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Sheila Green-Stevenson's 
High School Memories
Steel High Football

 

 

The article below was submitted by Sheila Green-Stevenson, a Florida resident who grew up in Harrisburg.  Sheila has been regularly contributing articles and photographs about her memories of growing up in Harrisburg.  Her items are among the most popular pages visited, and draw many responses from Afrolumens readers. 

This privately written article recounts the legendary exploits of Steel High's football squad, and the importance of the football program to this small but highly diverse community.  While the article was written many years ago, and many facts have changed since then, its basic theme remains true today.  Local high school sports still command a considerable amount of attention in this community, and football is still the top attraction.  To view some of Sheila's high school football images, please click here.

 A Saturday Afternoon in Steelton
article written by Barry Baumgardner

(Note: Over the years much has been written about Steel-High’s "fight against the world.” Many old-timers have said that we get no help from our local newspaper in our continuing war for recognition. Perhaps today that is true. Perhaps it was then. However, an article prepared for publication in “The National Prep Football Magazine” over a quarter century ago by a Harrisburg Patriot-News Company reporter proved beyond a doubt that Steel-High has always had a loyal friend in that sports department. True, that reporter wasn’t from our area by birth, but he did marry a Steelton girl and certainly the following article proves where his heart always was. For the record, shortly before his death Sports Illustrated Magazine called him and said they were interested in doing a story on football in our sector of the United States. “Immediately”, he is reported to have said, “I thought of Steel-High. What other school could match the rich sports tradition of Steel-High?” Unfortunately, however, like so many others that have carried our banner into battle, his exploits and forays on our behalf were not made known during his lifetime. But that doesn’t lessen his contributions. For the record, the idea for the following article, the very basis for the article and even the very title of the article is derived from the work of that sportswriter for the Harrisburg newspaper over 25 years ago. Though many facts have added and much changed, much of the following article is just as the author wrote it. This updated version of his article is printed solely as a tribute to one of Steel-High’s staunchest supporters, the late John Travers. Read on and KNOW that we at Steel-High are much the poorer for this noble gentleman’s untimely demise.--Barry Baumgardner)

“A SATURDAY AFTERNOON IN STEELTON”

STEELTON, PA.—The year was 1956 and a chilly October wind was sweeping the small Pennsylvania community as another stirring football chapter was being unfolded in the annals of Steelton High School. It was Saturday afternoon. The day for the town’s heroes. The five o’clock shift whistle had not yet sounded at the nearby Bethlehem Steel Company plant, the town’s only “bread and butter” source. But already tired men, garbed in their work clothes and carrying lunch buckets, stood shoulder to shoulder on the cinder track circling Cottage Hill Field, home of the Steamrollers of Steelton. For today’s opponent was Allentown High School, one of the largest and most powerful teams in the Commonwealth!

Tension gripped the crowd, packed sardine-solid in the stands that surrounded the track. Steelton was on the short end of the count against the mammoth school located near the New Jersey-Pennsylvania line. Today David was again, as in Biblical times, fighting mighty Goliath—and this time was paying the price! Allentown had brought well over four teams to town for the fray while Steelton was content, as always, to go both ways with a total of 15 men! The days of two-platoon football would not hit Steelton for another decade. Today it seemed that the sheer weight of the numbers were taking it’s toll of the Steamrollers. The scoreboard lights, cutting through the smoky pall of the Mill Town flashed for all to see:
     ALLENTOWN 7—STEELTON 6

Head Coach Joe Shevock was the 13th mentor in the school’s 62-year football history. Today he was nervously pacing the sidelines and running his hands through a thatch of silver hair. Time was running out for the little “David” of Pennsylvania football.  It seemed that the enormous manpower of the giant opponent surely was beginning to make cracks in the game but outweighed Steamroller line. But still amongst the “faithful” surrounding the field could be heard words like “conditioning” and “second-half ball club.” A Shevock-coached team was always supposed to get stronger as the game progressed. “A team that won’t be beat, can’t be beat,’ said Shevock.

When a time-out was called, other teams would drop to the ground to rest, water would be brought on the field for the tired warriors and helmets would be taken off by the exhausted players. But Shevock’s Steelton teams never needed water during a game and helmets never were removed, even on the sidelines. While their opponents would be in various stages of rest on the ground, across the scrimmage line the superbly conditioned Steamrollers would be taking the opportunity to do stretching exercises, jumping jacks or simply jogging in place while waiting for play to resume.

