The good folks at St. Rita High School celebrated the 50th anniversary of the 1963 national championship football team last Friday. They brought back several members of the team to honor them at a pregame dinner and to recognize them during a halftime ceremony at the Mount Carmel/St. Rita game.
The Mustangs, led by quarterback Jim Klutcharch, guard Tom Labus, center Larry Smith and running back John Byrne, the Chicago Sun-Times Player of the Year, crushed Vocational 42-7 before a crowd of 81,270 in the Prep Bowl at Soldier Field to complete a 9-0 season.
Byrne, a 5-foot-11 senior, set Prep Bowl records for yards gained rushing and points scored. He rushed 30 times for 231 yards, scored five touchdowns (one on a pass from Klutcharch) and ran for six extra points. He surpassed the marks established by Fenwick's Jim DiLullo in the 1962 game.
St. Rita coach Ed Buckley, who died in 1993, was such a taskmaster that some players insisted they would have declined the invitation to attend the event if Buckley was there. As Klutcharch later recalled, Buckley was an ex-Marine who treated his players like Marines. By comparison, Bear Bryant's Junction Boys never had it so good.
But Buckley, also a Harvard graduate, was hired by Fr. Cornelius Lehane, then St. Rita's athletic director, to "change things" and build a tradition at the South Side school. He had produced two state championship teams in Minnesota and he vowed to do the same thing at St. Rita.
"He was as bad as the stories, sometimes worse," Klutcharch told me when I interviewed him for my 2010 book, "Dusty, Deek, and Mr. Do-Right: High School Football in Illinois."
"He demanded excellence. He got more out of people than people were able to give. Kids would play better than they were. But he put St. Rita on the map. He brought St. Rita into the football fold with Mount Carmel, Leo, Weber, Fenwick and St. George. Even today, I run into people who say how impressed they were with the 1963 team."
Which brings me to the point of this exercise. When I was informed that St. Rita was going to honor its 1963 team, I wondered how many of the players on coach Todd Kuska's current roster had any clue about the accomplishments of that team, what the 1963 squad meant to St. Rita, that they were standing on the shoulders of the 1963 and 1971 teams that built the school's tradition.
Probably not, I said to myself. After covering high school sports for more than 50 years from Champaign-Urbana to St. Louis to Chicago, I have come to one conclusion: Most kids today have no knowledge or understanding of history, the way it was, whose shoulders they are standing on, what it takes to build a tradition, what tradition is all about.
Oh, it is evident in some precincts. For example, the late Larry Hawkins taught it in the Chicago Public League. South Siders grew up knowing all about the all-black teams in the 1920s and 1930s and 1940s, Du Sable's 1954 team, Abe Booker, Tommy Hawkins, Pete Cunningham and Cazzie Russell.
At Wheaton-Warrenville South, former coach John Thorne reminded youngsters--if they needed any reminding--that the old school had once produced Red Grange, probably the most celebrated college football player of all time. Grange's legacy is indelibly stamped on the minds of every player in the program.
At Mount Carmel, coach Frank Lenti has educated his players about the great teams and athletes and other graduates who left their marks at the South Side school. Even non-athletes like the late Frank Kiszka, the football team's longtime statistician whose annual yearbooks were a marvel of dedication to the program.
Many schools don't even have a Hall of Fame. There are no records or pictures of the great teams and athletes. Some schools started such ambitious projects, then lost interest. Check the Illinois High School Association's school directory and you'll learn that many schools don't even update their records from year to year.
So how are kids supposed to know what the history and tradition of their school is if school officials aren't even interested? It is important to know, as Larry Hawkins always said, because kids should always be aware of whose shoulders they are standing on, who came before them, who started the tradition.