No Sophomore Slump for Me


I'll begin the second part of my series on high school memories at CHS by stating the biggest difference from my freshman year came on the grid iron. Unlike my "rookie" season where I barely got on the field, all the previous year's sophomores had moved up to the varsity team leaving plenty of open spots on JV, and I took advantage by securing a starting position at right defensive end and platooning at fullback. In our coach Dave Butler's offensive system, the fullback alternated each play. For most of the season, myself and another sophomore, Chris Chew, carried out this system in which every other play one of us stood next to coach Butler, received the call for the next play, then ran onto the field, relayed the call to the QB, and then usually blocked, occasionally ran out for a pass, but almost never touched the ball. This system came to an abrupt halt during one game in the Rochester area when Chris was injured late in the first half. The second half of that game was one of my most memorable athletic achievements- I never left the field. For the entire third and fourth quarters, I played every single down on offense, defense and even special teams due to Chris' absence. We lost the game, but I was proud (although exhausted) of my effort and I certainly won the respect of the coaches and my teammates.

The highlight of that sophomore season was beating the St. Joe's JV team. The Canisius varsity football team had been dominant in the 1970s, even setting a state record for longest winning streak, 44 games- a record that stood for three decades. But the 1980s and 1990s were not kind to the CHS football team. By my sophomore year, the varsity team had lost five straight times to St. Joe's, so when my teammates and I beat their JV team, I was so exhilarated and joyful that it actually brought tears to my eyes, and we all believed that we would end the losing streak in the next two years when we had moved to the varsity team. Alas, it did not happen- far from it. Not only did we lose both games to St. Joe's rather handily my junior and senior seasons, but the losing streak went on for several more years. It was not until 1999, after the streak had hit 17 losses, that the CHS varsity team finally beat St. Joe's, and I was there at Crosby Field to witness it and share in the euphoria of defeating our school's archrival. Funny thing is how it has come full circle, and CHS has once again become a powerhouse football program, dominating the league, including St. Joe's, over the past eight years, winning five championships in that span, and four of the past five. How I wish I could have experienced anywhere close to that level of success.

My other athletic endeavor that year came during the winter. Boosted by the confidence of starting on the JV football team, I tried out for JV basketball. When I was cut from the team, I could have been quite depressed, but instead I quickly switched to bowling. The sport was a favorite in my family. My father bowled in a men's league with my maternal grandfather and my mom's brother for many years, my parents also bowled in a mixed couples league, and my sister and I bowled in a junior league from when I was 8 until I hit the age limit of 16. Almost every year I had the highest average for my age group in the league, so joining the JV bowling team was a natural fit.

It turned out to be a great move because not only was I a pretty good bowler, but I met two other sophomores on the team, Todd and Carm, who became good friends for the remainder of my time at CHS. Unlike my freshman year, when I ate lunch silently by myself every day, practically counting the minutes until the start of the next class, I now, through Todd and Carm, had a regular table of classmates to sit with and socialize- they might not have been a popular group of guys, certainly not part of the "in-crowd," but I felt comfortable hanging out with them, and that was a major improvement from the previous year of anxiety-riddled isolation.

Indeed, Todd was my closest friend sophomore and junior year, and our relationship came with a bonus- his parents owned and operated Mazurek's bakery in south Buffalo, so when me, Todd, Carm and a few other guys would go to his house to play poker, afterward we would walk next door to the bakery and grab a few donuts and pastries- Easter time was the best since they would also have chocolate candy for sale. Another perk was that Todd would occasionally grab a box of goodies from the bakery and use it to bribe a security guard who worked the rear entrance to the old Memorial Auditorium and we would get in to see Sabres games for free. Of course, that was long before the new arena, now KeyBank Center, was built, and I doubt that would work nowadays.

My favorite teacher during the sophomore campaign was Fr. Marc Roselli, a Jesuit priest who had just arrived for his first year teaching at CHS. Fr. Roselli was both my home-room and Spanish teacher, and we developed a close rapport. What stood out about Fr. Roselli was that he was a huge Beatles fan, and for extra credit on Spanish quizzes, he would often ask a Beatles-related question, sometimes playing a song on his boombox and asking us to identify the lead singer or the title. Now I was not as big a Beatles fan then as I would become in a few years, but I still knew enough about them to get the answer right most of the time- surely at a higher rate than almost anyone else in class, and perhaps for that reason alone, I became one of Fr. Roselli's favorite students.

Lastly, there was a unique experience that occurred in February of my sophomore year that really stood out as a highlight. Phil McConkey, class of 1975, had been a star wide receiver and defensive back during CHS' aforementioned era of dominance. However, he was so small that he was not offered any college football scholarships. So he took an offer from the U.S. Naval Academy. After playing football for four years and graduating, he was obligated to serve in the Navy for five years. Upon completing his service, he joined the New York Giants and played six years in the NFL. The zenith of his career came in Super Bowl XXI, when he helped the Giants win their 1st Super Bowl with a 44-yard catch to the one yard line that set up one touchdown and later scored on a six yard TD catch. After participating in the Giants championship parade in New York City, he came back to his hometown and alma mater to share the glow. As a member of the JV football team, I stood along with my teammates and the varsity team on the steps that lead from the foyer to the auditorium, and watched intently as McConkey stood before us, was welcomed by the school principal, and then gave a brief inspirational speech about winning the championship. It was a very cool moment and one of many over the years that made me proud to be a member of the CHS family.

#CanisiusHighSchool #football #fullback #archrival #bowling #MazureksBakery #BuffaloSabres #MemorialAuditorium #TheBeatles #PhilMcConkey #NewYorkGiants #SuperBowlXXI

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© 2017 by Peter McNeela.