Catholic school closings mark end of an era for Philly high-school sports

Herb Magee, the coach at Philadelphia University, once lofted jump shots at West Catholic. "I treasured every moment that I was there."
Herb Magee, the coach at Philadelphia University, once lofted jump shots at West Catholic. "I treasured every moment that I was there." (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 08, 2012

The dark basement gym where Herbie Magee encountered 250 other freshman on the first day of basketball tryouts more than a half-century ago disappeared when the original school at 49th and Chestnut Streets was demolished in 2009.

The cramped playing field that sat in the rumbling shadows of the Market-Frankford El and provided generations of suburban commuters a passing blue-and-white glimpse of football practices is gone too.

But Friday afternoon, when an Archdiocese of Philadelphia spokesman announced that it and three other high schools would be closing, there was still a West Catholic.

West, which opened in 1916 and won a combined 23 Catholic League titles in football and basketball, is the oldest and best-known of the high schools the financially strapped archdiocese will be shuttering.

But the others - Monsignor Bonner/Archbishop Prendergast, Conwell-Egan, and St. Hubert - have their own rich histories and athletic traditions, and thousands of loyal, sentimental alumni whose memories remain linked to those places as much through sports as any lessons learned there.

"Crazy to hear that my old high school is closing down, mixed feelings," tweeted Miami Dolphins running back Steve Slaton, who starred at Conwell-Egan.

Anthony Becht, a tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs who played at Bonner, tweeted, "I thank everyone behind the scenes that alum & people never heard of that helped make bonner & prendie great schools."

In the late 1960s, John Cappelletti, who would become Penn State's only Heisman Trophy winner, was a two-way star for Bonner. Cappelletti's image became cemented in the public consciousness when, in a famously moving 1973 speech that inspired a made-for-TV movie, he dedicated his Heisman to younger brother Joey, then dying of leukemia.

"I remember going out for the football team at Bonner," said Cappelletti, a 1970 grad who now lives in Laguna Niguel, Calif. "There were so many guys trying out you thought, 'Wow, 'I've probably got no shot at this.' "

Magee, a West Catholic graduate who went on to a Hall of Fame career as Philadelphia University's basketball coach, said, "West Catholic meant more to me than anything that's ever happened to me in my life. Going to West Catholic. Being taught by the Christian Brothers. Being coached by Brother Anselm and Reds Haley and Jim Usilton and Jack Devine. I treasured every moment that I was there. I just loved it."

These most recent closings continue to fray the powerful and peculiar connections between Philadelphia-area Catholics and their high schools.

That bond helped create an unusually tight network of sports alliances, perhaps most apparent in basketball, where the Catholic League has produced generations of coaches, fans, and college stars.

Sports at schools such as West Catholic and Bonner, said Russ Hendricks, an all-Catholic running back for Bonner's 1959 city champions, provided a common vocabulary for Philadelphians.

"It's a unique thing," Hendricks said. "I just retired after 40 years on the waterfront. Everybody down there was from North Catholic, Southeast Catholic, West Catholic, Roman Catholic. We all had a background in common, even if we didn't know one another. We might not know these [sports stars], but we all knew of them.

"Over the years, we'd hire someone from Boston or Florida, and after a while they'd say, ' . . . Everybody here asks you what parish or high school you're from.' That's just the way it is in Philadelphia."

Jim Lynam, who played with Magee at West and later coached St. Joseph's and the 76ers, suggested that deep affection for one's Catholic roots was ingrained in Philadelphians.

"It's part of the culture and traditions here. I'm not sure you can explain it," he said, "but it sure is different from other parts of the country."

It's why alumni of long-defunct St. James still conduct a busy slate of reunions, fund-raisers, and sports-inspired bull sessions, and why you continue to see "St. Tommy (Forever) More" license-plate-holders on cars today, more than 30 years after that West Philadelphia high school was shut down.

Magee, who walked from West Catholic to his home at 45th and Baltimore each day after practice, recalled pulling into a beer distributor's parking lot recently and noticing that he was being tailed by a police car.

"I said, 'Excuse me, Officer, did I do something wrong?'" Magee said. "And he said, 'No, I just saw your West Catholic license plate. I'm West Catholic Class of '86.' That happens all the time. West Catholic meant more than just going to high school. It was a way of living, almost."

Magee, Lynam, and the late Jim Boyle were the stars of the '59 West Catholic team that won the last of that school's eight Catholic League boys' basketball titles. (West's girls won one in 1974.)

