Tradition reigns king in the Catholic League

Tradition reigns king in the Catholic League

Football

Tradition reigns king in the Catholic League

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Some traditions fade away.

It’s just a fact of life. Vinyl records were replaced by cassette tapes, then CDs, and now digital music that can be downloaded by the gigabyte to a device no larger than one of the aforementioned tapes. Writing letters has largely gone the way of the dodo bird as well. Even the traditional smash-mouth, run-run-and-run-some-more style of offense that used to characterize football at every level is rapidly giving way to the high-flying spread systems made popular by colleges like Texas A&M and Oregon.

But the people who love New Orleans high school football know that there’s an institution around that’s held firm through thick and thin, through coaching changes and school closings—even through hurricanes.

I’m speaking, of course, of the Catholic League.

It hasn’t always been District 9-5A, but as the 60th season of the Catholic League kicks off Friday night with Holy Cross taking on Jesuit at Tad Gormley Stadium, the values have remained the same: honor, respect, and toughness.

Just ask Barry Wilson, who played at Holy Cross in the 1960s for legendary coach John Kalbacher before playing and coaching at LSU.

“You had to be real tough to play football [for Kalbacher],” said Wilson, who became Holy Cross’s athletic director in 2014 after 12 years as the head coach of the Paris Avenue school. “If you’re just playing for the heck of it, just because you enjoy the game, that wasn’t going to work; you had to really lay it on the line to be successful.”

Don’t get me wrong; the Catholic League looks very different than it did in 1955, when Jesuit, Holy Cross, De La Salle, Redemptorist, and St. Aloysius first got together. They can thank school openings (and closings), fluctuations in enrollment, and LHSAA rules for that.

But the spirit of the district, which even predates its official beginnings—the Tigers and Blue Jays have been facing off since 1920—lives on just the same today. There’s a great pride that extends back to the very beginnings of “the League,” something that Wilson has been privy to for over 50 years now.

“It gets in your skin,” Wilson said. “This is the high school version of the SEC West. It’s good, hard-nosed, tough football. You respect every one of the teams that you play. And each week, anybody can beat you on a given day.

“It’s something special.”

Rummel head coach Jay Roth, who faces Shaw Saturday in the “Megaphone Game,” knows a thing or two about the pull of the Catholic League himself. A 1981 gradaute of the Metairie school, Roth played quarterback for Rummel teams coached by the great Don Perret and his successor, Easten Roth—Jay’s father. After stints as an assistant coach at Jesuit and Shaw, Roth took the reins on Severn Avenue in 1995 and has led the Raiders to at least a share of the Catholic League championship in 11 of his 19 seasons in charge.

He recognizes that the League is more than just a district; in many ways, it’s like a constant family feud.

“The familiarity of all the coaches and players in the League makes it more intense,” Roth said. “The coaches have either coached on the same staffs or faced each other enough to know each other’s next move. Plus, the players went to grammar school or played park ball together. You literally know the opponent’s players and coaches.”

The legacy of the League runs deep, and it touches all parts of the game of football—as well as the community around it. More than anything, that legacy is one of great people: titans of the gridiron who shaped the face of Louisiana prep football as we know it.

THE BOYS OF FALL

The Catholic League is a district marked by some of the greatest football players New Orleans has ever seen, and the tradition has been passed down from generation to generation..

In 2003, Jesuit running back Chris Markey ran for 2,837 yards and 46 touchdowns in his senior season, en route to becoming the first New Orleans-based player to win Louisiana’s Mr. Football award. But would Markey have found his way to Carrollton and Banks, then to UCLA, if it hadn’t been for the legendary Pat Screen, the Blue Jays back who led Jesuit on a three-year unbeaten stretch in the Catholic League from 1958 to 1960, then put the exclamation point on his career by accounting for every Jesuit point in the Blue Jays’ 21-20 victory over LaGrange in the 1960 state championship?

Would LSU freshman and former Purple Knight Leonard Fournette, one of the most highly touted prep players ever, have followed in Markey’s footsteps as Mr. Football in 2013 while carrying the mantle of “the next great St. Augustine player” if Leroy Hoard and Tyrone Hughes hadn’t come before him and paved the road from Gentilly to the NFL?

