The Catholic League Blue has qualified four of its six members for this week's state quarterfinals while the DuPage Valley has advanced three. So it's only natural to resume the debate: Which conference is better?
From the first time I covered a Catholic League football game--a Mount Carmel/Loyola matchup in Wilmette on the first day I started to work for the old Chicago Daily News on Sunday, Sept. 8, 1968--I recognized that these Chicago kids played with a split lip and a swagger than nobody else had.
I had witnessed high school football in the old South Suburban League--Bloom's 1957 powerhouse, led by Leroy Jackson, left a lasting impression on me; so did Thornton's 1965 team with LaMarr Thomas--and I covered the East St. Louis/Belleville and Kirkwood/Webster Groves Thanksgiving Day rivalries while working for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.
But Catholic League football was something special. Every game was a rivalry. Tradition oozed from Mount Carmel, Fenwick, St. Rita and Leo. In the 1970s, St. Laurence wanted a part of it. Loyola, Mendel, Gordon Tech and Brother Rice produced dominant teams, too. They were intense and physical. They defined smash-mouth.
I saw it whenever I covered a Catholic League game. Sunday afternoon at Gately Stadium was the grandest experience of all, an electric atmosphere with big crowds and Big 10 officials working the games. If you were there, you know what I mean. If you weren't, trust me, you missed Ohio State/Michigan on a high school stage.
Maybe it's because the kids began playing football at such an early age, in the Parish leagues. If you think college recruiting is a scandal, you should hear the war stories about how 13-year-olds were wooed from one Catholic school to another to another.
I was awed by the legendary coaches who produced great teams and great players. Fenwick's Tony Lawless was gone. But how about a league with Pat Cronin, Tom Kavanagh, Lou Guida, Bob Spoo, Tom Mitchell, Tom Winiecki, Bob Foster and Frank Lenti? You can't make up a cast of characters like that.
And the players...Tim Marshall, Chris Boskey, Paul Glonek, John Foley, Billy Marek, Dennis Lick, Kevin King, Pete Allard, Jim Kozlowski, Kevin Basic, Tony Furjanic, Corey Rogers, Mark Zavagnin.
I know. You've seen great coaches, teams and players in the old Suburban League (Evanston and Murney Lazier) or the DuPage Valley (Wheaton North and Jim Rexilius) or the West Suburban (Hinsdale Central and Harvey Dickinson). Everybody has their favorites. Over the last 50 years, I've witnessed games in all of those suburban conferences.
But it isn't the same. The Catholic League has an edge. Those kids play harder and hit harder. I know you might find it hard to believe. But it's true. I wouldn't say it if I hadn't seen it for myself. A hit in the Catholic League is unlike any other. The game is played at a higher level.
Even today. Sure, the Catholic League isn't what it used to be. Mendel and Weber are gone. Gordon Tech, St. Laurence, Leo and Fenwick aren't what they used to be. It is left for Mount Carmel, Loyola, St. Rita and Providence, which recently joined the club, to carry the flag. The the tradition carries on.