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Saturday, January 28, 2017

Hallowed Turf: The proud legacy of high school football in a factory town

“To us, the ashes of our ancestors are sacred and their resting place is hallowed ground.”
Chief Seattle

1. Hit the Ground Running

“Start where you are. Use what you have.
Do what you can.”
Arthur Ashe

Carved from a Mississippi River flood plain, surrounded by acres of sediment rich soil as black as midnight when cultivated for spring soybean planting; lies 100 yards of hallowed turf.  For the past 88 years this plot has served as testing grounds for the gallantry of a small Missouri town’s young warriors. Since 1928, the Crystal City Hornets have played their home high school football games here.

Today, to the east of the gridiron lays an abandoned railroad track that once served as the lifeline to a thriving factory town. One half mile down these tracks to the south, commencing in the 1880s, the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company (PPG) operated the largest glass manufacturing plant west of the Mississippi River. Around the clock, loaded rail cars would haul in the rich mixture of the glass making ingredients of silica and sand. The finished plate glass would exit via the same tracks, bound for a young nation bursting with industrial growth. For nearly 100 years, this three-shift, seven-day-a-week operation supported generation after generation of an authentic American melting pot. 
A true company town in boom times, a majority of adult males residing in Crystal City worked for PPG. The arrangement provided steady and abundant factory jobs. Immigrant laborers from Italy, Germany, Eastern Europe and Ireland joined transplanted southern blacks - some born into slavery - to form a heterogeneous community that became a safe haven; a fine place for a man to work hard, to raise a God-fearing family, to grow old gracefully and to die content for having built a better life for those who followed.

In 1926, a 24 year old history teacher at Crystal City High School named Aburey (A.E.) Powers took it upon himself to organize a football team, “because our boys need something to do after school.” Powers and his players worked out all that first summer, from 5 am to 8 am, and in September hit the ground running.

The team’s first-ever game was against De Soto and was played in an open field that today serves as the town’s Little League baseball grounds. The Hornets (a nickname Powers claimed to have randomly drawn from a hat) came out on top 6-0, launching the upstarts to a pleasantly surprising first year record of 7-1. A nondescript tackle named John Tinsman, moved to fullback by Powers late in the game, had the honor of scoring the first touchdown in Hornet history. In 1927, the team spent the summer building a field on a ridge off Burgess Avenue and proved its rookie season’s success was no fluke, recording a final mark of 8-2.

In 1975, Powers related, in an entertaining story written by Steve Jennings, a favorite early Hornet memory. “In 1927, we played Kirkwood, a big school from St. Louis. Their coach thought so little of us he didn’t even dress his first team backfield. At halftime it was 12-3 in our favor. I overheard the coach tell his backfield, ‘You boys got to get your suits on, score a couple of touchdowns and I will put the others back in.’ I told our boys that and they just went wild. We won 37-3.” Today, 90 years after the fact, when listening to the coach’s words of how his little country team slapped the arrogance out of the big city slickers – “they just went wild” - time does little to diminish the pride that resonates through the years. Underdog became the Hornets’ mantra and a factory town’s love affair with its feisty little football team had begun.

In 1928, the home field was again relocated, this time permanently to its current river bottom home. In 1964, the grounds were named Dr. J.J. Commerford Field.

By 1929, under Powers’ masterful leadership, the Hornets had earned the respect of the entire St. Louis area, no longer able to sneak up on overconfident big city foes. In the first three years of Hornet football, the young and innovative coach led the small school to an impressive record of 25-4. 

With De Soto the only local competition available, many of the wins came over big city St. Louis schools with five to ten times larger enrollments. The Hornets took on all comers. Roosevelt, Cleveland, St. Louis University High, Normandy, Soldan, Christian Brothers College; a virtual who’s who of the area high school football powers of the time filled out the Hornets’ schedule.

