Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Just returned from Hershey...

A Tale of Two Cities; Clairton, PA circa 1950s and Clairton, PA 2011.
It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

Clairton, PA, is located 12 miles south of Pittsburgh as the crow flies or as the fish swims. It is one of the many mill towns on or near the Monongahela River; Duquesne, McKeesport, Munhall, Glassport, Elizabeth, Monongahela (aka Mon City) etc. But in the post-World War II boom times of the mid-1950s it was the crown jewel of the area. Clairton boasted the only high school in the area with a swimming pool. Clairton High School won a WPIAL football championship and its players went on to star at Penn State, Navy, Clemson, Minnesota, and many other prestigious colleges and universities. People would come from many of the neighboring cities to purchase their car at one of the dozen or so new car dealerships. Although the population did not exceed 28,000 the town boasted four movie theaters; three "on the hill;" State, Capital, and Colonial, and Monarch and Rialto over the hill. Steel mills and coke works in the area spewed residue into the air 24 hours each day as three shifts of workers came and went. The area mills had to work around the clock to keep up with the steel orders.

U.S. Steel's "Clairton Works" produced the coke vital in the steelmaking process. It was the largest coke-producing mill in the world. The fathers of most of my peers worked in the steel mills or in local businesses. My father worked for the Clairton City Street Department as a "Special Equipment Operator," which meant he operated the city's grader, street sweeper, trucks, or any other City equipment. But when snow fell in the winter, keeping streets open for shift-change traffic was of ultimate importance. During those times he often worked shifts 72 hours or longer loading trucks with slag (residue from the steel mills). The trucks would in turn sand the streets to keep them passable. The town operated like a well oiled clock.

In the early 1970s Clairton was the fictional setting of the movie Deer Hunter that captured much of the steel worker mentality and ethnic culture of the area.

A half century after the boom times things have changed drastically in Clairton. The area’s steel mills have closed and although Clairton Works continues to limp along the community population had dwindled to fewer than 8,500 souls in 2000. By 2010 Clairton had lost another 20% of its residents leaving fewer than 6,800 currently residing in the city. The 2.79 square miles that had once housed do many thriving businesses now looks much like a ghost town with shop windows boarded up and a handful of struggling businesses trying to hang on.

Clairton High School once so flush with students that it spawned schools in Elizabeth, West Mifflin, and a brand new Thomas Jefferson High School in 1959, now graduates fewer than 60 students per year. The community has a poverty level of 26%, double that of the county. There has been little to cheer about in Clairton of late. Five years ago that began to change.

Coach Tom Nola arrived at Clairton High School decade ago to teach history. Instead he and his staff took a group of young men and made history. Nola can be referred to as "The Quiet Man" as he does not talk much. He rarely shows emotion and instead treats his players as adult employees rather than rah-rah kids. He assembled a group of former Clairton players and other successful coaches and together they discovered a winning formula.

The success started five years ago when the Bears won a WPIAL championship. Then they repeated that again and again and again. The past four years Clairton has been the WPIAL champs. In 2008, after winning the WPIAL they moved on to the State Championship game - which they lost. But wait! There's more!

In 2009 they again won the WPIAL, defeated other challengers in the semis and moved on to the State Championship game which they won. Ditto 2010. This past season they started the season against a school from a higher division and defeated them. The next six games were shutouts including an 84-0 shellacking of one hapless challenger. This despite the fact that Coach Nola took our all his starters by halftime and had his players take a knee on several points after touchdowns. This was to be a team of destiny.

Last summer they entered a Red Bull-sponsored Pittsburgh area 7 on 7 passing tournament that included all divisions. They won the tournament and were invited to participate in the national competition in Dallas. With the help of Board Members and several boosters, arrangements were made and the entire team boarded an airplane for the first time. None had ever flown before! They were the only single A division team in the tourney and played against Division 4 through 7A teams, several of whose football teams had ten times the budget, enrollment, and number of coaches as did Clairton. But the Bears were not intimidated and they knocked of top level teams from Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas to qualify for the finals. A 5-A team finally defeated them and Clairton came home second out of 153 teams.

Here are a few examples of Clairton Bears football successes over the past half-decade: They won an unprecedented third State title in the recent championship game. By doing so they broke a 51-year old record held by Braddock that had 46 consecutive wins. Oh yes, the win also positioned Clairton as the high school team with the longest winning streak in the entire nation, passing powerhouse Don Bosco Prep of New Jersey.

