My old high school, North Schuylkill, had what it considered to be its annual football rivalry with Mount Carmel. I state it that way because I’m not sure if Mount Carmel viewed the match-up the same way, as they had won nearly every game in the series history. Mount Carmel has been a traditional powerhouse in northeast Pennsylvania football for decades, often going undefeated and occasionally making a run for the state championship. The week leading up to the Mount Carmel game at N.S. was always one of anticipation, will this be the magic year we win, big pep rally on Friday.
Inevitably, we’d lose. There were some years when the game was a shoot-out. I recall such a game from the early 70s, the highlight of which was Rick W., an all-star player who’d later go on to play a year or two in the pros, lying down on the sideline and having a team mate pop his dislocated shoulder back into place. The game inspired that level of intensity, almost always in vain.
If you drive through Mount Carmel, then or now, one question arises: where are all the football players? It’s just a small, quiet town, no larger than any of the towns that make up the North Schuylkill school district. In fact, N.S. is comprised of a few towns (Frackville, Ashland, Girardville) and surrounding rural areas that appear to be larger than the town of Mount Carmel itself. Yet, year after year, with or without legendary coaches, the football team tends to be dominant.
They have a good program, which means they start much earlier than high school, with solid Pee Wee football leagues leading into freshman and junior varsity teams. Many high schools have one sport like that which attracts younger kids and shapes them into great teams. At N.S., it was wrestling, with legendary coach Joe Cesari scouting out future talent in grade-school gym classes.
(The wrestling vibe at N.S. was also a bit over-powering, if you didn’t like wrestling. I never liked wrestling. It seemed gay to me. I don’t mean effeminate gay; I mean prison shower room gay. Way too much physical contact with another guy, in ways that looked like rough sex to me. Granted, wrestlers got themselves into phenomenal physical condition – the one thing I look back on and kick myself for missing. But beyond that, the sport itself held no appeal to me. Still doesn’t. N.S. has always had a great girls basketball team, too, but that never seems to get as much respect in the male-dominated world of rural high-school sports.)
But I always find myself mystified when driving through Mount Carmel, expecting to see hulking teenage guys roaming the streets in letterman jackets, and the place always looks like any other small town in the Coal Region: main street left a bit ragged from the advent of malls in the 70s, struggling small businesses, row houses, church steeples, bars, Turkey Hill Mini Marts. There’s really no enmity between the towns of N.S. and Mount Carmel; no one’s going to attack you there if they find out you went to North Schuylkill, or vice-versa.
To this day, roughly 25 years after graduating from high school, when I go on the home county’s newspaper and see that Mount Carmel whipped North Schuylkill in football again, it arouses that age-old “must beat them for reasons unknown” passion. The “rivalry” is a bit like life itself, from the N.S. perspective: you’re told you can’t have something, and it makes you want it more. And once you get it … then what?
I was around once when we got it. The year after I graduated, that team, which was a good team, but nothing special, did beat Mount Carmel, at home, and I was there. It was a dramatic win, too, the quarterback throwing a long bomb to an open receiver on the last play of the game of the game and completing a 70+ yard touchdown. The stadium went nuts; I can still recall that palpable sense of elation. Strangers hugging, jumping up and down in place, screaming. One of the few sports experiences of my life when I was there (as opposed to watching on TV), experiencing a milestone (even on a relatively small level like that), and grasping the appeal of sports, that fleeting sense of accomplishing a goal that had presented itself as unreachable.
A few years ago, I was having drinks back there in a local bar with old high-school friend, A.J., whose younger brother was the quarterback on that play. We saw Glenn, one of the guys from our high school, who was also on that team, across the bar. Glenn was part of a hard-assed sports family. His brother Rick was in our class, and they were both tough guys, going out for wrestling and football, known bad asses, like their two older brothers. You didn’t mess with this family. The insinuation if you did was they’d all beat the shit out of you, when the prospect of even one of them doing so was pretty terrifying.
Glenn saw us, came over, and we proceeded to have a good time talking about the old days. Glenn looked a lot thinner than he had in those tough-guy high-school days, but I still had that memory of his family of bad asses, so I didn’t make any jokes about this. We were buying each other rounds, hanging out, when I dropped the highlight: “You know what I remember most about you, Glenn? The night you guys beat Mount Carmel. I’m never going to forget that.”
Sometimes in conversation, you say something, and by the look that registers on the face of the person you’re speaking to, you know you’ve said something wonderful that will be remembered. And that was the look on Glenn’s face, because obviously he remembered that night, too, probably had a shrine built to it in his memory, and it made him feel great that other people, decades after the fact, remembered that night, too. Let’s just say I didn’t buy another round after that the rest of the night.
Glenn’s brother Rick is now the N.S. high-school coach. Actually, he was in the early-mid 90s, too, and at that time, built quite a legacy for himself, creating great teams that won district championships and making their way well into state finals. We all reasoned that the kids were probably scared to death of Rick and were in constant fear of him beating their asses. But who knows. The school board removed him from the coaching position after a controversial situation with a referee – I’m still not sure what happened that night – but it was enough for the board to vote out a coach who had built a legacy better than any other coach’s in the school’s football history.
So, Rick went off to Cardinal Brennan, the small Catholic school just up the road from North Schuylkill (which closed for good last year, a victim of the American Catholic-school money crunch; definite "end of an era" vibe for many folks back there). Cardinal Brennan, fielding teams with maybe 20 kids, if they were lucky, immediately became a good team, and a powerhouse in a few years, bringing about the odd realization that Cardinal Brennan was fielding a better football team than North Schuylkill, a concept previously considered preposterous. But there it was.
Rick left that coaching spot, not sure why, but earlier this year, North Schuylkill re-hired him, and I was figuring, here we go again, back to winning, after the school has gone through a decade or so of mediocre to awful teams. Well, Rick hasn’t won a game this year, and Mount Carmel just whipped his ass. A rough showing for a guy who’s obviously a great coach in some sense, but I’m hoping he can hang in there and turn the program around.
I keep track of this stuff, but obviously from a distance. Even when I’m back there, I no longer go to N.S.’s high-school football games, just feels weird now. If you get to be an older guy (and I’d go with brother J, too) and you don’t have a kid on the team, people look at you funny, like you're either a scout for a small college football team or a pedophile. Besides which, when a team hasn’t won a game all season, you’re getting down to the faithful in terms of fans, the true believers with season tickets, and of course all the high-school kids who treat the game as a social event, ignoring whatever’s going on in the game, wandering in circles the whole time, getting into shit behind the bleachers, eating bleenies and french fries in a dixie cup, acting like dicks, trying to get laid, making plans to drive around in circles while listening to heavy metal music, etc. About the only time you’re going to get folks like that one the same page with the true football fans in the seats are cataclysmic events like North Schuylkill beating Mount Carmel. And it aint happening this year. Another year of a vaguely troubling sense of doubt that has nothing to do with my personal reality. How will I survive?