 1926, The Original Hornets
During the early years, Powers even scheduled - and his country boys defeated - several college freshman squads. The St. Louis Post Dispatch reported that the Crystal City High School of 1930 “consists of 105 students, 53 boys, 30 of who are on the football team.” In 1928, the Hornets allowed their goal line to be crossed only once, while scoring 152 points in eleven games and logging major victories over area powers St. Louis University High, 13-0, and Ritenour High, 37-0. So dominant were the Hornets in the win over St. Louis University High, considered at the time the top program in St. Louis, the city 11 never came closer to their end zone than the Hornet’s 38 yard line. Crystal City recorded 18 first downs to the visitors’ measly five. The only blemish on the season ledger in ’28 was a 6-0 loss to the St. Louis University Freshman team. The 10 wins in 1928 remains, to this day, the Hornet’s high mark for a single season.

Powers used deception to compensate for his team’s lack of size. One area coach of the day glibly described the Hornets’ style as such: “They used freakish formations to a great extent and throughout the game had us up in the air trying to fathom the plays.”

Crystal City became the first team in the area to play at night. On September 26, 1930, one year into the Great Depression, the resourceful Powers had somehow found the funds to install “flood lights” at his river bottom field. The squad from Normandy High School provided the opening night opposition. It was reported in the St. Louis Post Dispatch that, “with their field forming a natural stadium, the installation of lights makes it one of the most attractive high school football fields in the state.” The lights of the time were of such a poor standard that a special white football was designed to help players see the pigskin. For some perspective, Major League Baseball did not play its first night game until five years after the trend-setting Hornets had initiated their own version of “Friday Night Lights.”

A date on the Hornet’s dance card became the hottest ticket in the area, schools lining up for the chance to experience nighttime football. In 1930, CC’s first seven games were all played on their home turf and all on Friday night.

In 1946, visiting foe Principia chartered several special rail coaches and received permission from PPG to park them on the railroad tracks next to the field. Filled with their team, the school faculty, the student body and “a large number of supporters” from the St. Louis school, the entire festive troupe was, one hour before game time, dropped off, valet parking style, at the field’s east sideline.
The factory railroad tracks that adjoined the north/south field on the east provided a great sightline and a free view of the game. Stories are told of second shift factory workers being given “extended lunch breaks” to walk the short distance up the tracks from the factory to cheer on their team.

Within a decade, the red-and-black-clad Crystal City Hornets had become an inherent shining light in the life of a depression era factory town, a source of deep and abiding civic pride.

Powers departed Crystal City after the 1932 season. A progression of seven coaches then took the Hornets through the remainder of the Great Depression and the war years. Several seasons performances stand out, most notably the 1946 team, coached by Murrell Godwin, that won the Jefferson County Conference and finished with an 8-1 mark. Godwin eventually crossed Highway 61 to become the athletic director and football coach at hated rival Festus.

2. Coach Arvel Popp

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”
Lao Tzu

The coaching carousel stopped in 1948 when Arvel Popp was lured away from Dexter, Missouri High School to take the reins of the Hornets. Popp stayed for 27 years, winning six conference titles. Crystal City football was well known when Popp arrived. When he retired, it was legendary. A Southeast Missouri native of the town of Perryville and a World War II vet, Popp was an enigmatic leader, aloof and disengaged from the community. He ran his Hornets as an unbending disciplinarian, totally above the grasp and influence of any of the town’s power brokers. Renown in his younger days as a bar room brawler who seldom came up short with his fists, Popp made and lived by his own rules. The crusty coach had no interest in moving into school administration nor harbored any plans of using his coaching notoriety as a stepping stone to outside enriching employment. He was first, foremost, and only - a coach.

Running off the unwilling, while molding the survivors into men, to Popp football was an equivalence test of character. It was an era when a football coach often had more influence over a young man than his own father. “I played for Coach Popp,” 1954 grad Rodney Mills recalls. “He was a ‘rub a little dirt on it and get back in there’ type of coach.” As a winning football coach in the America of the 1950s, Popp wielded  both respect and power, his steely glare over the years cutting like a laser through many a malingering high school boy. Coaching was his life’s calling and Crystal City had proved to be the perfect fit. 

Popp was also the head coach of the basketball team. Over his long career his Cagers won nearly 800 games, over 500 by his Hornet teams. Interestingly, he had more success in his first decade of tenure at CCHS leading the Hornets on the hardwood than he did on the gridiron. Having the round ball skills of  Bill Bradley, at the time then state’s all-time leading scorer, a future collegiate All-American, All-Pro, Rhodes Scholar, captain of the gold medal winning 1964 Olympic team and a 18 year U.S. Senator, at his disposal, didn’t hurt. Bradley said that Popp was the only man, “I would ever call Coach.”

