September 29, 2006

The spirit of Catholic high school football:
Fall tradition bonds families, generations

By John Shaughnessy

Just mention Chatard against Cathedral in football and pulses quicken.

Eyes also burn with passion when Scecina faces Roncalli, Roncalli plays Cathedral, Providence lines up against Ritter and Brebeuf takes on Scecina.

Catholic high school football rivalries in the archdiocese are the equivalent of one-on-one backyard basketball games between brothers.

No one wants to back down. No one wants to give an inch. Everyone wants to walk away with bragging rights.

And yet, like brothers, the fierce rivalries are also marked by the bonds that connect—the same faith, the same commitment, the same discipline and even the same respect.

Put those qualities together, and they form the foundation for what could be called “the spirit of Catholic high school football.”

For anyone who has ever played or coached football for a Catholic high school team in the archdiocese, and for anyone who has ever cheered and agonized for one of those teams, you know the feeling, you have your stories.

One person from each of the seven Catholic high schools in the archdiocese that play football was asked to share his or her thoughts and memories about the spirit of Catholic high school football. Together, they offer a look at a tradition where faith, family and football are intertwined.

Living the dream

Paul Corsaro grew up hearing the stories of how his grandfather was a star football player at Sacred Heart High School in Indianapolis. He grew up listening to people tell him how terrific his father was when he played football at Roncalli High School in Indianapolis. He grew up dreaming that one day he would put on a varsity football uniform and run on the field as a starter.

That moment came on an August night in 2005 when Paul started at quarterback for the Roncalli Rebels.

“That day at school, and the whole night before, I can’t remember anticipating anything like that before in my whole life,” recalls Paul, 17, now a senior at Roncalli. “When you grow up on the south side and go to all the games, putting on that uniform is something you dream about. It’s an honor.

“It’s something the entire team knows. We feel we’re not only playing for ourselves, but for everyone before us. All the alumni are in the stands, watching us during a game. They feel a loss just as bad as we do.”

Roncalli’s starting quarterback senses that players at other Catholic high schools in the archdiocese share a similar feeling.

“If I had to pick two games to win all year, it would be Chatard and Cathedral,” Paul says. “You know they’re going to be the hardest-hitting games all year. You know those are going to be hard games. We get noticeably bigger crowds for those two games. You know you want to step it up even more.”

A mother’s pain and joy

As a mother sitting in the stands, Lee Ann Smith has had to endure the excruciating moments when one of her football-playing sons was hit so hard that she just begged God to let him get up, to let him be healthy.

“I had a rule, especially with my son, Alex,” she says. “He would lay on the ground like he was dead. I told him, ‘If you’re not dead, if your neck’s not broken, get up.’ ”

The pain and violence of football is incredibly hard on the mothers of players, Smith says, but she also knows the benefits of the sport from having watched her three sons—Dan, Rodney and Alex Byrnes—play at Cardinal Ritter Jr./Sr. High School in Indianapolis.

She saw some of her sons’ teams win only one game in a season. She also watched one of her son’s team win a state championship in 2003.

“There’s nothing like Friday night high school football,” she says. “It was the best experience as a parent. It’s exciting. It’s heartbreaking. Alex was a quarterback, and Rodney was a running back, and Dan was on the bench until he was a senior. So I know what that felt like, too.

“I loved the bonding part. In the hard work and discipline that comes from high school football, there comes tremendous bonding. It was not just with their teammates, but the people they played against, too.”

On holy ground

The weather was unseasonably warm on that memorable late November day when a Bishop Chatard High School football team would play for one of its seven state championships.

Early that morning, as the team met for breakfast, assistant coach Kevin Shine walked alone toward the practice field and sat on a bench. Looking across the field, he could see streaks of sunshine mixing with the early morning fog.

“In that moment, it was holy ground for me,” recalls Shine, a 1973 graduate who played football at Chatard and has coached at the Indianapolis school for 27 years. “I thought of all the kids through the years who played and practiced on that field, who had dreams and learned lessons on that field. It was kind of a holy place for me.”

Later that day, Shine would stand on that field and smile as he watched the players on that Chatard team continue their celebration of the state championship they won at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis.

“I always believe there are reasons why we’re successful every year,” he says. “The first is CYO [Catholic Youth Organization]. When we get a kid, they know the basics

because they’ve had tutoring from people who have played Catholic football. It’s like a torch that’s being passed on.

“The second reason is our long-standing tradition, and that there’s a certain amount of work that’s expected when you’re part of a tradition. The coaches buy into it. The players buy into it, and the parents buy into it. It all begins at home.”