Another record and notes of interest include one set by center Carvan Thompson. He started every game since his freshman year and holds a record of 64 consecutive starts. It is a record that will likely never be broken. Third generation Clairtonian and Assistant Coach Wayne Wade starred on the CHS 1989 football team that also won the WPIAL championship.

Clairton Bears by the numbers:
Number of consecutive victories: 47
Number seniors at CHS: 48
Number of players on squad: 29 (includes JV players and one band member who plays at halftime)
Starters who play both offense and defense: 9
Record over past four years: 62-2
Points scored: 3,683-565
Average score: 41-6 (Mercy rule!)
Percentage of team that scores high honors academically: 66%
Average number of fans per game: 2,000

Every accolade placed on the Clairton Bear football team is deserved. But the system is one that some might take issue with. The very fact that Carvan Thompson set a record for 64 consecutive starts over his four year high school career means that he and other seniors on the Bear squad participated in more games over a four-year period than do most college football players and many professional football players. Sixteen games per season for a high school athlete whose body is still developing is simply too much contact. The Bears, whose weight and conditioning facilities pale in comparison to that of most of the teams they play, still have had excellent conditioning coaching as evidenced by the comparatively few injuries they’ve sustained over the long season. The state plans to cap the number of games played by a high school team at 15 next year, which is in my view, still too many. But by reducing the possible number of games per season, the likelihood of Carvan’s record being broken is remote. Even if another team (including Clairton for that matter) has a good enough athlete to start as a freshman and that athlete has the good fortune to avoid injury, suspension, or academic disqualification, and the school has a four-year run of championships, the total number of games that will be played is now 60, not 64.

How ‘bout dem’ Bears?

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Bearly Winning


Bad news for opponents, that is: The Bears and their fans must have been singing “Don’t Let Your Heart be Snowbound” as they ambled up to the football field at Slippery Rock University’s Mehilak-Thompson stadium (not sure whether or not the stadium was named after Capri and Carvan Thompson) to challenge the undefeated Sharpsville Blue Devils. While the Blue Devil fans bedeviled CHS boosters with their taunts, the bush league radio announcers who egged on the situation by repeatedly disrespecting CHS fans, some of whom had the audacity to sit on the wrong side of the stadium (Don’t you people know your place?). Of course, according to the talking mouths on the radio, not a single Blue Devil fan said anything untoward. They just sat there with their hands folded on their laps.

WRONG! Our fans, like our team, takes not quarter and gives none. They don’t look for trouble but neither do they back down. Like the players on the field, they will not be intimidated by foul-mouth bullies. They will give just as good as they get. And they did.

The game started and the Blue Devils were destined to fall just as the snowflakes were falling on the field. Admittedly I was not at the stadium but it seems to me that 11 penalties for 75 yards while the other side got, (let’s see… I’ll get my calculator out…. Hmmmm…. Ok, got it) zero flags for zero yards…. I wonder when the refs last had their eyes checked. It appeared to be 1-2-3-4. Who’s the referee for? But the Bears did as they’ve done for the past 46 football games…. they overcame the hostile fans, the partial announcers, and the questionable calls and non-calls, and tied a 50-year old Braddock record for consecutive wins.

CHS records: The Clairton Bears’ victory gives them a 15-0 record for the season and ties a school in New Jersey and eclipses a Nevada school record for the longest win streak in the nation. Next up, District 4 champ Southern Columbia at Hersheypark next Friday December 16 at 1:00 pm. There will be a tailgate before the game, beginning around 10:30. Hoping to see plenty of Orange and Black at the game.

Back to the Sharpsville game: Scoring machine Tyler Boyd ran for two touchdowns, one and four yards, and caught a 70-yard pass from Capri Thompson for a third. But in the fourth quarter CHS tried a trick pass play to Brian Clifford. The ball was tapped into the air and retrieved by Capri who went down and stayed there until he was carried off the field. After sitting out a few plays, Capri pulled a Ben Roethlisberger and came back into the game, ankle sprain and all. He (Capri, not Ben) will be good to go for the Hershey game.