However, Popp left no doubt that the flagship program at his Crystal City High School would always be his football team. The no nonsense taskmaster made it very clear that any young man wearing the red and black who dreamed of basketball glory had better dutifully report the first day of fall football practice. He made an exception for Bradley, although as an 8th grader Popp had told the future Princeton Tiger and New York Knicks star that he would make him the “greatest pass catching end in the history of the University of Missouri’s football team.” Bradley passed on the offer and spent his high school falls preparing for the upcoming hoops season. But, as Popp would for years inform many a basketball player wannabee balking at his football playing responsibilities, “You are no Bradley.” Danny LaRose, 1957 alum, remembers, “You couldn’t even wear a letter jacket unless you played football, Coach Popp’s rule. I don’t think even Bradley got one.”

In 1953, led by all-state center Jack O’Bryan, Popp produced his first championship team. The Hornets finished 8-0-1 to win the conference title. O’Bryan would go on to play at the University of Missouri, the first of many stars Popp would send to the state university. It was a harbinger, under Popp’s tutelage, of good times to come.

During the 1960’s, Popp would bring back two of his former players as assistant coaches. Over the next 25 years Dick Cook and Rodney Mills would both leave their indelible coaching mark upon their alma mater.

Dick Cook graduated from CCHS in 1956. He then played football and ran track at the University of Missouri. The cerebral Cook would successfully wear many coaching hats in his long tenure at CCHS and over the years has filled a plethora of civic leadership roles as a respected public servant in support of his beloved home town. After college graduation, Cook had short stays as an assistant coach at Poplar Bluff High School (three years) and Herculaneum High School (one year) before in 1964 joining Popp at CCHS. Cook jumped at the chance to return to his home high school. “In 1964,” says Cook, “Crystal City was a destination stop for any teacher or coach. This is where you wanted to be. Teachers and coaches at other schools envied us. I knew once I was here, I would never leave.”

Rodney Mills played football for and earned his teaching credentials from Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau. After receiving his college degree, he spent four years as an assistant coach at Herculaneum before in 1962 joining Popp’s staff at CCHS. Mills was the “Renaissance Man” of the Hornet coaching staff. By day, he taught the complexities of the structure of the English language to an often unmotivated captive audience of 15 year old sophomores. After school, he corrected the errors of would-be football lineman with a combination of inspirational practice field quotes and the surgically precise placement of the pointed end of a size 12 Wilson coaching shoe up an offender’s ass. He once told a hapless punter in a JV game that if the young man shanked just one more punt, “I am going to raise more hell than the alligators did when the pond went dry.” Somehow, his varied and disparate approaches would find a confluence and Mills was well liked and successful in both venues. To this day, at 80 years of age, Mills remains unbroken, irreverent and in his own words, “loudly humble.”

“Crystal City in the ‘50s was a great place to grow up and Crystal City in the ‘60s was a great place to coach,” Mills remembers.

Popp, in time, deferred most of the running of the football program to his two trusted assistants. From 1964 on, Cook ran the offense, Mills the defense. Mills’ 1964 defense was so impregnable they were not scored upon until the 4th quarter of the final game of the season, when Fredericktown returned a punt for a touchdown. At the time, the Hornets led 39-0 and had a number of young substitutes in the game. Cook’s 1970 Hornet offense averaged 39.1 points per game.

Cook would succeed his mentor as the Hornet’s head coach upon Popp’s retirement in 1976. After the 1983 season, Cook stepped down and Mills took over the head coaching duties until his retirement in 1986.

Arvel Popp passed away on January 25, 1996 at the age of 81.

3. A Shining Exception

“The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice.”

Mark Twain

In 1954, the United States Supreme Court handed down its landmark Brown v. the Topeka Board of Education decision, a ruling that outlawed the racial segregation of the nation’s public schools. As a southern border state, the evil of separate but equal Jim Crow was deeply rooted in rural Missouri’s social norms. Many Missouri school districts initially ignored the federal edict then challenged it in the state courts first, and then the federal courts, often delaying school desegregation in many Missouri towns until far into the 1960s.

