History clashes with reality | Former St. Joseph's Crusaders mourn loss, but understand the decision
Photo Gallery | St. Joseph's High School Football Hall of Fame
PITTSFIELD -- The cheering has been hushed, perhaps forever. Word has arrived that the St. Joseph football team will cease to exist, the school deciding that dwindling numbers — certainly not school spirit — has doomed the program and forced a dozen or so Crusader players to be part of a co- op program that will fly under the flag of Drury High School in North Adams. It's an emotional web and a geographical nightmare. It's the final page of the St. Joe football scrapbook, one pieced together over a 90-year history that until this past season included city rival Pittsfield, and since 1970, the Crusaders' other city foe, Taconic.
The history includes Frankie Koldys — this may have been St. Joe football's ultimate moment — returning an interception 102 yards in the game's final seconds to give St. Joe a stunning 7-6 win over Pittsfield before thousands at Deming Field in November 1944.
Many of the St. Joe students had risen early that day and decorated the goalposts with purple and gold paper — the school's colors — and then marched as one after the game to St. Luke's Hospital on East Street to revel in victory with fallen teammate Bill DiNicola, who was unable to play due to an injured leg.
St. Joe football also burned bright in November 1950, when it authored revenge in a most delightful way, scoring a hard-fought 14-12 triumph over PHS one year after being drubbed by Art Fox's team 490. Fox took some heat for running up the score that afternoon, and they seethed on Maplewood Avenue for a year before stepping down hard on the revenge pedal.
There were reversal of forms also to remember. In the early 1990s, a severely underdog PHS team battled St. Joe to a scoreless tie. Buddy Pellerin's Generals were so overjoyed with earning the deadlock that this reporter wrote in print that PHS had won the game. Certainly, it felt that way to all who were on hand, including the St. Joe fans and players.
The fears and tears meshed for almost a century with the wins and the grins. Memories to be recalled for an eternity were always at the ready to be discussed by the faithful. But the flame, which for a time now has flickered, has finally been snuffed out.
St. Joe Athletic Director Jim Stimpson had it right. The St. Joe football community, he said recently, wasn't going to like this decision. Few, however, are saying it's the wrong direction. And while some are biting hard on this bullet, others are praying that the school itself doesn't become an unwilling victim of the Springfield diocese, which in recent years has closed four Catholic churches here.
Those whispers continue to gain strength.
Dempsey Quinn said that St. Joe football “is in my blood; it's in my DNA.”
He couldn't be more correct. As a sophomore quarterback, Quinn led St. Joe to a berth in the Western Mass. Super Bowl in 2004. He concluded his prep career at Avon Old Farms in Connecticut before embarking on a four-year career as a defensive back and linebacker at Cornell University.
Quinn is currently an assistant football and boys basketball coach at Berkshire School in Sheffield. His father, Jack, coached and played at St. Joe, while his grandfather, John, played on St. Joe teams during the 1940s. Dempsey's brother, Brodie, also played for the Crusaders and recently graduated from Springfield College.
Dempsey said his father will be giving him an assist on the Berkshire School sidelines this fall.
“I was at St. Joe football games about as soon as I could walk,” Quinn said. “It's what I thought football was. Guys like Ted Perlak, Matt Ward and Mark McNeice were my heroes. When I was young, playing for St. Joe was the ultimate goal.
“Those St. Joe players headed to Drury next season will be carrying a lot of St. Joe history on their shoulders. I don't think it's all going to sink in until I open up the newspaper in the fall and don't see St. Joe in the standings.”
Paul Clark graduated from St. Joe in 1968, while JIm Mazzer earned a diploma from the school four years hence. Clark was a football and basketball standout, while Mazzer quarterbacked the football team, played basketball and was a member of the 1972 state champion baseball squad.
Both were emotionally torn at the turn for the worse suffered by the football program, but both honestly admitted they weren't surprised.
“I guess you could say I was somewhat prepared,” said Clark, who lives in Pittsfield and who with older brothers, Jim and Jackie, and younger brother, Pete, made Clark an iconic St. Joe name synonymous with football and basketball success. “I'm actually surprised it lasted this long.”
Clark attends St. Charles Church and said he's active enough within the church to understand the demographics that compromise numbers and finances.
“As far as the football program goes,” he said, “there just aren't enough kids. I spend time in Florida, and they are building churches down there. I'm not happy with what's happening here, but I'm in line with it.”
You need a certain amount of bodies to support athletic programs, “especially in football,” Mazzer said. “I can't say I'm shocked by what's happened. I've kind of been ready for it.”
