(Editor's note: This is another in a series of stories that were included in the original manuscript of my fourth book, "Dusty, Deek, and Mr. Do-Right: High School Football In Illinois," published by University of Illinois Press. Due to page limitations, some stories had to be deleted. From time to time, I will include them in my blog).
St. Laurence/St. Rita isn't the oldest rivalry in the history of high school football in Illinois. Hyde Park/Englewood started in 1889, East Aurora/West Aurora in 1893, Ottawa/Streator in 1895 and Arcola/Tuscola in 1896.
It might not even be the most competitive rivalry. Evanston/New Trier dates to 1913 and Mount Carmel (St. Cyril) vs. St. Rita began in 1908. From 1914 to 1974, East St. Louis and Belleville played for the Victory Bell on Thanksgiving Day. Since 1935, Hinsdale (Central) and Downers Grove (North) have played for the Old Oaken Bucket.
But it is hard to imagine any rivalry that was more competitive, attracted bigger crowds and pitted more Division I players against one another than the St. Laurence/St. Rita matchups of 1973, 1978 and 1979.
"Competition in the Catholic League was at a peak in the 1970s in football and basketball," said Mike O'Neill, who succeeded Tom Kavanagh at St. Laurence and coached the 1978 and 1979 teams.
"The student bodies were much more involved. They were big games for them, too. If you lost on Sunday, it was like a funeral at school the next day. It was a great time to be around. There was great spirit in the schools that you won't see again. Can you imagine over 20,000 people at two games on Sunday afternoon at Soldier Field? You won't see that again...the atmosphere, the fans. It was a magical time."
Kavanagh and O'Neill coaching against St. Rita's Pat Cronin, a high school version of Vince Lombardi vs. Bear Bryant. And the players? St. Laurence's Kevin King, Pete Allard, Jim Kozlowski, Craig Zirbel and Dan Gregus. St. Rita's Brian Kingsbury, Steve Lick, Mark Zavagnin, Mark Strimel and Joey Gorman.
How's this for a story line? In the 1978 game, a duel between the state's top two-ranked Class 5A teams, John O'Neill helped to propel St. Rita to the state championship by catching the go-ahead touchdown pass in the third quarter, then intercepting a pass in the closing seconds to preserve a 14-6 victory over a St. Laurence team coached by Mike O'Neill, his older brother.
"I'm just glad it's over," John O'Neill told the Chicago Sun-Times afterward. "Sure, I dreamed about it, about the game, about playing against my brother. But it was too much. The whole week was too emotional. Just look at me. I'm in pieces right now, crying like a baby.
"I wanted to win but I didn't want it to come down to what it did, me beating Mike. I'd rather have had someone else do it. Even when I caught that touchdown pass, I didn't think it would win the game. I didn't think I'd be so much of a factor. It's nice to be important. But after something like that, I wonder how I got through it."
Zavagnin, who later went to Notre Dame and played against Georgia and Herschel Walker in the Sugar Bowl, said he remembers the atmosphere more than the game itself.
"It was an amazing feeling to come out on that field, knowing it was two teams from the same conference that were commanding so much attention," he said. "It was built up as the game of the year. It was our homecoming but the demand for tickets was so high that the game was switched to Soldier Field. There has never been anything like it."
That's the way it was throughout the decade of the 1970s for St. Rita and St. Laurence, arguably the two strongest programs in the state at that time. St. Rita won back-to-back Prep Bowls in 1970 and 1971 with Billy Marek and Dennis Lick, won the Prep Bowl in 1977 and a state championship in 1978. St. Laurence won three Prep Bowls in a row i 1973, 1974 and 1975, won a state title in 1976, won another Prep Bowl in 1978 and finished second in the Class 5A playoff in 1979.
In 1979, St. Laurence beat St. Rita 21-20 as strong safety Mark Hughes sacked Joey Gorman on a two-point conversion attempt with 2:42 to play, then intercepted a pass at midfield in the closing seconds to preserve the victory. It snapped St. Rita's 26-game winning streak.
Dennis Arrigo's 75-yard punt return gave St. Rita an 8-0 lead in the first quarter but St. Laurence rallied to build a 21-8 lead as Pete Neagle scored from the one to cap a 65-yard drive, reserve quarterback Garrett Ryan flipped a 73-yard screen pass to Mark Morrissey and Ryan's 12-yard pass to John Kissane and Glenn Turro's 31-yard run set up Morrissey's one-yard TD plunge.
St. Rita rebounded as quarterback George Mach completed 13 of 19 passes for 140 yards in the second half. Completing six passes, he marched the Mustangs 66 yards before relinquishing possession at St. Laurence's six. But Ed Duffy recovered Ryan's fumble and Gorman scored from the two. After a punt, Mach capped a 62-yard drive with a 25-yard TD pass to Dave Moritz with 2:42 remaining, setting the stage for Hughes' heroics.
"I thought they'd come at me. I watched them on film all week and I noticed they used that play a lot for two-point conversions," Hughes said. "On that play, I'm supposed to go into the backfield as fast as I can and take on the blocker. But there was no blocker there so I got Gorman. They were making big plays against us and I was waiting for one of us to make a big play. Sooner or later, I knew we would make one."
The following day, veteran sports columnist Bill Gleason wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times: "On successive days, I had the good fortune to watch two immensely satisfying spectators games. Take my word for it, St. Laurence/St. Rita was better than Southern California/Notre Dame."
However, if one of the St. Laurence/St. Rita games ever plays on ESPN Classic, it will have to be the 1973 matchup. After losing to St. Rita 30-6 in Week 3, St. Laurence prevailed 26-20 in overtime in the championship game of the Catholic League playoff as Kevin King, a bruising 6-3, 210-pound fullback and the Chicago Sun-Times Player of the Year, rushed 30 times for 211 yards and two touchdowns.
Trailing 20-12 early in the fourth quarter after St. Rita's Tony Suriano recovered a fumble and quarterback Mike Strimel ran 58 yards to score, St. Laurence bounced back as King scored on a 61-yard burst. On the two-point conversion, King was surrounded by three defenders and desperately flipped the ball to quarterback Mike Ahern, who ran untouched into the end zone to force a tie--and sudden death overtime.
"We were down by two so we had to go for two," Ahern said. "We were going to run a regular option to the right. But I made a bad read. King got stood up at the line. He turned back and flipped the ball to me. I caught it with my left hand and went around left for the tie."
Kavanagh, ever the maverick, won the coin toss but opted to go on defense. "We wanted to know what we had to do to beat them," he said. After Mike Jank intercepted Strimel's pass to end St. Rita's possession, King ran for five yards, then four, then the final yard for the game-winner.
"The St. Rita game was bigger than the Prep Bowl," said King, who ran for 127 yards and four touchdowns in St. Laurence's 40-24 victory over Phillips in the all-city final.
"Today pales in comparison to what it was like in the 1970s," summed up Ed Kozak, a 1979 St. Laurence graduate who has served as the school's associate director of development for the last 10 years.
"There was overwhelming enthusiasm and great rivalries. The whole week built up in anticipation of a Sunday game. There was amazing coverage for the school and the Catholic League. There were big headlines, like the Bears, and the stadiums were filled. Pep rallies were held frequently in those days. Everybody wanted to know about the games."