During Jimmy Cefalo's All American football career at Pittston Area High School, only one person in Wyoming Valley ran for more yards than he did. Me.
I write about Jimmy when the occasion arises and when I do, I like to reminisce about the craziness of the 1971, '72 and '73 high school football seasons around here. The craziness that had me sprinting a mile or two every time Jimmy ran for a hundred yards or two … or three. Which was mostly every Saturday night from September through November. That's a lot of yards, and, trust me, a lot of miles.
The occasion that has me remembering those times today is Jimmy's upcoming appearance as principal speaker at the 106th Annual Greater Pittston Friendly Sons of St. Patrick Banquet on March 17 at The Woodlands. An interesting choice, by the way, for a guy Coach Joe Paterno liked to call "That skinny Italian kid from Pittston."
We sportswriters used to estimate – "guess-timate" is a better word – the crowds at Cefalo's games at 12,000 to 15,000, which now that I consider it, was probably somewhat generous. But there were at least 10,000 fans at every game, and surely more at some. I certainly can say without hesitation that when he was playing, every seat at every stadium was filled and fans stood three or four deep around the perimeter of the field.
Those crowds presented a problem for sportswriters, particularly me. There were no cell phones in those days. No laptops. No internet. And while some of the other guys covering the games could phone in a story from the press box or a nearby phone booth, I worked for the Pittston paper, the Pittston paper whose readers expected full details, expected a couple of thousand words, expected the kind of story you couldn't tell over the phone. So, after the game, I had to hightail it back to the office, meaning my biggest fear was getting stuck in a traffic jam.
The only thing I could do was to park a couple of miles away from the stadium and make a mad dash the minute the final gun sounded. It could be freezing out, but by the time I got to my car I'd be pouring sweat and already composing the "lede" (newspaper talk for the opening paragraph) in my head.
One of those nights was in Nanticoke in 1972 when Cefalo was a junior. I started the engine and thought, "It's fitting that the Nanticoke exit on Route 81 is number 44 because Pittston Area's Number 44 put on quite a show tonight."
And that's the first thing I wrote when I sat down at my manual typewriter back in Pittston.
Thanks to newspapers.com I just refreshed my memory of that game. Pittston Area won 28-12 but was ahead by only two points, 14-12, with a little over 4 minutes left when they got the ball on their own 5 yard line after stopping Nanticoke on fourth down. Two minutes later, Cefalo took off on an 85-yard touchdown run and that was pretty much that. Fullback Dave Bachkosky, known mostly for his devastating blocks clearing Cefalo's way, added a final touchdown on a one-yard plunge after Jerry Guarnieri had pounced on a fumble. Mike Nocera kicked four extra points.
Forgive me for getting carried away there but my sports writing style was always to mention a lot of names. Which means I must add that sophomore Tommy Murtha made a touchdown-saving tackle in that game as well.
When I totaled up the stats, I found Cefalo had gained 297 yards on only 24 carries, 160 of which came in the first half when he scored on runs of four and 80 yards. And he was still just 15 years old. I wrote that up and sent it off with a photo to Sports Illustrated and they ran it in their "Faces in the Crowd" section. When Jimmy scored a touchdown in Super Bowl XVII (on a 76-yard pass), I wondered how many kids who were once Faces in the Crowd in Sports Illustrated grew up to play in the NFL, let alone score in a Super Bowl.
A little more than a year after that Nanticoke game, Jimmy completed his senior season and was named a High School All American. That led him to Penn State and the Miami Dolphins and an award-winning career in broadcasting.
It may seem curious, but following his high school career I never again saw Jimmy Cefalo play football in person. I was busy writing about the local high school athletes who came after him.
Bear with me, please, for one more story about the craziness I mentioned of Cefalo's high school years. During Jimmy's senior year, photographer Kenny Feeney and I got caught in traffic and arrived at a game just as they were about to kick-off. I jumped out of the car almost before it stopped, grabbed my clipboard and started sprinting toward the field.
I squeezed in between several fans near the corner of one end zone, tapped a young kid on the shoulder saying, "Excuse me, champ," leaped over the fence, and dashed for the far sideline. As I did, that little boy turned to his uncle standing next to him and said, "Gee, that was my brother Eddie and he didn't even know me."
Yes, out of that massive crowd, the kid I tapped was my little brother Bobby. He was standing with my Uncle Eddie Strubeck.
And he was right, I didn't know him. That's how focused I was.
As always, I look forward to seeing Jimmy on St. Patrick's Day but I'm also hoping his old teammates show up. The Friendly Sons most likely are too.
See, they weren't all "Italian kids" on that team. There was a Maughan and a Mullen and a Hafferty and a Watson, who played center and claims to this day he made Cefalo's career.
"If I never centered the ball," Bill Watson says, "Jimmy wouldn't have gained a yard."
Tickets for the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick's annual banquet can be purchased from any member of the Friendly Sons or at the Pittston Knights of Columbus Thursday night.