But today Allentown had already rolled up 11 first-downs while Steelton had yet to gain their first one of the second-half! The Rollers had been able to compile the minute total of 26 yards rushing for the entire contest. The Steamroller line, led by All-Staters Joe Yetter, Don Stevenson and Pill Popp, was bending under the continuous onslaught but would not snap. The "Three Mules," as they were known locally, had just helped the Roller line check yet another deep foray by the huge adversary into Roller territory. Suddenly, it happened! The break that Dame Fortune deemed appropriate to the October setting took place. The clock showed four short minutes remained in the contest. An Allentown back readied himself to punt from the Steelton 40 yard-line. The ball was lofted skyward by the kicker and soared lazily through the autumn air, heading towards the Roller goal line. It bounced at the five-yard line and skidded crazily to a stop at the two, inches from being a perfect “coffin-corner” boot!

Another Steelton All-State nominee, fleet-footed halfback Ralph “Buzzy” Reed, was already at the spot, anxiously waiting to see if the pigskin was going to roll into the end zone for a touchback. Now realizing that the ball was “dead” at the two, he stood over the ball protectively, his legs straddling the oval as he looked up field. Reed had already scored once in the contest and now kept his eyes pealed up field as the behemoth oncharging Allentown linemen streaked toward him like a runaway freight out of the night!  Reed stood his ground, playing a cat-and-mouse type of waiting game. He seemed undecided. Should he fall on the ball, or should he pick it up?  His indecision could he sensed by the five-rows deep mill workers that stood surrounding the end zone. They numbered in their midst many Steelton gladiators of years past. Protruding stomachs and receding hairlines revealed they were long past the days of their youth. Now confined to reliving their own days of glory on this very field, only in the town’s barrooms on Friday nights, they still keenly knew their football. And for this very briefest of moments, they were playing again!

“Pick it up” they cried. “Pick it up” they screamed again, “Pick it up and run!” Mindful of the on charging adversaries speeding towards him, Reed couldn’t help but hear the cries of anguish emitting from his fellow teammates of yesteryear, only yards away just outside the two strands of B.S.C.O. wire that served as a simple barrier between player and fans. Still standing on the two-yard line he glanced at the ball, then looked again up field. Quickly he glanced towards the sidelines, his only possible avenue of escape. Still apparently undecided.

Suddenly, in the briefest of seconds, he made his decision. Whether it was made by the screaming alumni on the sidelines or whether his judgment was based on the thorough training all of Coach Shevock’s “charges” were exposed to time and again may never be known. But suddenly, without any further hesitation, he lunged down at the ball, scooped it up like a loaf of bread, tucked it away in his arm and fairly flew laterally across the field dashing for the narrow confines of the sideline. Just as suddenly, like a top, he spun to his right and aimed his flying feet toward the Allentown goal 98 long yards away. His tired but unbowed teammates sensed what was happening.  Shevock’s intense drilling and endless hours of coaching began to pay dividends. Immediately they set up a wall of blockers down the length of sidelines, and proceeded to cut down the Allentown defenders like shafts of wheat ripe for harvest. One after another the Allentowners were sent plummeting to Earth. Safely tucked away behind his teammates Reed continued his seemingly impossible journey towards that far-away goal-line that seemed to be looming closer and closer. Seconds later he crossed that last chalk-line untouched to snatch Steelton from the brink of defeat. Allentown’s defenders were lured into the trap by Reed’s brilliant actions in the clutch. One by one they had been mowed down by Steelton’s scythe-like blocking! Anxious moments later the game was over with Steelton winning by the count of 13-7!

But this episode is just a typical “business as usual” Saturday afternoon in the town’s football history of excellence. It’s just one of many thrilling chapters in the most remarkable record of Steelton High School. There are hundreds more which have been written into the books by it’s athletes who have played the game with fierce abandon and determination. The school historically has always been against night football for high school students, opting to play Saturday afternoon games. And even though at times having to vie against such things as the World Series, Penn State games and TV’s Game of the Week for attendance figures, year in and year out, they remain as one of the mid-state area’s top-drawing teams. "On any given Saturday” an opposing coach once said, “You could fire a cannon down the town’s main street and never hit a soul! All the townspeople will be up at Cottage Hill Field waiting for us to arrive!”

The school’s long list of gridiron accomplishments has made it one of Pennsylvania’s greatest for almost a century now. Through the years it has carved one of the most startling schoolboy records for a school of its size anywhere in the country. They have challenged all who dare offer combat. In the school's early days, and even up to the middle thirties, it wasn’t unusual for the school to schedule trade schools, prep school and even small-college opponents! The small school, despite it’s small enrollment and by it’s own volition, always plays in the largest and most powerful leagues in the mid-state area of Pennsylvania, the spawning ground for many of the Keystone State’s finest. In the school’s 39-year football history, they have played less than a handful of opponents--perhaps less than half a handful—that were even remotely close to them in enrollment! By the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association’s standards, they are placed in the smallest such enrollment category offered (class A). By their own choice the school always insists on ranking among the state’s largest schools (AAA). The school’s enrollment has remained between 350 and 500 students in the entire high school for the last 30 or more years. The 1982 enrollment figures for the school will hover around 325 students in the upper three grades. Allentown is but one of the big boys the school has mastered. Some 3,614 pupils file through Allentown’s high school daily. Some other opponents are Chambersburg (1,862), Reading (2,390), Cumberland Valley (2,627), Pennsbury (2,934) and Lancaster with 1,969 students.