Crystal City was a shining exception.

Led by an educated school board, many of its members college grads who worked in administrative roles at the local PPG plant, the district immediately and fully desegregated its high school. In 1955, Popp issued football uniforms to three African-American athletes; Richard Byas, Bennie Evans and Don Riney. In the years that followed, African-American student-athletes would play prominent roles on every outstanding Hornet squad.

“I was a senior in the fall of 1955, when the three (African-Americans) joined our team,” remembers Dick Cook.  “It was never an issue. They were never excluded, due to their race, from anything we did as a team. If we hung out as a team at a certain place away from school, they hung with us.” Cook remembers a sort of de facto segregation in the community before 1955 - nothing written, but just an accepted fact that there were certain places in town local blacks just didn’t patronize. “Looking back, I feel we broke a lot of those (assumed) racial barriers, although at the time we didn’t realize it. I remember no problems anywhere we went as a team. Athletics, no doubt, helped in the transition,” Cook recalls. “If you wore our uniform, you were our teammate. It was that simple.” All three black athletes earned their acceptance by proving their mettle on the football field. “If they could help us win, then that was all that mattered,” says Cook.

Danny LaRose in the 1960 Orange Bowl
Former Hornet Danny LaRose was an established star player at the University of Missouri in 1958 when St. Louis Vashon High School graduate Norris Stevenson became the first African-American to earn a foototball scholarship to the state’s flagship university. LaRose put into practice the diversity lessons he had learned as a Hornet teammate to Byas, Evans and Riney. Years later, upon his induction to the Missouri Athletic Hall of Fame, Stevenson gave a newspaper interview in which he recalled the positive role LaRose played in Stevenson’s trailblazing and sometimes rocky path as a Tiger.

 “When I first came to (Missouri) Danny LaRose was a team leader and (he) went out of his way to make me feel welcome,” a still grateful Stevenson remembered. Racism was a constant companion for Stevenson in his years at Mizzou. With many football players from the South on the roster and a campus heavily decorated with the Confederate Flag and a “Dixie gonna do it again” mentality, without the symbolic message the respected LaRose’s actions sent to the rest of the squad, Stevenson feels his road to acceptance, or at least tolerance, would have been much steeper. “It says a lot about LaRose’s character,” said Stevenson. “It wasn’t a popular stance he took with many on the team at the time.” But it was a just stance and LaRose’s actions validate the progressive action the Crystal City public schools took in 1955.

Today, LaRose eschews with a cavalier shrug his role in Stevenson’s story and plays down any noble intent on his part in befriending him. “Anybody that knows me, knows I am a big jokester,” LaRose says. “I just liked the guy because he was like me, always kidding around. I am not political and never have been. The other black player on the team at the time was Mel West from Jefferson City. Mel and Norris were two of my best friends on the team. Mel was very light-skinned for a black guy. I had been outside all summer working construction and I was really dark from the sun. One time, Mel and I went downtown together and this lady in a restaurant says, ‘Oh, you two boys are so tan.’ We laughed and laughed at that one.”

 #27 Randy Cayce in 1965's Farmington game
However, Crystal City High School in the 1950s and 60s was not a racial utopia either.  Randy Cayce was a standout African-American running back and defensive back for the 1963 to 1965 Hornets and remembers the volatile years of desegregation with negatives many local whites did not see, or maybe, choose today not to remember. Even as a star football player in a football crazy town, Cayce was not immune to the intolerance that seethed below the surface of small town 1960s America, left to wonder as to the level of sincerity of the postgame back slaps heaped upon him by smitten white fans. Cayce had attended the “colored” Star Elementary School. “It was a hard time,” Cayce says today, recalling the trauma-induced anxiety of a young teenage boy moving up to a just-integrated high school. Cayce agrees that the power positions in the community were manned by progressive minds, and that expedited school integration, but the hateful sting was still felt. “The racists were still there. Even if they had no power, (they) couldn’t keep us out of school like they did some places, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t make our lives miserable, and some did. It was over 50 years ago, but I still remember the hurt.”