Blue Devil quarterback Henwood made the mistake of trying to force a pass over linebacker Devante Gardlock inside the CHS 20. Gardlock tipped it and Carvan Thompson snatched it and headed for the goal line 80 yards away. But Carvan, who holds a record for the most consecutive games started, is a lineman, not a running back or wide receiver, and linemen just don’t run that far. After 50 yards he got tired and handed the ball to Terrish Webb who did the honors and scored the final TD. The Bears could have scored again in the final moments but with the game already in hand they let the clock expire.

How amazing are the Bears? This will be the fourth consecutive year they will have played for the State Championship. In 2008 they lost a heartbreaker to Steelton-Highspire. In 2009 they defeated Bishop McCort, and last season after being down for most of the game, they staged a thrilling comeback victory over District 2 champ Riverside. A victory next Friday will set even more records, but regardless of the records, we congratulate the students. teachers, coaches, parents, boosters, and administrators who have worked so hard to support our hometown.

Keeping the Student in Student Athlete: For the most part the Bears perform as well in the classroom as they do on the field. More than half the team has a 3.0 (B) or better grade point average. One team member, I am told, is on track to finish first or second in the class. These are students who have earned respect and deserve our support. But not every CHS student has the good fortune to have his future helped along by his athletic ability. Too many graduate and are slapped with the reality of poverty and lack of employment.

CHS graduate Terrence Fort has helped put together a mentoring program for CHS students. The program needs successful CHS alumni who have the time and willingness to take a high school student under their wing and offer support. The ideal candidate would live near enough to Clairton to drive to the school, but even for those of us who live thousands of miles away but are willing to come home for a first face-to-face visit, can continue a mentorship electronically. I urge you to become involved in this worthwhile program. Email me at the email address below and I will forward your email to Terrence. Go Bears.

A little blogging music Maestro… how about the Clairton High School fight song once more..

Dr. Forgot
email: drforgot@cox.net

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Every hame sets a record

The Bears played unbeaten Sto-Rox in the quarter finals. The Post Gazette picked Sto-Rox in a close game. Final score: CHS 52 Sto-Rox 6. Next up, semi finals against North Star, 10-1. Final score Bears 44 North Star 0. The season is over for the 11 seniors on the North Star team. Next up Sharpsville. If the Bears are able to get past them this Friday, it is on to Hershey and the state championship game.

Back to the North Star game. Last year in a similar playoff game, CHS trounced North Star 56-0. This year Clairton kicked off and held North Star, then took over and on the first play from scrimmage, Tyler Boyd scampered 83 yards for a TD then ran in the extra point. CHS 8. NSH 0. Clairton kicked off again, then got the ball back. First play from scrimmage Capri Thompson hit Trenton Coles over the middle for a 39-yard touchdown. CHS 14, NSH 0. Later another 70 yard pass play for a TD to Titus Webb. And so it went as out Bears won their 45th consecutive game.

There are only two teams in the nation with a win streak longer than the Bears. One is from New Jersey, and the other is a team from rural Nevada that plays 8-man football, but both have completed their seasons, which means if the Bears win out they will have won an unprecedented third state title, broken the 50-year old Braddock record for consecutive wins, and possess the longest winning streak in the country. But as Coach Nola says, "One game at a time."

Next game will be against Sharpsville with the venue not yet announced, but there will be a person in the stands who cannot lose. CHS grad Lee Weber, CHS '60, attended college and became a Methodist minister. Now retired, Rev. Weber lived and pastored in Sharpsville for eight years. So in case he asks, do not make a bet with him that his home town team will win the game.

Several readers have asked if there will be a booster bus that will travel from Clairton to Hershey in the event that our Bears win this Friday. At the moment, nothing is planned, but should the Bears win Friday, we will discuss the possibility of transport, tailgates, get-togethers, etc.

Please email me with any ideas.

See the Kennywood rides: Kennywood has been a favorite place to go for over a hundred years. But in the winter? Yup. This year the owners of the park have turned it into a winter wonderland of a million lights with festive activities, choirs fireworks, and rides. In addition to the usual Kennywood characters there will be of course, Santa Claus. Lights come on every weekend at 5 p.m. This is the first December in 114 seasons that the park will be open.

A little blogging music Maestro: " Oh When the Saints Come Marching In...."

Dr. Forgot
email: drforgot@coxnet