In their crowded rowhouse neighborhoods, the three Irish kids became successors to the West Catholic heroes of earlier days, players like Ernie Beck and Bill Lindsay.

"I'd met a lot of those guys at summer camps growing up. That was all part of the lore," Lynam said. "You wanted to be part of this great West Catholic tradition."

That basketball tradition would go on to include such stars as Michael Brooks, the national college player of the year at La Salle in 1980. But its high-water mark came at the Palestra on the night of March 6, 1953.

A crowd of 8,431 jammed the arena. Another 4,000 were unable to get inside. West Catholic upset Wilt Chamberlain's Overbrook team in the city title game by placing four defenders on the 6-foot-11 sophomore star.

Coach Jimmy Usilton Jr. had prepared his team for Chamberlain's shot-blocking by placing a 6-foot-3 Christian Brother with a broom on a table beneath the basket.

"All these years later, I still have to laugh when I think of Brother Anthony," West's Joe Gardler said. "It started out to be a joke. But I guess it really helped."

Chamberlain still managed 29 points, but West's Lindsay scored 32, and the Burrs - the nickname derived from the bur oak trees that lined Chestnut Street - won, 54-42.

Suddenly, it seemed every young boy in West Philadelphia flocked to the playgrounds, dreaming of wearing West Catholic's blue and white.

"I told this at the Hall of Fame," Magee said. "When I was a young guy the only thing I ever wanted to do was just make the team at West Catholic."

Lynam's allegiance to West and its basketball team was so strong that even after his parents moved to Havertown he made the long daily commute to 49th and Chestnut.

West was one of five schools that made up the original Catholic League, along with La Salle, St. Joseph's Prep, Roman Catholic, and Villanova Prep (later Malvern). Basketball, football, and baseball were the only sports contested until cross-country, track, and wrestling were added in 1944.

The league was founded by a priest who would lend his name to one of the schools closed on Friday, Monsignor John Bonner.

The league grew slowly until the baby boom in the 1950s and 1960s, when several new schools sprouted in the suburbs or on the city's distant edges - Bonner, Father Judge, Cardinal Dougherty, Bishop Egan, Bishop McDevitt, Cardinal O'Hara, Archbishop Wood, Archbishop Ryan, and Archbishop Carroll.

Eventually the league would include as many as 22 teams. Now, with enrollment having fallen from a 1960s high of 200,000 to just 60,000, there could be only 11 schools competing in football.

Bonner opened in 1954 as postwar urban flight continued to alter population patterns. The boys-only school initially occupied an abandoned orphanage on a lofty rise in Drexel Hill.

"I got there in September of 1960," said John Nash, the ex-NBA general manager who is a 1964 Bonner graduate. "We had 3,200 boys, 1,000 in the freshman class. That allowed us to have some pretty successful sports teams."

In 1960, Bonner captured the coveted double, winning city titles in basketball and football.

Though basketball stars like Frank Corace, Mike Hauer, and Rodney Blake would play there, it was football that became Bonner's primary athletic focus.

The '59 team - coached by Jack Ferrante, with Russ Hendricks as its offensive star and future Jets all-pro linebacker Al Atkinson on defense - won the city championship before a nearly sellout crowd at Franklin Field, thumping Central, 54-0.

"Every summer, three or four coaches took about 100 guys up to Camp Arrowhead [near West Chester] and got them ready for the season," Hendricks said.

Bishop Egan, the Bucks County school that joined the Catholic League in 1957 and later merged with Bishop Conwell, once dominated local scholastic football.

Coached by Dick Bedesem, who later moved on to Villanova, the Eagles won four city championships in the 1960s, before additional Catholic League expansion diluted its talent.

"Everybody wanted to play for Bishop Egan," said Jack Lyons, a star on the 1963 and 1966 title teams. "Everybody wanted to play for Dick Bedesem."

Soon, for the graduates and those who worked there, the five affected schools will live on only in their minds. The sports trophies they accumulated will grow as dusty as the memories.

"I was crushed when they knocked down our school at 49th and Chestnut," Magee said. "Now that the name is going to be dropped from the high school rolls, that's very upsetting to me.

"I remember the day of graduation. I was heading on to college to play college ball and all that. But if someone had said to me, 'You can stay another year at West,' I'd have done it in a second."


Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068, ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com, or @philafitz on Twitter. Read his blog, "Giving 'Em Fitz," at www.philly.com/fitz

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