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
“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.
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
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
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
Editor's note: Please share your
knowledge and memories with us: Interact.
Green-Stevenson to Afrolumens, 15 September 2006.
extends its sincere thanks to Sheila Green-Stevenson for sending this
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.
readers have added stories about Steelton's proms, both integrated and
segregated. See letters from Calobe
Jackson Jr., and Kaye Allen.
your memories about African American community life in Harrisburg--write