Holy Wars: On Football Rivalries Between Ohio Catholic High Schools

Holy Wars: On Football Rivalries Between Ohio Catholic High Schools

As afternoon transitioned to evening on the last Friday in October, the sky above FirstEnergy Stadium hinted at rain, promising the kind of weather that a generation earlier had inspired Red Sox pitcher Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd to say after that evening’s baseball game was canceled due to fog, “That’s what you get for building a ballpark on the ocean.”

But the mood was ebullient in the parking lot in the shadow of the freighter William G. Mather for one of the infrequent occasions when the stadium was in use on a Friday night. Cleveland St. Ignatius would play Lakewood St. Edward in the 57th installment of a rivalry that stretches back to the days when Cleveland’s population was inching toward 1 million as the city hummed as an industrial powerhouse. The game’s location was also a throwback to those days. The site now occupied by FirstEnergy Stadium was previously occupied by Cleveland Municipal Stadium, an enormous downtown facility that hosted a variety of activities, including baseball games, track meets, mini-kart racing, religious revivals – and football games on all levels. It was home to the Browns in their entire existence prior to their hiatus in the late 1990s, hosted a variety of college games and was a regular venue for high school games too, mostly prominently Cleveland’s Charity Game, which served as a de facto city championship game from the 1930s to 1970.

Two hours before kickoff, the lot was alive with action during a tailgate. There was an official event put on by St. Ignatius – the home team for this year’s installment – but there were also informal tailgaters, with setups as low-maintenance as a sandwich platter sitting on a tailgate to tents set up and in one instance, a smoker making chicken wings.

The crowd seemed small in a stadium built for nearly 70,000 people – and most of them huddled under overhangs on the first level to avoid the cold rain – but it sounded loud when the Wildcats ripped off a lengthy return on the opening kickoff, and then again three plays later when the Eagles had an almost equally-long interception return.

The Wildcats won the season finale 21-7 in a throwback, ground-and-pound game, likely a consequence of the weather. Football has become a wide-open passing game, to the point where even high school games are starting earlier, since games that lasted two hours 20 years ago now last longer than three.

St. Ignatius’ victory over St. Edward led to a rematch the following week in the Division I playoffs. This game was played in similar cold and rainy conditions, but at Byers Field in Parma, the Wildcats’ home field. They didn’t fare so well this time, losing 21-19 to St. Edward. It was the Eagles’ first win in three years against the Wildcats.

Every city in Northern Ohio – and really, throughout the industrial Midwest – has a game like this, usually informally referred to as a “Holy War” when two Catholic schools meet, typically near the end of the season. In Youngstown, it’s Ursuline and Cardinal Mooney. In Toledo, it’s St. John’s Jesuit and St. Francis. In Akron, it’s Archbishop Hoban and St. Vincent-St. Mary.

And in the Cleveland area, which has no shortage of Catholic schools, it’s St. Ignatius and St. Edward. Both are independent, so no league title is at stake when they meet, and although both teams started out 0-2 for the first time since 1960, they’d both bounced back and were assured of playoff spots regardless of the game’s outcome.

Both schools have played outsized roles in the area’s history and both have longstanding traditions of excellence, with 11 OHSAA state football titles for the Wildcats and three – all in the past decade – for the Eagles (the sport where St. Edward really flexes its muscles is wrestling, having won the state title every year but two since the dawn of this century).

Because the game pits two Catholic schools against each other, it began with a prayer. But make no mistake, football in Northern Ohio is its own religious experience.

What’s regarded as the first college football game was played in New Jersey. The first professional game was in Allegheny City – now part of the city of Pittsburgh, not far from where Pittsburgh’s modern pro football players ply their trade. High school football in Texas has inspired books, movies and television shows.

But there’s no place where football takes hold like in Ohio. In 1920, a group of football enthusiasts – who owned, managed or played for teams that dotted the Great Lakes region, many from the loosely-confederated Ohio League – gathered at a Hupmobile dealership in Canton to form the American Professional Football Association, which two years later would become known as the National Football League. (The league’s formation in Canton is why the city was selected 40 years later to become home to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.)

In Columbus that year, plans were being made for a new stadium for Ohio State University. The Buckeye football team, led by Chic Harley, had so wowed crowds that the team’s following was now too large to be accommodated in its current home. Meanwhile, Cleveland native John Heisman, after stops at Oberlin College and Buchtel College (now the University of Akron) had become legendary at the helm of Georgia Tech.

College football had emerged from the previous decade, when the amount of injuries – even fatalities – led President Theodore Roosevelt to pressure colleges into forming the International Athletic Association of the United States in 1905. Five years later, the IAAUS changed its name to the National Collegiate Athletic Association. In football, like golf and tennis, amateurism was prized. College football was played by gentlemen scholars in the spirit of competition. Pro football was played by roughnecks who had emerged from mills or factories for a game on their own time on Sundays.

As the game grew in popularity, it spread to small towns. Most had their own high schools, and teams started to play under their auspices. As a result, in 1907, the Ohio High School Athletic Association started to govern high school sports in Ohio. Its first tournament would be the state track meet, but it would take more than 60 years for them to make similar arrangements for high school football.

Absent a championship decided on the field, there were many mythical high school state championships in Ohio (as well as college football in the days before wire service polls were used to crown de facto national champions). In the early years of the sport, championships came by popular acclaim. Basically, if you said you were a championship team and enough people believed you, it happened.

The 1930s brought with them polls. There were three polls to start: Associated Press, United Press and International wire services. United Press bought International to form UPI, and there were two wire service polls, with AP voted on by sportswriters and UPI voted on by high school football coaches.

