JFK: 50 years of football, memories
It was a time when high school football in the city was about to ascend to a new level of accomplishments.
The mid-1960s saw the city divide its loyalties based on which side of the Mahoning River you called home, which decided enrollment at either the newly opened Western Reserve on the west side or Warren G. Harding on the east side. Two years prior to a split that gave birth to the great Harding-Reserve rivalry, John F. Kennedy High School opened its doors for students seeking a catholic-based education.
The year was 1964. The image of the 35th President of the United States was still fresh in the minds of those who lived through his assassination and the subsequent inauguration of Lyndon Johnson. The Cleveland Browns were on the verge of winning the NFL championship for what remains the last time in franchise history.
This isn’t a case of where it seems like only yesterday when the Eagles of JFK unveiled football with a 22-8 win over Conneaut (Pa.) When put into historical perspective, it seems every bit as long as the 50 years that have since passed.
St. Mary’s was the catholic high school prior to 1964, but the opening of JFK resulted in a feeling of rebirth. As coach George Landis prepared for his first and only season as coach, no one could be certain if the long-term future would produce good or bad memories.
It wasn’t until the 1970 season before JFK had its first winning season (7-1-2 under the direction of coach Tony Napolet). The following season Napolet led the Eagles to the first of three undefeated seasons with a powerhouse that had a combined 366-70 scoring edge on opponents, including a 28-24 win over the archrival Howland Tigers in the season finale.
Those two seasons kicked off what has been a history of successful football that includes 31 winning seasons. The run includes 19 appearances in the playoffs (the playoff system didn’t come into existence until the 1972 season).
“That was when Blue Pride started,” Napolet said. “I’ve always said that God is first, family is second and football is third. That was the philosophy from day one until I left in 2011. Hard work and shut up and play.”
It might seem odd by today’s revolving-door standards to realize that the Eagles had just six head coaches prior to the naming of Jeff Bayuk for this season. Landis was followed by Jim McQuaide (1975-69). Napolet’s first of two runs ran from 1970-72, and he again coached the Eagles from 1991-2010. Other coaches were Gene Nara (1973-76), Dennis Zolciak (1977-1990) and Dave Pappada (2011-12).
The pre-Napolet years were more black and blue than Blue Pride. The Eagles went 5-3 in 1964 but then went 17 games over the course of nearly two seasons before winning to salvage a 1-8 record in 1966.
The 1965 season was unique in that it involved three straight ties – 6-6 to Howland, 6-6 to Erie (Pa.) Tech and 14-14 to Ashtabula Harbor. The streak began a strange run of ties – all but one of eight occurring during McQuaide’s five years as coach. The Eagles haven’t had a tie since playing Ashtabula St. John to a 6-6 deadlock in Napolet’s first game as coach in 1970.
Back to the win in 1966 that ended the streak of non-wins. An 8-6 victory on a last-second touchdown and two-point conversion over Warren Western Reserve was far from an average win. It didn’t matter to JFK that Reserve was in its first year of playing football.
“I don’t think the community expected it,” McQuaide said. “I think our kids expected it. They hung in there well.”
Reserve gained revenge a season later with a 66-0 win. That was the last time the two schools met on the football field.
The Eagles were an independent in the early years, which made it difficult to schedule schools similar in size. They filled one spot in 1965 with powerful Youngstown Chaney High School, which was led by talented running back Dave Brungard. Brungard went on to letter at Ohio State and Alabama.
“The kids smelled a pounding coming on,” McQuaide said of the 56-0 defeat to the Cowboys. “Brungard scored their 56th point with one minute to go. It was a little of pouring it on, but the kids survived.”
The Eagles developed several rivalries, but none was bigger than their backdoor battles with Howland. The Tigers enjoyed success early in the rivalry, but the Eagles had the upper hand during the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. The Tigers won the final nine times before the series was discontinued following the 2009 season with Howland leading, 22-20-1.
No Eagles coach had more success against the Tigers than Zolciak, who spoke with pride about a 10-3 record against Howland during his tenure.
“That was the best rivalry,” Zolciak said. “I was fortunate that we did well against them. We gave them good games. We could compete, but eventually along the way we couldn’t hold up. With us dropping to (Division) VII, there’s no way physically we could hold up to them.”
Zolciak left to coach at Twinsburg, but he later returned to JFK as an assistant coach. Now out of coaching, Zolciak remembers the JFK years fondly.
“They were great years, absolutely,” Zolciak said. “It was a great place to teach and coach. It’s a place that lets you do what you’re supposed to do to teach.”
Zolciak knocked on the door of winning a state championship in his final three seasons. The Eagles went 8-4 in 1988, losing to Canton Central Catholic, 6-0, in the second round of the playoffs. The next year resulted in an 11-2 record and a 14-7 loss to Wheelersburg in the state title game. A year later the Eagles posted a 9-3 record, losing to Campbell Memorial, 33-0, in a second-round playoff game.
It all set up the 1991 season, when Napolet returned to lead the way to an 11-3 record and a 20-7 win over Springfield Central Catholic for JFK’s lone state championship.
“What a tremendous experience,” Napolet said. “We never changed our philosophy. We treated every kid the same. I never had a problem; not one.”
Zolicak doesn’t look back with regrets over his decision to take the Twinsburg job and ultimately miss out on a state title. He’s still proud the players in 1991 took control of the program during an unsettled period between his resignation and the hiring of Napolet.
“That situation didn’t get resolved until the latter part of July,” Zolciak said. “Those kids ran physical fitness and weightlifting by themselves during June and July. The basic response is that those kids never felt like it would be different than it was before. They continued on with their work.”
The Eagles have struggled in recent years, posting a losing record in three of the last six seasons. They had a 5-5 record in 2011.
Declining enrollment has hit the program hard. At the same time, athletic director John Gillen, who has been at JFK each of the 50 years, has struggled lining up opponents. Schools that once included the Eagles on their schedules have dropped them, and attempts to be included in a conference affiliation have been unsuccessful.
JFK is part of the North Coast League, which is comprised primarily of schools in the Cleveland area. It’s not conducive to building rivalries or bringing in gate revenue.
“I personally would hope that someday we would be in a league in this area,” Gillen said. “The league we’re in is a great league with great athletes and nice people to work with, but it’s very difficult to get any true rivalries, whereas getting into that All-American League in that third tier would be ideal for us.
“I can’t understand why you would want to go to an Ashtabula when we’re right here in Warren and close to all of them. It just hasn’t worked out. Hopefully, some day it will.”
Who knows what the next 50 years will hold for JFK football.