Steel-High, as the school has been known since it’s 1957 merger with neighboring Highspire, has played 89 different opponents in it’s 87 years of football splendor. Unbelievably, over half of those opponents have yet to beat the school for the first time. The Rollers, over the years, hold an edge over 77 of those 89 foes. It is even in three series, while two opponents, more than a few of them one-time rivals, show the upper hand. Going into 1982, the mighty steamrollers have won 516 games, lost 259 and tied 54 for a winning percentage just a shade under 70 percent. In 829 games they have averaged 17.7 points per game while holding their foes to a 9.7 average. Steel-High is ranked as the number one team of all time in the mid-state Pennsylvania area and no team is even close to them in area wins. At another time the school was rated among the top five schools in a six state area covering Ohio, New Jersey, Florida, New York and Pennsylvania. Steel-High is one of a very select few teams that have managed to win over 500 football games at the high school level in the entire nation! Little wonder, then, that their fame has even spread to the southeastern United States, once being invited to play in a high school bowl game in Dixie. During that era of our nation’s history however, the black members of the team would not have been housed with the rest of the squad, so the offer was declined.

Consider that only four years after the last Indian uprising was quelled in the mid-west, Steel-High was starting their first football program. Since that time, the school has produced 6 collegiate All-Americans, 2 high school All-Americans, 15 first team all-staters, fistfuls and fistfuls of second and third team all-staters, a host of other top-notch collegiate players, more than a few professional football players and the number of the school’s alumnus that went on to become either head coaches or nationally known athletic officials can never be totaled.

Even novelists have seen fit to write of the Steamrollers’ conquests. Author Warren Eyster, a native son, devoted his novel, No Country For Old Men, to the rugged, sweating life of the area’s steelworkers, scores of whom are among the countless list of Saturday afternoon heroes from the school’s ranks. And just recently Steel-High’s own John Yetter further immortalized the school and it’s athletic history in his book, Steelton, Stop, Look and Listen. Judges, bankers, physicians, attorneys, teachers, college professors, prominent businessmen, chemists and hard-working steel men, the backbone of the community, have spilled into the world from the athletic fields of Steel-High. To complete the list add West Point, Naval and Air Force Academy graduates as well as Marine majors, Navy commander and Army generals along with a district attorney, a state representative and a United States Congressman that received their first taste of combat on the Cottage Hill turf of Steel-High.

What are the factors behind the school’s incredible record? There are many. Perhaps uppermost is the intense, almost sacred pride of the communities that make up Steel High. The town at one time numbered over 20 different nationalities in its melting pot for success. Four, five, six or more different nationalities on the field united under one banner and strove together for one goal: victory for Steel-High. The roll call of years sounds names like Popp, Yetter, Stevenson, Dayhoff, Maronic, Cernugal, Gasparovic, Reich, Intrieri, Settino, Farina, Atanasoff, Govelovich, Venturo, Mills, McGary, Malinak, Trdenic, Iskric, Gilinac, Sypniewski, Weuschinski, Stubljar, Rodriquez, Ellhajj, Venesevich and Vujasinovich—everyday Steel-High names. Joe Shevock, the winningest coach in the school's history, once said that Steel-High is “simply a gathering together of the ethnic clans that have helped make America great."  "To play winning football you have got to love the player along side of you” he said, “And that’s one commodity Steel-High always has an abundance of--love.” The school’s success can also be traced back to the time honored, almost sacred tradition of son following father, and brother following brother in the steady, relentless and endless march of generation after generation over the hallowed turf of Cottage Hill Field, gashed deep by cleats in stirring victory and unbowed defeat!

OUR THANKS TO STEEL-HlGH'S KEN ROBINSON FOR HIS ASSISTANCE IN THE PREPARATION OF THIS ARTICLE
BARRY BAUMGARDNER

Editor's note: Please share your knowledge and memories with us:  Interact.

sources

Correspondence, Sheila Green-Stevenson to Afrolumens, 15 September 2006.  

notes

Afrolumens extends its sincere thanks to Sheila Green-Stevenson for sending this article.

for more information

For local high school football memories, see page two from Sheila Green-Stevenson.


For more Steelton material, see our Midland Cemetery pages, and the American Mosaic Project pages about Steelton, from Dickinson College.

Several readers have added stories about Steelton's proms, both integrated and segregated.  See letters from Calobe Jackson Jr., and Kaye Allen.

Share your memories about African American community life in Harrisburg--write to us

 

 

 

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This page was updated September 23, 2006.