By Karl Henkel
From Heisman-trophy winning halfback Frank Sinkwich, a former first overall pick of the Detroit Lions in 1943, to Brad Smith, current New York Jets receiver, Chaney High School has produced a myriad of big-name athletes.
As much as Chaney is about its athletic success, it is equally about the family atmosphere, even before a student started attending the school, and lingered well after the final seconds expired from an athlete’s playing days.
That fact made Wednesday’s announcement, in which Youngstown School superintendent Connie Hathorn outlined a restructuring of the district, involving the end of athletics at Chaney, more hollowing for those who devoted years to their alma mater.
One it touched was Ron Berdis, longtime football coach, who’s had Chaney in his blood for as long as he could remember; his father played on the first undefeated team in school history in 1929.
“You knew this day was coming,” Berdis said. “But you never really expected the day to be here.”
It was especially tough Wednesday, when Berdis said his phone didn’t stop ringing, with ex-coaches and players on the other end.
“It’s been a part of my life forever,” he said. “Every kid and team I coached, from the first one to the last one, is a tremendous memory for me.”
Memories were bountiful among some of Chaney’s time-tested Cowboys, including Mike Popio, a former baseball and assistant football coach who played back in the mid-’70s.
In his junior year, the football team went 10-0, only to miss out on the postseason by “hundredths of a point” in the playoff rankings, Popio said.
It didn’t tarnish the prosperity of the season, as Popio remembered, which included the final game against Mooney. Popio remembers the bus letting the team off near Mahoning Ave. and together, they marched down Hazelwood Ave. to the school.
Popio recalled the early ’90s, when the football team made its first playoff appearance in 1991, then followed it up the next season with its first playoff victory against Akron Buchtel.
Arguably the most accomplishing seasons came in the late ’90s, just as Mike Kopachy, now football coach at Salem, was transitioning from player to assistant coach.
In 1996, Kopachy’s senior season, Chaney went 10-0, and in 1997, as assistant coach, the Cowboys played in the state championship.
Though it lost to Columbus St. Francis DeSales, 17-14, Kopachy still said it was special to be apart of such a dynamic team.
“We lost 21-18 in the playoffs my senior year and it was such a disappointment because we thought we had the same type of team the 1997 team had,” he said.
Maybe the biggest victory of the 1997 season, Kopachy said, was in the semifinal against Walsh Jesuit.
“They had Notre Dame recruits on their team and had all the history and tradition,” he said. “And we took 35 guys and beat them in a real defensive game.”
“We had kind of the lunch box and hard knock mentality,” Popio said, reminiscing of players from the team such as center and inside linebacker Bill Bugzavich, who Popio said was “160 pounds soaking wet,” taking on future Michigan standout Grant Bowman.
“He played like 260,” Popio said.
The team was one of many that gelled like the family they were, and still are, said former athletic director and coach Jim Mullally.
One tradition for seniors was to walk out of their home room with another senior.
“You always walked with someone,” he said. “You never walked alone.”
This may be the last year that history can stand, but the Chaney tradition will venture on.
“If a Chaney [alum] ever needs something,” Mullally said, “we’re going to help him out.”