The first thing that struck me as my pal Martin Sowa and I walked into the Nanticoke football stadium last Friday night was the number of Pittston Area people we ran into. We graduated from Pittston Area 50 years ago (51 to be exact) but still enjoy rooting for the Patriots. It was obvious we weren’t the only ones.
Marty played football at PA, but that was when the opponents were mostly from Lackawanna County and so he had never been on the field in Nanticoke. Not so for me. Although I did not play high school football, I wrote about it for 15 years and spent a good handful of autumn evenings roaming the sidelines in Nanticoke. As we arrived there Friday, one game in particular came to mind.
I started telling Marty about it as we reached the Nanticoke exit on Interstate 81. It’s Exit 164 now, but in 1972 it was Exit 44, which was downright uncanny. Not to mention a sportswriter’s dream. Pittston Area’s most famous football alumnus Jimmy Cefalo, former Penn State All American and former Miami Dolphin, was a high school junior in ’72. He wore number 44. My opening sentence to the article I wrote back then was: It’s fitting that the Nanticoke exit on route 81 is number 44.
My memory may not be exact, but that night Cefalo ran for something like 273 yards on 15 carries. I do know for sure that on consecutive plays, he ran 85 yards for a touchdown and then 80 yards for another. But this was not nearly as far as I ran that night.
The game was on a Saturday night. That meant I had to get back to the Sunday Dispatch office in Pittston and write it up before press time. The distance from Nanticoke to Pittston is roughly 26 miles, a marathon if you will. No, I didn’t run it. But I remember that night thinking “I cannot get stuck in a traffic jam.” During Cefalo’s years, Patriot games often drew 10,000 fans or more. So I parked my car about a mile and a half from the stadium and when the final gun sounded went into a dead sprint. I was 23 years old then and in pretty good shape. Still, I didn’t stop sweating until I was halfway back to the paper, all the while composing the story in my head.
The next week I got a photo of Cefalo, did a little write-up about his performance and sent it off to Sports Illustrated for the magazine’s “Faces in the Crowd” feature. I got a call from Sports illustrated to verify the info and after the blurb ran, received a check from them for $15. I should have saved that check and framed it. But in 1972 I was making about $150 a week. And 15 bucks was 15 bucks.
An observation I made during my sports writing days was that schools with sound athletic programs more often than not were schools with sound programs across the board, sound marching and stage bands, sound extra curriculars in general, and most importantly, sound academics. Pittston Area and Wyoming Area were clearly in that category. So was Nanticoke.
And the winning spirit at those sound, vibrant schools spilled over into the community. People were proud to say they lived in the Pittston Area or Wyoming Area school districts, proud to say they were alumni of the same.
It was a small sample size to be sure, but during that recent Friday night in Nanticoke I got a strong sense that this winning spirit is back at Pittston Area. And I suspect I’ll feel the same when I get to a Wyoming Area game.
What I am talking about is only partially based on what took place out on the field. Pittston Area won a thriller 28-21 and exhibited a resolve and resilience reminiscence of the team’s early years. But what impressed me most is what I observed in the bleachers.
With the visitor’s stands overflowing with Patriot faithful, Marty and I wound up on the Nanticoke side of the field, right behind a bunch of Nanticoke students. Then, just before kick-off, a large contingent of other students showed up, all wearing green T-shirts, upon which I could swear I noticed the word “Patriots.” I did. They were the Patriot Pep Squad. A student told us the green was a tribute to a North Pocono student who recently was killed in a car crash. North Pocono’s school colors are green and white. Pittston Area head coach Nick Barbieri once taught and coached there.
As the game wore on, Marty and I could not help but be impressed with this Pittston Area group, which we estimated may have been 50 strong. They were seated right next to their Nanticoke counterparts and spent the entire game drowning them out with their boisterous cheering. But they exhibited such sportsmanship and such style to go with their enthusiasm that the Nanticoke kids seemed to look at them with an awestricken respect. “Who are these kids?” they appeared to be asking one another.
The answer came in the form of a cheer. “We are. P.A.” the Patriot students chanted.
I had all I could do to keep myself from joining in.
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week for Greater Pittston Progress. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.