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?

1 comment:

June Suica said...

It was a great game. I was so proud of the team and the fans. Even though I have been away over 40 years, Clairton and the Clairton Bears will all ways be home.