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Catholic League football
a matter of tradition


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In its “Golden Age,” Chicago Catholic League football could fill Soldier Field. It’s not at that level anymore now that it competes with so many other activities, according to a sampling of city and suburban high school coaches, but it is alive and well.

“No, you don’t have 50,000 people in Soldier Field like you used to have for the Catholic/public leagues championship games back in the late ’50s or early ’60s,” but interest remains strong, said DeLaSalle High School athletic director Tom White.

“There’s more coverage (of Catholic League football) than there was before. Football in general is a pretty important part of our culture in America,” added St. Viator’s Chris Kirkpatrick. Of course, “people are a lot busier today than they used to be. But there’s no question that the interest is still there.”

Bob Conlon, athletic director at St. Rita’s agrees. He’s seeing just as many, if not more, turning out for football today as he did 25 years ago when he started coaching high school athletics.

St. Rita’s Mustangs won state football championships in 1976 and again last year “and I could point to a number of other Chicago Catholic League high schools that have also gone on to state championships,” Conlon added.

But the coaches and athletic directors couldn’t settle on any one reason Chicago’s Catholic high schools have been gridiron powerhouses for decades.

“I think it’s a combination” that includes motivated players, solid coaching and the legendary discipline of Catholic schools, “but when you’ve got God, family and education as your foundation, it gives you a good place to start” building individual skills and teamwork, said White.

He also credits “great assistant coaches. If you look at all the great football schools, you’re going to see powerful head coaches with powerful assistants.

“Many of those great head coaches started out as volunteer assistant coaches and progressed up the line. There are guys who are still coaching who were there when I was in high school,” said White, who has been involved in the Catholic Football League for 23 years, first as a coach at Weber, and later at DeLaSalle, where he coached basketball for 13 years before taking over as athletic director five years ago.

Kirkpatrick also gave high marks to the many solid parochial grade school football programs, which over the years have prepared hundreds of well-trained players to move on to the high school level and beyond,

Catholic League alumni include St. Rita’s Dennis Link, who went on to the Chicago Bears; Heisman Trophy winner and Fenwick grad Johnny Lattner; Loyola Academy’s David Finzer, former punter for the Chicago Bears and the Seattle Seahawks: and Mount Carmel’s Frank Cornish, a Dallas Cowboys offensive lineman in the 1992 and ’93 Super Bowls.

“The more you play, the more experience you get, and the better you get,” said Kirkpatrick, whose Arlington Heights-based Lions play in the East Suburban Catholic Conference, not the city league. While the legendary Frank Lenti has seen his share of players go on to the pros in his more than 20 years as Mount Carmel’s athletic director. “I don’t see our job as preparing people for the NFL,” but to shape well-rounded men.

“I’ve got a lot of pictures of my players in my office, but they’re in their college uniforms, not NFL,” said Lenti, who planned to become a dentist before deciding he’d rather work with kids. It apparently runs in the family. His brother Dave is the Mount Carmel Caravan’s offensive coordinator as well as the school’s development director. And Frank Lenti Jr., a Mount Carmel grad, played football at the University of Illinois.

Asked what he thinks has given Catholic League Football so many dynamic decades, Lenti suspects it’s a combination of “players being able to rise above the coaching”— and coaches with a sense of humor.

As far as Kirkpatrick and many of his fellow coaches are concerned, times may have changed and there may be more distractions today but “kids are kids. They’re the same” although bigger and better trained at least partly because “football has turned into a year round thing in many high schools today” because of longer practice schedules than in previous generations.

And with high tuition, more and more parents are getting involved in their children’s athletics as well as academics if only to make sure their kids are working hard so they get “more value for their money,” laughed Mike Curtin, athletic director at Fenwick High School and head of the Chicago Catholic Football League.

“This league is nearly 100 years old, so you have the legacies of the fathers and grandfathers who have gone through the system. It becomes a family tradition as well as a school tradition,” Conlon said.

Tradition is “awesome,” agreed White. “It really sets the bar very high. There are guys (players as well as coaches) who live Catholic League football.”