John Knapick's Red Devils played Struthers in a game for redemption.
By JOHN KOVACH
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
I have been a sportswriter for more than 36 years and have covered many Steel Valley Conference football games, but there is one that stands out.
In November 1957, I was a senior at Campbell Memorial High when we played Struthers for the league championship.
Our Red Devils, coached by John Knapick, were entering the game with a 7-1 record, the only loss coming four weeks earlier at No. 5-state-rated South High, 9-0.
Deprived of a possible unbeaten season and with the SVC title on the line, we were seeking redemption at the crossroads of the season.
Throughout the week leading to the Struthers game, Knapick's rallying cry to his players had been: "Champs or chumps?"
It became our motto.
After the Thursday practice before the game, Knapick summoned his players to midfield in total darkness to give them a pre-game pep talk. Knapick got carried away and proclaimed these now-famous words: Tomorrow, against Struthers, "We are going to go on the land, through the air and on the sea -- well," he checked himself and quickly clarified, "That's if it rains."
We all had a chuckle, but we got the message: We would be unstoppable.
The pep assembly Friday afternoon was a classic. The student body waved "beat Struthers" signs and cheered loudly and long.
Although my mother, Matilda, and her family was from Struthers and my father, John, and his family from Campbell, there was no split allegiance in our own household -- Campbell all the way.
We arrived at the stadium several hours before the game. It was 40 degrees and windy. The stadium was virtually empty.
I wondered, "Is anyone going to come to see this game?"
But dashing onto the field in my No. 83 uniform and knee-high black socks, it did not feel cold at all, and the stadium was filled to capacity with 8,000 fans from both sides of the steel-milled lined Mahoning River.
So while the blast and open-hearth furnaces churned out steel down the hill, and their fires lit the sky with an orange hue, we began to play football.
I was a center and linebacker was to block one of the best players in the Valley, Nick Gentile, who played middle guard on defense and fullback on offense.
How tough was Nick? Let's just say that he was shaving at a young age.
The game pitted friends vs. friends: I knew quarterback Ben Bruno and lineman Ken Horvat of Struthers well -- Horvat since I was 8. They were reinforced by halfback Jerry Lucas, one of the top runners in the state, and huge tackle Gene Valentine.
The tone of the game was set early when my buddy, halfback Ron Tofi, l broke through the line on the eighth play of the game to score a 63-yard TD.
Fullback Frank Pachik and quarterback Jerry Beck added more offensive punch and guard Bob Schuster sparked the defense, and we went on to a 27-6 win to capture the championship with a 7-0 record -- and redeem ourselves after the loss to South.
(We capped the season the next week with a win over Woodrow Wilson for a 9-1 record and a No. 11 state ranking).
A few weeks later, my buddy Horvat informed me that the Struthers coach, Red Phillips, had drawn a snowman-like outline of my 245-pound body on a chalkboard in the Struthers locker room before the game, and instructed his players to melt me.
However, I never felt targeted during the game.
That year's All-SVC team had 10 players from that game. Struthers' Gentile, Bruno and Lucas made the All-SVC team. I was one of the Campbell picks, along with Bob Brayer and Tom Mingo, John Stancin, Robert Schuster and Mike Niciforas and halfback Pachik. Hubbard's Pete Ferrett also made the team.