Having been taught by a proud father to never be bitter, Cayce’s views today of his years at CCHS are shaped with a more philosophical bent than when he was younger, tempered by the years, which he says, brings perspective. “There was racism, for sure, in Crystal City in the ‘60s. How could there not be, considering the times? I mean, this was several years before Dr. King was murdered; we still had a long ways to go. But, when we went to practice, that all changed. My teammates were great, I can’t emphasize that enough. And Coach Cook and his wife were like second parents to me, (as) fine a people as I have ever known. You see, that is why sports are so important. My teammates knew me as a person, respected me as a teammate. There are good people and there are bad people everywhere. Athletics brought out the good people of Crystal City. I have always been proud to be from Crystal City.” 

4. The Standouts

“Oh, the days of Kerry dancing, 

    Oh, the ring of the pipers tune,

Oh, for one of those hours of gladness,

   Gone, alas, like our youth, too soon.”

Irish Folk Song

The Hornets’ first marquee player was Benny La Presta. Playing in the backfield for the 1926 and 1927 teams, he was described in the local media as a, “flashy line plunger and broken field runner. The short but husky Italian is a dependable blocker and he knows how to back up his line.” After his high school graduation, La Presta matriculated 30 miles north to St. Louis University where in 1930, 1931 and 1932 he was the leading ground gainer and point maker for the Billikens in an era when the Missouri Valley Conference member played a major college football schedule. 

 Depression era star Bennie Le Presta
After both the 1931 and 1932 seasons, La Presta was named an All-American. He was labeled, “one of the greatest football players ever developed at a local university.” In 1933, La Presta joined the Boston Redskins of the professional National Football League, becoming the first of several former Hornets who would play pro football. He later toiled for the St. Louis Gunners and the Cincinnati Reds. After leaving professional football, the scholarly La Presta worked for the Internal Revenue Service and was a college and high school football referee. In August of 1975, at the age of 66, while exercising in preparation for his upcoming season’s officiating schedule, La Presta suffered a fatal heart attack.

Danny LaRose was arguably the best to ever pad up for the Hornets. The 1957 CCHS grad went on to become one of the top linemen in the history of the University of Missouri Tigers. After his 1960 senior year, LaRose, a two way end, was named to several All-American teams. He finished in the top ten in that fall’s Heisman Trophy balloting for top player in the nation, the highest rating that season of any lineman. A first round NFL draft choice of the Detroit Lions, LaRose played offensive tackle for four NFL teams over a seven year career. LaRose is now retired from a second career, selling medical equipment; living the good life with his wife in a riverside log cabin in upstate Michigan.

“Danny was just a big old kid in high school,” remembers teammate Cook. “He played in the line and didn’t get a lot of recognition. But when he got to Mizzou, he just took off.”

 Bill Bradley and Arvel Popp
“For me, growing up in Crystal City, sports were everything,” LaRose recalls. “My mom died when I was 13 and my older sister was in nursing school, so it was just me and my dad at home. Every other week he worked the evening shift over at PPG, so for a week I would not see him at all. I was always up at the school playing sports for something to do. Once, I was home alone cooking some Spaghetti O’s and I forgot it was Friday night and we had a game and the bus pulls up to my house and Coach Popp is yelling at me to get my big dumb butt on the bus.”

“Coach knew I was on my own a lot and he looked out for me,” LaRose continued. “Coach was a hard-nosed old school type of guy. He is one of the most honest people I've ever met. Sometimes he would be too honest, and it could hurt your feelings. But that honesty was what a kid like me needed to hear. His son, Jerry, was my age and Coach was really hard on the poor guy, use to make him box me in the gym and I was a lot bigger, but I better not let up, either, or coach would have been all over me. But, Coach also had a soft side he tried hard to hide. He knew I needed some special looking after and he saw I got it.”

“Sports in high school kept me in school, no doubt,” LaRose says. “I just had so much fun in high school. In 1957, Richard Byas and I were a two man track team and we won the state track meet. Richard won both sprints and the hurdles race and I won the shot and discus. Fifty points between us and it was good enough to win. Richard was so fast, unbelievably fast. His mom had never seen him play football and she finally came to a game one night. Richard scores four touchdowns that game and his mom makes him quit football. Said she never realized it was so rough. Can you believe that? But man, was he fast, fast as anyone I played with in pro ball. Only one who could slow him down, I guess, was his mom.”

