HALF-CENTURY OF EXCELLENCE
The CHSFL: Humble start developed into source of pride
By Tom Rock
They tried to be first-class from the very beginning. The founders wanted to send that message, and what better way to do so than by finding the most impressive surroundings?
So the first meeting of the Metropolitan Catholic High School Football League was scheduled for the spring of 1954 at the swanky Grand Concourse Hotel. Not far from Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, it was a beautiful building that was the home of many players on the Yankees and the football Giants.
"I remember we were all excited because we thought we might get to see some of the players," said Joe Thomas, Chaminade's football coach from 1948-1968, who attended the gathering.
It was basically a cornerstone meeting. The group, representing eight schools, gathered for dinner, talked about the venture they were launching, established some ground rules that would be in place for the league's future. Then the huge bill came to the table, and the coaches, clergy and administrators scratched their heads anxiously as they reached into their pockets.
One of the very first orders of business of the CHSFL, it turns out, was to find a cheaper place to meet. Only a few hours old, the organization already was trying to tighten its budget. "It was just too expensive for the schools to pay for," said Thomas, now 88, from his home in Syosset. "So the next meeting was at Cardinal Hayes High School."
It would have been difficult for those founding members to imagine that their league would flourish the way it has. It is celebrating its 50th season, which ends this weekend with championship games at Hofstra's Shuart Stadium.
Hard to imagine, especially given that one-quarter of its original teams that signed on did not exist by the time the first season kicked off in the fall of 1954. But not only has the CHSFL survived - and grown to 21 teams in three divisions - it has established itself as one of the best forums for high school football, with some of the premier programs in the New York City and Long Island areas.
"I don't think people were thinking that far into the future," said Vince O'Connor, who has coached at St. Francis Prep since 1953 and at age 73 just completed his 49th season as varsity coach. "We were servicing the needs of our schools at the time. But however long the league was to last, we had the structure that would take us there."
The first official CHSFL function was the meeting in the Bronx, but its formation had been discussed several times in previous years. All of the schools with football teams were members of the Catholic High School Athletic Association, which had existed since early in the century. But the football programs remained fiercely independent and the CHSAA was dominated by basketball and baseball.
The idea of a football league for Catholic schools was almost a reality in 1951 when schools were having difficulty filling their schedules, especially with the post-war explosion of public schools that were smaller and did not always want to play private institutions. There also was a lack of continuity to rules both on the field and in terms of eligibility among the Catholic schools.
In 1951, the principals of the schools with football programs, led by Msgr. Edward J. Waterson, the principal at Hayes, put forth a set of rules and guidelines for a football league. But scheduling - the very core of the need for a league - tripped up this early attempt.
No one could figure out how to have the schools play each other but also protect traditional rivalries in some of the biggest games of the year. Stepinac had (and still has) an annual Thanksgiving Day meeting with White Plains. As does Iona Prep with New Rochelle. Mount St. Michael and Hayes always met in the last game of the season. Fordham Prep and Xavier did the same. The idea of a league was scrapped and the teams remained independent.
In the fall of 1953, though, after a meeting of CHSAA administrators at Gilhooley's, a bar on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, Msgr. Matthew Peters of Hayes pulled aside athletic directors from the schools with football teams and told them the time had come to again try to launch a league. Many remained adamant about remaining independent and walked away, but eight schools remained to discuss their options. They decided to meet in the spring and form the CHSFL.
Thomas and athletic director Ed Flynn represented Chaminade at the meeting. O'Connor, a JV coach that year, was there for St. Francis Prep along with head coach Jack Boyle. Others included Howie Smith of Mount St. Michael, Bill Krywicki of Hayes, Herb Hess of St. John's Prep, Ken Germann of Iona Prep, Buzz Werder of Stepinac and Dick King of All Hallows. Rev. Joseph McGann of Stepinac was elected the league's first president.
Two of the eight teams were gone by the time the season began in the fall. All Hallows dropped the sport and St. John's Prep dropped out of the league. But the league was welcomed by many, especially the media.
New York City had dozens of daily newspapers and even more local publications that suddenly found high school football with a context beyond the time it took to play. "It gave structure to their stories," O'Connor said. "Other than one of the teams winning, what did it all mean? Now you could say this team was in first place, this fella leads the league in rushing."
Most of the papers also established All-League teams and covered the games with fervor. That first year, Zander Hollander of the New York Telegram and Sun called the new league "a bulwark against a waning interest in high school football in New York City."
