Gridiron greatness kicks off tonight in the Valley

SEE ALSO: Pre-game party to kick off Rayen Stadium rebirth

What is Mahoning Valley football about?

It’s about the smell of grilled sausages at Howland, the taste of cavatelli at Lowellville, and the sight of the Spaghetti Bowl in Leetonia.

It’s about Canfield ringing the victory bell and Warren Harding’s Indian throwing his spear.

It’s about Ted Bell vs. Maurice Clarett. It’s about Frank Sinkwich winning the Heisman Trophy at Georgia just a few years after winning league titles at Chaney. It’s about Bo Rein and Bo Pelini. And Paul Warfield and Paul Maguire. It’s about Mike Zordich and Mike DeNiro. It’s about Bob Stoops and Boom Herron.

It’s about Ed O’Neill scoring touchdowns at Ursuline High before

Al Bundy scored touchdowns at Polk High.

It’s about a 15-year-old Campbell kid named Gene Janecko getting discovered by John Knapick at gym class midway through his junior year and, two years later, Janecko playing tailback at Ohio State.

“It just goes to show you what a coach can do in any kid’s life,” said Janecko, who went on to coach and compile several books on the Valley’s football history. “He changed mine.”

It’s about a kid named Dick Angle growing up in a town that had just helped win World War II, a town whose people were as tough as the steel they forged and the game they loved.

“TV wasn’t there and radio was in its infancy, to a point, so the thing to do in Youngstown was to go to a Friday night football game,” said Angle, whose dad took him to Campbell games when he was 4. “I started playing in fourth grade when a good friend a year ahead of me started playing at St. Brendan’s and I was like, ‘Well, if you can do it, I can do it.’

“I was lucky to be around elementary school coaches who taught you the right way to play, that were more concerned with playing hard and fair than winning. Winning just came from that.”

It’s about Angle winning a City Series title at Ursuline in 1964, then returning to coach the Irish to four Steel Valley Conference titles and four conference titles (Metro Athletic Conference and All-American Conference) at Howland and realizing as he drove home from work this week that he’s getting ready for his 43rd opener and thinking, “I’m more excited today than I was 42 years ago.”

It’s about a kid named Kyle McCarthy who grew up dreaming of the day he would be the quarterback at Cardinal Mooney, then leading the Cardinals to the Division IV state title in 2004 — three years after Mooney went winless for the first time in school history.

“Without a doubt — and I’m not the only one to say this — high school football is the most pure form of sport,” said McCarthy, who played at Notre Dame and has had NFL stints with the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs. “You’re not playing for money; you’re not playing for accolades; you’re not trying to get on TV. You’re playing because it’s fun with the friends you grew up with.

“It’s kind of ingrained in the people of the Mahoning Valley at a young age and it just grows from there.”

It’s about the new Judge William Rayen Stadium being built upon the old Rayen Stadium and more than a few Valley stadiums being built on WPA money.

It’s about Mooney’s stacked-I and Girard spread wide.

It’s about holding your breath when Howland’s DeVeon Smith gets the ball and holding your nose when Niles plays “Hail to the Victors.”

(I love “Script Niles,” though.)

It’s about asking someone where he went to high school and hearing, “I’m from Warren, but I went to RESERVE.”

It’s about driving down to Steubenville knowing you’re going to get ripped off on at least one call.

It’s about Columbiana coach Bob Spaite’s quips and Mooney coach’s P.J. Fecko’s cliches.

It’s about “What if Bernie Kosar hadn’t had four games wiped out by Boardman’s teachers strike in 1980?” and it’s about “What if Angelo Babbaro hadn’t been hurt in the first half of Canfield’s state championship game in 2005?”

It’s about Mooney vs. Ursuline and Canfield vs. Poland (and Chaney vs. Fitch, RIP), but it’s also about Columbiana vs. Crestview and Struthers vs. Campbell and (my team) vs. (your team).

It’s about Homecoming queens and boyhood dreams. It’s about signs on the lockers and grandparents in the stands. It’s about cheerleaders and dance teams and fifth-graders wearing their jerseys and girlfriends wearing your letterman’s jacket.

It’s about Lisbon catching lightning in a bottle and winning Columbiana County’s only state title in 1995, and it’s about nobody catching Akise Teague in Ursuline’s 2010 state championship game.

It’s about adding 2 inches and 20 pounds to each player in the program, and it’s about adding 50 yards and 15 broken tackles to your game-winning touchdown run from the 1970s.

It’s about John Caparanis and Jim Campbell on my radio and Chad Krispinsky on my TV, making a 4-yard gain sound like 40.

It’s about Boardman’s band playing “Ants Marching” by Dave Matthews Band and it’s about the smallest band in Mahoning County also the one most likely to still be playing in December.

It’s about the best thing you can do for $6 short of buying a week’s worth of newspapers. (You can use the extra $1.50 for another Sunday paper and double up on coupons).

And you know the best part? It’s about to start.

It’s about time.

Joe Scalzo is a sports reporter and columnist for The Vindicator.

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