Friday, June 17, 2011

SPORTS STORIES: A Trophy of Trophies’ Class

            We had some real good athletes in that class of ‘61.  Our swim team, with students like Pat Flanigan, Pat Cahill, Roger Ellenberger and Jack McAllister, went undefeated that year, making it about 12 years in a row that the team had been undefeated.
            Similarly, the cross-country team, led by Abdel Mokhriby and  Bill Nottelmann, went undefeated to extend their winning streak to around eight years.  You name it, wrestling, track, baseball, basketball, we fielded some excellent teams.  Only one sport was a disaster, and that was football.  I think we had a losing football team every year, year after year.  Despite that, we won the Trophy of Trophies, given to the high school with the best athletic performance that year in the city of Erie.
            I would be remiss here if I didn't mention girls’ sports, of which there were hardly any.  These were the days before Title IX, when girls were judged to be too weak to participate in something so strenuous as sports.  Remember girls’ basketball, when players were only allowed to take three steps before passing the ball?  It was the height of the Cold War, and we saw pictures of Russian women driving trucks, working on construction sites, and even working as doctors.  Such mistreatment of women could never happen in the USA.  Everyone knew that a woman and a stove belonged in the kitchen, and if she were to have a profession it must be restricted to nursing or teaching.  In 1961 we had no idea that drastic change in the form of a feminine revolution was about to occur.  Or that classmate Joyce Savacchio would become the first woman mayor of Erie.  Anyone with daughters is glad that they weren't born in the "good old days."
            I want to mention some personal vignettes from my participation in cross-country and track.  Our cross country coach, Stan Wilkinson, was a great guy.  He maintained our team’s long undefeated streak by making us run our derrières off during practice (which in my case was not a good thing because I needed the padding as protection from the paddle).  For example, we would go to the T-intersection of West 26 Street and Zuck Road, where we would start our 3.1 mile practice run up that ever ascending road to the Erie Golf Club’s course, while Wilk drove up and down in his car, urging us on.
            Wilk had one bad arm which he could not move.  Whether this was due to a wound or an accident or was congenital, I do not know.  But I can see him standing in front of a chalkboard prior to a meet going over the strategy, banging on the board with his good arm and, in one instance, telling us he wanted us to place the first seven runners across the finish line.  At that meet we put six of the first seven runners across the finish line, while winning the meet handily.  But, because we failed to put the first seven runners across, Wilk made us run the hills of Frontier Park when we got back to school.  That's how we learned that hard work and determination brought victory.
            Most country runners, including crazy Abdel Mokhriby, were on the track team, coached by Vince Bell.  The top three milers in the city that year were Abdel and two runners from Academy High School, Keyes and McBride.  Their first head to head competition was on our track behind the high school.
            Determined to win, Abdel came up with a plan to psych Keyes and McBride out.  Just prior to the start of the race, Abdel lit up a cigarette and took a couple of puffs.  The coaches didn't see him, but Keyes and McBride did.  When the starter yelled, "Take your mark!” Abdel, as per plan, handed me the cigarette as the starter's gun went off.
            At the end of the first quarter-mile lap, Abdel was in the lead.  As he approached me, I handed off the cigarette, as if it were a baton.  Abdel took a puff and flicked the cigarette away.  Grinning from ear to ear, he glanced back at his two rivals before pouring on the coal to win the race.  Today that stunt would get you kicked off the track team, and most likely suspended from school.  But this occurred before the Surgeon General's Report linking cigarette smoking to cancer and marking the beginning of a long anti-smoking crusade.  Coach Bell merely gave Abdel a verbal reprimand for unsportsmanlike conduct.  And Abdel gave us the memory of a life time.  Fifty years later I still smile when I think of it.
            I have another sport’s memory that I got as a spectator when our football team played Tech in the Erie Stadium.  That Tech football team had the best football player Erie ever produced, future NFL star Fred Biletnikoff.  Freddy B. had the ball and was running for a sure touchdown at the north end of the stadium.  Seemingly out of nowhere came our own Bobby Loeb, closing the gap and eventually tackling Biletnikoff to prevent the touchdown.  That outstanding effort is etched in my mind as if it happened only yesterday.  I can't remember who won the game, but I'll never forget that tackle made by Bob Loeb.
            Academics and athletics blended well at Strong Vincent in 1961.  Winning the Trophy of Trophies was a proud achievement.

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