And what about current Rummel quarterback Chase Fourcade, who grew up with not one, but two former Catholic league standouts in the family?

His father, Keith, was an all-State linebacker at Shaw in the 1970s. But even though Keith went on to play in two games for the Saints, his career was always overshadowed by that of an even brighter star—his brother, John. John was the all-everything quarterback for those Eagles teams before breaking Archie Manning’s yardage records at Ole Miss, then enjoying a short stint of his own with the Black and Gold.

The League has sent its former players far and wide. Dozens, like Hoard and the Fourcades, played in the NFL, where former Shaw safety Ryan Clark should pass Jesuit’s Richie Petitbon (who played in 179 games from 1959 to 1972) as the longest-tenured NFL player from New Orleans’s Catholic schools sometime next season. Others, like Roth, have gone on to coach—five of the six teams in 9-5A are coached by former Catholic League players (St. Aug’s Cyril Crutchfield, who played at Covington, is the lone exception). Former Brother Martin defensive lineman Warde Manuel is even the athletic director at the University of Connecticut, home of the reigning NCAA champions in both men’s and women’s basketball.

But many more have owned local businesses, served as firemen and policemen, ran construction crews, or done any of the other things you or I might consider “normal” professions, then passed the love of the game—and the love of the League—down to their sons and nephews.

THE MEN WHO MADE IT HAPPEN

Perhaps even more so, the League is home to some of the greatest coaches in Louisiana prep history.

Kalbacher, Wilson, and Henry Rando at Holy Cross; Bob Conlin at Brother Martin; Johnny Altobello at De La Salle; Joe Zimmerman and Hank Tierney at Shaw; Vic Eumont and Wayde Keiser at Jesuit; Don Perret and both Roths at Rummel; Otis Washington at St. Augustine—these are just a few of the coaching legends that left their mark on the Catholic League.

Kalbacher was well-known for his long rivalry with brother-in-law Ken Tarzetti when Tarzetti was the coach at Jesuit, but he was also revered for the time he spent mentoring young coaches, like Washington when he first took over at St. Aug.

Tarzetti himself took over a Blue Jays program reeling from the death of beloved coach Eddie Toribio just before the 1958 season, then coached Jesuit, led by the “Touchdown Twins”—Screen and Kenny Martin—to three straight Catholic League titles.

Conlin won 204 games and a state championship at the helm of the Crusaders from 1970 to 1996. And Washington brought the Purple Knights into the LHSAA and the Catholic League, weathered a storm of discrimination, and won three state titles in a five-year stretch in the 1970s—including a 1978 state-championship victory over Jesuit in the first title game played in the Superdome.

These men never sought fame and fortune; Wilson even left a long and successful career as a college assistant coach to return to Holy Cross, in large part because of the “pull of New Orleans.” But in their decades of coaching, they touched the lives of thousands of young men and made an indelible mark on the landscape of high school football in Louisiana.

OBSTACLES ALONG THE WAY

It wasn’t always smooth sailing, though.

St. Augustine joined the Catholic League in 1967 after first being rejected by the LHSAA, who amended their constitution to require applications to be voted on first by the district that a school would be entering, then by all the schools present at the next annual meeting.

At the 1965 meeting, St. Aug received the votes necessary to join from the other Catholic League schools, but the final vote—by the schools present at the January 1966 meeting—went against the Josephite school by a whopping 185-11 margin.

It took a class-action lawsuit for St. Augustine to finally be admitted to the LHSAA, but even then, the Purple Knights faced what seemed to be unfair treatment at the hands of the state’s governing body for high school sports. After receiving admission to the LHSAA, St. Augustine had 19 players declared academically ineligible after a surprise visit by then-LHSAA commissioner “Muddy” Waters. The Purple Knights also felt they were not given a chance by officials.

“I can recall walking back to the huddle, saying things like, ‘When is this going to stop? Why won’t they just let us play?’” former St. Aug player Melvin Davis said in Glory Days: The Catholic League of New Orleans, a film that chronicles the League’s early years. “And I think the kids that we played against at that time felt the same way.

“It was the adults that [were] the problem.”

