Nearly five decades later, the memories of playing for the now-defunct Mendel Catholic High School in the rough-and-tumble world of Chicago high school football are still fresh in the mind of Buffalo Bills defensive backs coach Steve Szabo.
A 1,600-student all-male student school, Mendel Catholic invariably lined up against public school powers for the City of Chicago championship.
"We had a great team when I was a freshman and played for the championship before 100,000 fans in the old Soldier Field," recalled Szabo. "We didn't have a state playoff system back then, but we were in the city playoffs every year. My senior year (1960), we went undefeated we even beat Mount Carmel, 14-12, and Mount Carmel went on to win the city championship.
"For most of the year we were ranked second in the state. But we lost in a playoff game on the last play of the game."
Ironically, the rigors of playing for Mendel Catholic were tougher than playing for the U.S. Naval Academy (one of his teammates was quarterback Roger Staubach), from which Szabo graduated in 1965.
"Of all the coaches I had in high school and college, (Mendel Catholic head coach) Joe Magee was more influential than anyone else," recalled Szabo, who began his coaching career as an assistant at Johns Hopkins in 1969 and was granted a fellowship for a doctorate in math. "He was an intense guy and very intelligent. But he wasn't a guy from the old school who would yell at you. He would chastise you when you were wrong but pat you on the back when you were right.
Tom's right. I and a few of my freshman classmates snuck into the stadium by climbing around a wrought-iron fence on the east side. We huddled under blankets and there were a lot of empty seats. I lived in Calumet H.S.'s district and all my friends were needling me about how Calumet would trounce Mendel. Luckily, we pulled it out with a desperation pass with 2 sec. left. We had a lot of free Mondays that year due to winning big games including St. George by blocking punts, the last one by tackle Mike Wolfe.
I was at that championship game in '57. It was a frigid day, and Mendel won on a hail mary pass to Gallagher on the last play of the game. But there was no where near 100,000 people there that day. The truth is probably close to 25000. Soldier Field then at capacity could hold a 100.000 with seats placed on the field. The old field had a good bit of seats that extended behind the end of the football field at one end. No one sat in those seat for football games.
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