache said. “He pushed me to play. My mom, not so much. She wouldn’t let me in elementary school but in middle school, she told me I was big enough and let me play. It was really fun.” 

It wasn’t always easy.

Playing a contact sport like football is challenging enough, never mind doing it with a prosthetic leg. There were times where the prosthetic would break and Gamache would question himself, but he always had the support of those around him and at home to keep pushing forward.

“My dad taught me to be strong and find ways to adapt and fight through the struggles,” Gamache said. “There were a few mishaps along the way, a few times where my prosthetic broke. I had to take a few trips down to [Shriners Children’s Hospital in Springfield] to get that fixed. It’s all worth it in the end, though. Those were all just small setbacks as I tried to achieve my goals.”

Having only played football in middle school, it was a big step up in competition for Gamache when he got down to Greenfield his junior year. 

He knew he had to go the extra mile to earn playing time, never sitting out of a drill and going above and beyond to make himself into the best player he could be. 

“It was love at first sight when I started playing for Greenfield,” Gamache said. “I’d like to say I put myself in more drills than anyone else. I tried to get as many reps in as a I could. I wanted to put myself in uncomfortable positions and do all the drills, especially the ones that may be more difficult. It’s what pushed me to be better.” 

From a coaching perspective, Kuchieski said Gamache never looked for special treatment and was always pushing to be involved in everything at practice.

The longtime coach also noted how helpful Shriners Hospital was in making sure he had the correct strength prosthetic to withstand the pressures put on it playing football. 

“We approached it as he’s the same type of kid as everyone else,” Kuchieski said. “If he had issues, he was mature enough to tell us. He understood we didn’t keep him out of anything. If he had an issue, he took care of it. It took some getting used to when we first had him. It was a little aggressive on his leg and he had to go to Shriners to find the right strength leg. Shiners was phenomenal with him. They gave him as normal a life as you can. It’s a great organization.” 

That hard work was rewarded with time on the field. 

With a small roster, Gamache rarely left the field during his two seasons with the Green Wave. He started on the offensive line and defensive lines and also played on kick return, his only time for a breather coming on a punt snap or kickoff.

Doing all that with one leg, Gamache proved to be an inspiration for his teammates. 

“I feel like I am somewhat of an inspiration,” Gamache said. “When the leg breaks and I’m back in the same spot with the cast and all that stuff, I feel vulnerable. When I’m back out there I feel just as strong and try to push people to do better. I use my leg as an example to push them to be grateful with having both legs. I just try to be as normal as I can be and that itself pushes people to be grateful and better.”

Gamache said he’s grateful for his dad, who has always been his biggest supporter. 

“My dad was my coach at home,” Gamache said. “He was always at my games and it’s fun hearing him yell to me when I’m out on the field. We would go through all my film and I’d always be so excited to watch it with him. He played d-line and linebacker so he knew how to critique and make me better. He’s a real defensive guy and that energy really pushed me to learn how to attack an offense and make them struggle. 

“I want to thank my father for everything he did and pushing me forward,” Gamache added. “I also want to thank [Kuchieski] for pushing me to be a great man both on and off the field.” 

Kuchieski said the way Gamache carried himself earned the respect of everyone around him. 

“He has a great parental support system,” Kuchieski said. “His teammates bought in because he’s a great teammate. He’s a normal human being just like everyone else.”

Gamache isn’t just a football player, as he’s continued to play basketball and made the varsity team for the first time at Pioneer this past winter. This spring, he’s competing in track for the Panthers, running the 100 meter dash while tossing the shot put and discus. 

And if you thought Gamache was done playing football, think again. 

He’ll be suiting up for the Westfield State University football team next fall, as all his hard work has led to a chance to play at the collegiate level.

“Committing to play football at Westfield State is a dream come true,” Gamache said. “To be an amputee and playing college football is amazing. It gives me an opportunity to improve. I felt with the confidence my dad gave me, there was some chance I could do it. I was always worried because I’d only played two years of varsity. I hoped my game would speak for itself and would give me some kind of chance to play in college.” 

Gamache will play offensive tackle for the Owls, but don't be shocked if he ends up on the defensive line.

“The original idea was to play tackle but I’m going to try to see if I can play defensive end or defensive tackle,” Gamache said. “I like defense more. It’s more the dirt and grime, bashing heads, all that stuff. I love that aspect of it. Offense, you think too much.” 

Gamache will be honored on Sunday at 5 p.m. in Holyoke. He will be joined by fellow Green Wave offensive and defensive lineman Will VanVleet, who attends Mohawk Trail Regional, who was selected for the National Football Foundation’s All Academic Team.