Two years later, St. Aloysius, one of the founding members of the Catholic League, was consolidated along with fellow Brothers of the Sacred Heart school Cor Jesu to form a new institution. Brother Martin would eventually become a fixture in the League, but there were fears at first about the merged schools leaving behind the name of St. Aloysius, a New Orleans institution for decades.

The League enjoyed relative stability until the 2000s, when it faced a new set of challenges. In 2003, charter member De La Salle opted to move down in class and play in 3A. A 2005 rule change by the LHSAA required teams to play in the classification that fit their enrollment, knocking Shaw—who had dominated the league in the 80s and 90s—down to 4A.

Then Katrina hit, and everything changed. Holy Cross was severely damaged, putting the future of the Gentilly school in doubt.

“We had a great football team,” Wilson said of the Tigers’ 2005 squad. “We felt very confident about our team that year, and [Katrina] ended up just decimating it. Kids went off to California, Texas—all over the country.

“We didn’t think we’d ever have the school [again]…then it comes back the way Holy Cross has come back. I believe it has made us tighter and stronger.”

But the road back was hard. Declining enrollment pushed the Tigers down into 4A in 2007, then all the way down to 3A in 2009.

Chalmette, a member of the League from 1970 to 1989, rejoined in 2007 to help fill the void, then departed again in 2009 when Shaw returned to 5A. But in 2010, reclassification splintered the League. Shaw and St. Augustine were classified as 4A schools, leaving only Jesuit, Brother Martin, and Rummel in the state’s highest classification.

The Jefferson Parish 5A district was split to accommodate the Catholic schools. Brother Martin, Jesuit, and Rummel joined Chalmette, Grace King, and West Jefferson, while Bonnabel, Ehret, and Higgins went west to join up with Destrehan, Hahnville, and East St. John.

The fractured Catholic League labored on until 2012, when then-Jesuit principal Michael Giambelluca co-authored a proposal to allow LHSAA schools to play one classification higher than their actual enrollment. The proposal, which took effect for the 2013-14 school year, reassembled the Jefferson Parish public schools and allowed the River Parish teams to go back to playing with the Terrebonne and Lafourche Parish schools.

But more importantly, it paved the way for Holy Cross, St. Aug, and Shaw to return to 5A last year and reunite the Catholic League as we know it today.

It may have only been eight years of turmoil, but for those who knew the glory days of the League, that eight years felt like an eternity.

THE PAST LIVES ON TODAY

Wilson and Roth are just two of the men who stuck around, the men who never got the love of the League out of their blood. And they’ve made it their mission to bring that love to their students and players throughout their careers by teaching the same values instilled in them by their coaches: honor, respect, commitment, and toughness. Wilson acknowledges that the Catholic foundation shared by all six schools forms an important part of the League’s mythology.

“New Orleans has a strong Catholic community,” Wilson said, “and they take a lot of pride [in it]. It means something to win a game in the Catholic League. It’s hard-nosed football from the beginning to the end, and I appreciate that.

“Everybody says, ‘It’s always meant something to me, so I want to be a part of it now’…the whole community has rallied around each Catholic school and what they have going. It’s been a joyful experience for us.”

It can be easy for a coach to teach proper tackling form or the best route to run against a certain kind of coverage. Passing down a tradition that’s about so much more than just football is a little more difficult. Yet somehow, the coaches in the League have an innate understanding of how to do just that.

“We honor one another when we play the game,” Wilson said. “We don’t fight. There [aren’t] any harsh feelings. But when the game is played, it’s played as hard as it can…[It’s] that commitment to ‘We’re going to give you everything we’ve got.’ We may not win, but we honor [our opponents] by doing that…and I think that’s what the kids really respect about it.”

These days, 17- and 18-year-old prep stars have their sights set on different goals than their counterparts from older generations. Today, the lure of the recruiting process, the bright lights of televised spectacles sponsored by shoe companies, and the dream of an NFL contract loom large. Even in the short term, lifting a state championship trophy—something Catholic League schools have done nine times—is one of the first things that comes up when you ask a high school football player what his goals are.

But as long as men like Roth and Wilson still pass on the love of the League, there will always be a slice of Louisiana prep football where local glory still reigns supreme—where the pride of the community comes above all else.

As Roth put it, “The goal always has been—and will continue to be—a Catholic League title.”

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