But even those were regarded with some suspicion. In the early 1930s, a Miami University graduate named Paul Brown took the helm at his alma mater, Massillon High School, and made them a pre-eminent program. Brown parlayed his skill into a job and national title at Ohio State, and then founded Ohio’s two pro football teams, the Browns (named for him, no less) and the Bengals, while the Tigers of Massillon continued to get votes as one of the state’s great teams – perhaps more on reputation than on actual talent, grumbled some other teams.

Various games were played to try to fill the void from a lack of a postseason. In Toledo, the Shoe Bowl crowned the city champions. In 1939, a postseason game was played at Ohio Stadium – the House that Chic Harley Built – called the Buckeye Bowl. Toledo Waite beat Portsmouth in what turned out to be a one-off.

And in Cleveland, it was the Charity Game. Started in 1931, in the depths of the Great Depression, the game was held at the newly-built Cleveland Stadium, which had opened that July with a heavyweight prizefight. The inaugural Charity Game pitted public Central High School against Cathedral Latin, one of the city’s four Catholic high schools and the forerunner to Notre Dame-Cathedral Latin. In what is all-too-familiar to high school sports fans these days, the Catholic school prevailed, 18-0.

The history of Catholic education in the United States is a reflection of the anti-Catholic bias that plagued the country in its early days – and which hasn’t entirely subsided. In colonies founded by Protestants, Catholics were less than welcome, and in 1835, Samuel Morse (he of the telegraph and its eponymous code) suggested that the Vatican, using Catholics in the United States, was plotting to overthrow the nascent Republic.

As a result, many Catholic churches were encouraged to start their own schools – and religious orders staffed them with priests and nuns. After the Civil War, immigrants continued to flood into America, this time from southern and eastern Europe. Heavily Catholic, they landed in the nation’s biggest cities in the Northeast: New York, Boston and Philadelphia (the Workshop of the World) and the cities that were becoming new industrial meccas, like Detroit, Chicago (called by Carl Sandburg the player with railroads and freight handler for the nation), and Cleveland.

But it was an austere Baptist that set Cleveland on its path as a metropolis. John D. Rockefeller graduated from Central High School in Cleveland and started Standard Oil. The city’s location where the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie met made it an ideal center for oil refining and transportation – as well as industry and then enough immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe that they started to claim their own neighborhoods, with names like Little Italy and Slavic Village.

The city boomed and Catholic schools sprouted up. By 1876, six years after Rockefeller founded Standard Oil, nearly one-third of the population was Catholic. A decade later, an order of Jesuits opened a school in Ohio City, offering high school and college instruction. The college would split off and move east, forming John Carroll. The high school, named for St. Ignatius of Loyola, remains in Ohio City to this day. By 1911, it was breaking attendance records – and fielded its first football team.

The post-World War II baby boom really represented the high-water mark for American Catholicism, with more than 1 million Catholic high school students in the 1960s. In 1949, a new Catholic high school named for St. Edward was built in the growing suburb of Lakewood, which had gone from a village of 3,500 in 1903 to a city of more than 70,000 forty years later.

St. Ignatius, by then established as one of high school football powers in Cleveland, met the Eagles on the field for the first time in 1953, beating them 41-7. The teams met again in each of the next four years – with the Wildcats winning all but one of them – before the rivalry went on hiatus until 1971.

The Charity Game was also going the way of all flesh. Gameday incidents made the game – which had drawn more than 70,000 when Cathedral Latin and Holy Name met in 1946 – less popular, and the establishment of a state playoff system weighing a team’s victories along with strength of schedule, had made the game anti-climactic.

Also, Catholic schools were starting to leave city centers, following their populations to the suburbs. Holy Name decamped to Parma in the 1970s, joining Padua High School, which opened in Parma in 1961. St. Ignatius’ commitment to Ohio City was the exception more than the rule. And as tuition started to rise, blue-collar students started being priced out and Catholic schools were starting to become oases of well-off students – or high-level athletic talent.

Catholic schools were regarded with either jealousy or well-deserved skepticism, depending on what side of the argument one was on, for their success. In the second year of the state football playoffs, Catholic schools won all three titles. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, it seemed like public schools had to go to war with the armies they had. Catholic schools went to war with the armies they wanted. Allegations of recruitment dogged private schools in general, but especially Catholic schools. (One athletic director told me he heard people suggest St. Paris Graham’s wrestling success was because it was a Catholic school that recruited. It’s actually a public school in the town of St. Paris.)

Finally, the OHSAA – already running scared at the prospect of a voucher-happy Republican state government overtaking oversight of high school athletics – looked into what it dubbed “competitive balance.” Some schools had agitated for separate championships for public and private schools, and the doomsday scenario saw a complete split with no authoritative governing body and full-on recruiting wars.

Thankfully, cooler heads have prevailed – for now. A competitive balance formula has been implemented, with divisional assignments made accordingly. However, it’s a work in progress. A Cincinnati school sued for an injunction against implementing the competitive balance formula. The OHSAA was granted an emergency stay of enforcement, allowing them to use it at least for the time being.

The game of football is beset with problems. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy has forced a reckoning on all levels. Pro football owners (and really all pro sports owners) continue to soak the public for stadium construction. But people still turn out. For the Browns, who haven’t won a playoff game since Bill Belichick scowled on the home sidelines. For colleges where heinous activities are covered up in service to big time sports. But especially for high school football. Some do so out of the feeling that it’s still a relatively pure game, as evidenced by thousands of kids playing with no real hope of playing at any level beyond it.

It’s a devotion that borders on the religious.

*Image courtesy of Nmasola

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