Faith and family

The ritual is the same a few hours before every Friday evening game. The players on the Cathedral High School football team dress in their uniforms and walk together from their Indianapolis school to nearby Our Lady of Fatima Retreat House for Mass.

On those walks to Fatima this year, running back William Stubbs has led the Cathedral team in a hymn to Jesus, according to the team’s chaplain, Father William Munshower.

Mass is a pre-game tradition for the Catholic schools that play football.

“The Masses are beautiful,” says Father Munshower, a 1950 graduate of Cathedral. “I give a short homily. During Communion, Stubbs starts leading the singing again. After the blessing, the coach gives them a talk. It’s as spiritual as it is inspirational. Jimmy O’Hara [Cathedral’s head coach] does a good job.”

Sports are part of the Catholic holistic approach to life that emphasizes the need for a healthy body and a healthy mind, says Father Munshower. He also sees the important connection that sports offer to families.

“I’m convinced that athletics is a very important part of kids’ formation,” he says. “And the family is very much involved in the holistic approach. There’s the whole family tradition that supports us, supports our faith, supports our religion. Family and sports go together. Sports are a bonding mechanism. Football bonds families and generations.”

Following in his father’s footsteps

As a high school football player, K.C. Leffler always knew the games against rival Catholic high schools would be the toughest battles of the season.

“We knew we were going to be matched up against teams that have the same type of education, the same type of beliefs and the same type of discipline,” recalls Leffler, a 1987 graduate of Father Thomas Scecina Memorial High School in Indianapolis.

So when Leffler watched Scecina win its first state football championship in 1990, he was struck by the number of Catholics from rival Catholic schools who came to cheer for Scecina.

He also thought of the one person who he wished could have joined in the celebration—his late father, Ken Leffler, Scecina’s former head coach.

For 26 years, Ken Leffler had coached football at Scecina. In fact, K.C. was born when his father was coaching. He grew up on the sidelines while his dad coached. He also played at Scecina for his father.

Now, K.C. is in his 13th year of coaching at Scecina, following in his father’s footsteps in more ways than one.

“Many of the athletes who he coached will tell you that they took far more than just the game of football from their experience with my father,” K.C. says. “I believe that this is one of the most rewarding and telling positives of Catholic high school football. The biggest rewards are the results, as exemplified in individuals who have succeeded after high school football.”

That’s the reason K.C. still coaches, assisting head coach Ott Hurrle, who was an assistant to K.C.’s father. Thanks to his wife, Kristen, K.C. finds time to coach even though he’s the father of six young children—including two sets of twins.

“Playing football was instrumental in the development of my life,” he says. “I’m just trying to give back.”

Kneeling down, rising up

The answer comes quickly when Mickey Golembeski is asked his favorite memory of Catholic high school football.

“My favorite memory happens every week—win, lose or draw—at the end of the game,” says the athletic director of Our Lady of Providence Jr./Sr. High School in Clarksville. “The team gets together in the middle of the field, on one knee, with their helmets off, giving thanks to our God.”

The moment of prayer reflects the philosophy that Providence administrators and head football coach Gene Sartini have established for the school and its teams in southern Indiana.

“One of the biggest things we promote here is, ‘Faith first, family second and football third,’ ” Golembeski says. “We believe that so strongly that we have a 30-foot sign in our locker room that says exactly that.”

As a father, Golembeski has seen the difference that

approach has made on the three of his four sons who have played football at Providence.

“The best part is that the values they’re getting in being part of the football program are the same ones they’re getting at home—the work ethic, the team element, the sportsmanship and the respect of each other as well as their elders.”

In the blood

Steve Underhill started coaching football at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis in 1992—the same year his son, Marc, began playing for Brebeuf. Fifteen seasons later, Underhill continues coaching because he loves the game and the sense of family it gives him.

“At Catholic schools, the football team is not really a team, it’s a family,” Underhill says. “My kids are grown and married. I think of the Brebeuf kids as my kids. I really feel I get more out of it than the kids. You get so much out of watching kids excel.

“I think you can learn more on a football field than in a classroom. Now, the classroom is absolutely essential, but on the football field you learn teamwork, you learn how to deal with things when they don’t go right, you learn how to pick each other up.

“There’s a lot of camaraderie, too. You respect the people on the other team. You want to rip each other’s heads off during the game, but you pat each other on the back after it.

“Football is just in the blood in Catholic schools.” †


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