The Catholics in Pittsfield have taken a hit in recent years, Mazzer noted, and that has forced change. It's four churches down, “and what's left, four more?” he asked.
Many of the prolific Irish-Catholic and Italian-Catholic familes that once fed Catholic schools have faded from the city landscape. What was once a strong educational infrastructure of Catholic grammar schools has been reduced to just St. Mark School as a feeder for St. Joe, which has about 230 students.
“Those Catholic [grammar] schools had a nice niche in the city,” Mazzer said. “It brought together some very competitive athletes. We played sports together and stayed together.”
Mazzer's 1972 St. Joe baseball state champions serve as a good example. The names of his teammates flowed easily from his memory bank. Bill Madden, Jeff Dinicola, Joe Roulier, Pete Koscher, Pete Clark, Tom Mooney and Denny Duquette are familiar St. Joe athletic names of that era.
“Do you know what we all had in common?” Mazzer said. “We all went to St. Mary's Grammar School. Only Mike Penna and Tim Kearns were from a different part of the city.”
B.J. Jefferson graduated from St. Joe in 1997, and was a three-sport standout. The current varsity assistant baseball coach won a Super Bowl during his sophomore year. Those, he said, were the good times.
“It's been sad to watch the program diminish,” said Jefferson, who has a close eye on his own numbers. “We have 14 on varsity and no JV team.”
Joe Woitkoski graduated from St. Joe in 1965, and for many years has been president of the Monday Morning Quarterback Club, which for decades has raised money for scholarships for St. Joe, Pittsfield and Taconic football players. The city football Hall of Fame has been inducting members since the mid-1950s, when Roger O'Gara, the former and longtime Eagle sports editor, formed the group.
Whether St. Joe players participating under the Drury flag will continue to be eligible for scholarships and Hall of Fame voting, Woitkoski said, is something his organization will need to decide.
“It's all happened rather suddenly,” said Woitkoski, the former St. Joe gridder. “We really haven't been able to sit down yet and discuss it.”
Woitkoski added that he would “recommend” that the scholarships continue to be given to players who represent St. Joe in a co-op program.
“I think it would be wise for now to adopt a wait-and-see approach,” he said. “Let's give it some time and see how things go this fall. But I do expect to have a lot of discussion on this matter within our group.”
The removal of St. Joe football rips at the fabric that is Pittsfield High School football. Rivals for so long, it's a sad day also for those who wore and still wear the purple and white.
“ It's a tragedy; it breaks my heart,” said Charles Garivaltis, the 1953 PHS graduate whose running exploits on the gridiron gave St. Joe and other opponents headaches every time he touched the ball. “There was nothing better than a Pittsfield High-St. Joe football game. Both programs were a source of community pride.
“But the population loss at St. Joe is just an extension of what's happening in Pittsfield. We're both losing folks. No one is coming here to live and work.”
It wasn't always that way. Garivaltis recalled the contests of the '40s and '50s, when “the game” was a full weekend event.
It started on Friday night, Garivaltis said, when a large segment of the PHS student body would gather in front of the school on East Street and form a single-file dance line that would go up East Street, around Park Square, down North Street and finally to Maplewood Avenue, where the St. Joe student body was waiting in full throat.
Good-natured verbal sparring took place, and an occasional fistfight would occur among the more zealous of the teens. The game was Saturday afternoon, usually attended by thousands, and a dance would be held that night where the pugilists from the night before would become friends once again. Sunday, over the dinner table, the game was replayed in many homes.
“It was one of the top events of the year in the city,” Garivaltis said. “Even the shopkeepers on North Street would ask the students walking home after the game who had won. It mattered that much.”
Garivaltis said he believes in the ebb and flow of St. Joe football. He's seen the Crusaders have down stretches and bounce back. The seasons of ' 49 and ' 50 prove that, he added.
“That game in 1950 meant everything to the St. Joe players and fans,” he said. “It will be a shame if a St. Joe player doesn't have a chance or an opportunity to ever experience that.”
Dempsey Quinn agreed. “High school football is an opportunity for a young boy to learn how to become a man,” he said. “You go out on the field with 11 and learn how to move forward as one.”
Still, the facts remain. The St. Joe program has been tackled in its tracks and won't be moving forward as one anytime soon. The playbook is now in a bottom drawer, and its chances of ever seeing the light of day are right now highly doubtful.
It may take divine intervention. And that alone may not be enough.
Brian Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com.
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