Fifty years ago you didn’t want to be late for a Pittston Area football game. And there I was riding to the games with a guy we affectionately, and accurately, called “The Late” Kenny Feeney.
Kenny was a photographer and I was a sportswriter. And the reason we, and everyone else, needed to get to games early was a kid named Jimmy Cefalo.
It was Jimmy’s junior year and already his name alone meant you’d see 8,000 to 10,000 fans at a game and sometimes more. As a sophomore he had run for more than 1,000 yards carrying the ball fewer than 10 times a game. As a junior he was capable of scoring on any play from any spot on the field, including the opening kickoff.
Meyers High School football coach Mickey Gorham colorfully described the phenomenon of Cefalo several years later when Cefalo, then a member of the Miami Dolphins, was honored at a testimonial dinner in Pittston. “When we played Pittston Area and Jimmy was a sophomore,” Gorham said, “we didn’t know anything about him, and he faked us out of our jock straps all night long. When he was a junior, we were ready for him. We didn’t wear any jockstraps.”
The opening of the new Wilkes-Barre Area football stadium last weekend got me thinking about the stadium in Plains Twp. where Coughlin and GAR used to play and a particular night during the Cefalo years when Kenny Feeney’s trademark tardiness had me on pins and needles. His car barely stopped moving when, hearing the announcement of the kickoff, I grabbed my clipboard, jumped out and started sprinting toward the field. As usual, the fans were four to five deep around the perimeter and when I spied a little opening, I tapped this kid on the shoulder, said, “Excuse me, champ,” and jumped over the rope and took off for the sidelines.
It was not until the next day that I learned as I ran off, that little kid had turned to his uncle standing next to him and said, “Gee, that was my brother Eddie and he didn’t even know me.”
It actually was my little brother Bobby, and he was right. My eyes were on the action.
It wasn’t just those Cefalo teams that drew crowds back then though. From the time the Pittston Area and Wyoming Area jointures were formed, you couldn’t find a seat at either of their football games. In the early years, the Patriots typically played on Saturday nights and the Warriors of Fridays. The fans never missed each other’s games.
When I get to a high school football game these days, as I’ve done a couple of times this year at Charley Trippi Stadium, I am always shocked at the attendance. I talked about it with Charlie Turco, PA athletic director, Friday night. Turco played on the first two Pittston Area teams in 1966 and ’67. “Remember when a typical crowd would be 3,500 fans?” I asked him.
“That was when it rained,” he said, and when I thought about it, I knew he was right. Four, five six thousand fans was not unusual no matter what the team’s won-loss record.
I told him how when I was a young sportswriter and all the reporters covered the games from the sidelines, we’d rely on veteran Bob Linskey Sr., to estimate the crowd. Bob was a news editor at the Scranton Times then, but having cut his teeth writing local sports, he volunteered to cover the PA and WA games. He knew the seating capacity of every stadium and wouldn’t just “guesstimate” the attendance, he’d give us an exact number. “Four thousand, seven hundred and fifty-two,” he might say, and then add, “no, make it fifty-three.”
“How many are here tonight?” I asked Turco Friday. “Fifteen hundred?”
“More like a thousand,” he said. And it was a beautiful, moon-lit night.
Charlie pointed to the visitors’ bleachers and said they hold 250 people. They were barely half full, and that included the band.
We both know times have changed. There were only three sports back in Turco’s days. No soccer, no field hockey, no tennis, no cross country. And, of course, no video games. Football was about all we had to look forward to in fall, and by “we” I mean not only every student in the school, but every alumni, every parent, everyone.
Those days are never coming back. I get that. But I’d like to suggest that if you’ve nothing special planned some Friday night before the weather gets too cold, and even if there is a chill in the air, dress appropriately and get yourself to a football game.
You may just remember how much fun it can be. And you won’t have any trouble finding a seat.
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.