But it wasn't until its fourth season that the CHSFL found its footing with a game played in Mineola. Just as the Colts' win over the Giants in the 1958 championship game established the NFL as a premier commodity, so did the 1957 meeting between Chaminade and St. Francis Prep for the CHSFL. The teams were scheduled to meet in the second week of the season, but a polio scare at St. Francis forced the game to be moved to the final weekend. As it turned out, both teams entered the game undefeated at 7-0.
"I remember it as being one of the most exciting high school football games I was ever involved in," said Bill Basel, the current coach at Chaminade, who quarterbacked the Flyers on that day. "I remember there was a large crowd of about 8,000 people. They were hanging in the trees to watch, climbing on the garages of nearby houses. And the field was ringed with people."
The game did not disappoint. With the score tied at 12 in the fourth quarter, Prep scored the winning touchdown when 5-7 quarterback George Van Cott faked a pitch on an option and ran into the end zone. "He was supposed to pitch the ball," said O'Connor, Prep's coach that day, "but he was the type of player who wanted to have the ball in his hands for the big plays. We used to call him George Van Keep."
The ramifications of the game, won by St. Francis, 18-12, went beyond Long Island and New York. "I was at the Atlantic City Coaches Clinic that spring," Chaminade's Thomas said, "and coaches from New Jersey were coming up to me and telling me it was the greatest game they had ever seen."
The CHSFL remained a six-team league until 1961, when Holy Cross joined. Two years later, Cardinal Spellman became the eighth member. Throughout the 1960s, schools came and went in the CHSFL. Schools from the suburbs joined: Maria Regina in Westschester; St. John the Baptist, Holy Trinity, Holy Family and St. Anthony's on Long Island (Holy Family later merged with St. Anthony's). St. Dominic and Nazareth (Brooklyn) were in the league for several years, as was Mercy way out in Riverhead. Schools in Brooklyn began to add football to their athletic department and Bishop Ford and Xaverian joined the league. Staten Island schools St. Joseph Sea, St. Peter's and Moore Catholic soon were on board.
As the league grew, so did new problems. Disparity among the teams began to cause rifts. The league began its long evolution that continues to this day. In the 1970s, there were two divisions, Long Island and City. By 1979, there were four divisions, one on Long Island, two in the City and one for developing teams.
"It's different in, say, basketball, where you can lose to a much better team by 30 points and walk off the court and nobody is hurt," said Tom Murray, the athletic director and basketball coach at Hayes and the CHSFL president from 1980-94. "In football you can really get beaten up, and nobody wants to see kids get banged around. The biggest challenge is getting a competitive schedule so teams don't play over their heads. It was a problem in my day and it's a problem to this day."
The CHSFL tinkered with alignments that never seemed to last more than a few seasons. It wasn't until 1998 that the system of three tiers of play used today - AAA, AA and A, all with their own championships - was settled upon.
"We've toyed with a lot of different things," Basel said. "This has been a league in which things evolve over the years. We're trying to look out for everybody, whether it is the No.1 team or the No.21 team. We re-evaluate as we go."
The format of the league and the number of participants may have changed over 50 years, but one thing that has remained a stalwart of the CHSFL is the weekly meeting of the coaches every Monday during the season.
"That was started by Msgr. Peters and the founders thought it would be very healthy for the league to continue it," Murray said. "It's important that if something happened on a Saturday or a Sunday, coaches can sit down in a more relaxed atmosphere, apologize or just work things out. This way you don't have a hatred or animosity that could go from year to year."
The meetings rotate among schools, and it can be difficult for coaches from Long Island to get to Staten Island or those from Westchester to get to Brooklyn. "It's not easy," Basel said, "but instead of facing each other across the field, everyone knows each other, and I think that's a special thing."
The CHSFL goes beyond games and meetings, though. Beyond even the playoffs and championships. There are awards banquets that have included guest speakers Vince Lombardi and Frank Gifford. There is a college night in which players are introduced to recruiters and coaches. And there is a Senior Bowl, a sort of all-star game, which began in 1972 and was lauded by President Richard Nixon in its original game program. From early beginnings to a presidential pat on the back, the CHSFL has spent a half-century growing and shaping young men while it was growing and shaping itself.
"There is always a sense of pride whenever you are associated with a well-organized or successful organization," O'Connor said. "In my case, that just happens to be the CHSFL."
Copyright, 1993, Newsday. Reprinted with permission.