Nineteen fifty-one CCHS grad Ike Jennings was a two way lineman at the University of Missouri and for the Green Bay Packers. The charismatic “Big Ike” looked the way a football player in the 1950s was supposed to look and he acted the way a football player in the 1950s was supposed to act. In high school, he was a combination of strength and speed, witnessed by winning the state track title in both the shot put and the 440 yard (400 meter) dash. After his brief career with the Packers, Jennings was for six years an assistant coach, and then the head coach of county rival Herculaneum, but he never forgot his CCHS roots. After leaving coaching to enter private business, Jennings was a highly visible and vocal supporter of his home school and several of his offspring were star Hornet athletes. As one friend said about Jennings’ life of the party personality, “You liked him or you didn’t, but you never forgot him.” Jennings passed away in 2007 at 74 years of age.

Bill Schmidt was another Hornet who found success on the collegiate field in Columbia, Missouri. A two way star for the Hornets and a senior leader for the 1965 undefeated, untied juggernaut; from 1967 to 1969 Schmidt was a defensive mainstay for three of Dan Devine’s most decorated University of Missouri teams. In the Festus game, his high school senior year, Schmidt suffered a horrific injury, a broken back that left him in a brace for four months. Most college suitors lost interest in securing Schmidt’s future football services. Not Mizzou. Popp’s reputation as a straight shooter convinced the home state university to take a chance on a player many now considered, “damaged goods.” Then Mizzou Assistant Coach Al Onofrio said during Schmidt’s junior season at Mizzou, “Coach Popp recommended him and Coach Popp’s word has always been good enough for us.”

Randy Cayce, a 1966 CCHS grad, played a leading role on the undefeated 1964 and 1965 squads. The marquee member of a talented backfield on offense and a ball hawking defender, Cayce used a freakish mixture of strength, size and speed to dominate opponents. Coach Popp, after Cayce’s senior year, stated that Cayce was one of the fastest players to ever suit up for one of his teams. Coach Rodney Mills has a fond Cayce memory he likes to tell. “We are playing up at Fox. Coach Cook calls for Randy to sweep to the right. Of course, where ever Randy went, so did the 11 on the other side. Well, Randy sees he is boxed in, comes to a complete stop, I mean a complete stop with both feet; he looks around and then takes off around the left end and outruns the whole Fox team for a touchdown. Nobody laid a hand on him. I saddled up to Coach Cook on the sideline and said, ‘Nice call Coach, just how you drew it up.’”

Playing college football first at Mesa Junior College in Colorado and then Wichita State University in Kansas; Cayce completed his eligibility at WSU one year prior to the October 1970 plane crash that wiped-out a majority of the football team. “The coaches at WSU wanted me to redshirt and I said, no, or I would have still been playing at WSU in 1970,” Cayce states about a fateful decision that possibly saved his life. “I even went to summer school to graduate on time (May, 1970). I wanted to get to pro ball as quick as I could, or I would have been on that plane. It has just been in the last year that I could force myself to visit the crash site. I was on the practice field with the (Denver) Broncos when I was called off and told that the plane had crashed. Since that moment, I have felt I am living on borrowed time. I try to make each day count.”

Cayce spent three years as a running back with the Denver Broncos and one year as a teammate with OJ Simpson (“everyone wants to know about OJ,” Cayce says with a laugh) on the Buffalo Bills roster. In 1973, after a knee injury, he left football behind and settled in the Denver, Colorado, area. Cayce is now retired from a long career with the Denver Fire Department. He spends his days running the flooring installation company he has owned since the 1970s and doting over his four grown children and 14 grandchildren.

The introspective Cayce, the son of a father who never, “let me get too full of myself,” keeps his role as a football hero in the well-grounded reality of his small town raising. “Many people in Denver remember me as a Bronco,” Cayce states, “but I am also proud of my years with the fire department. I have signed a lot of autographs over the years because a long time ago I ran with a ball. I saved lives with the fire department and nobody ever asked for my autograph. Tell me, which job was more important, more impacting?”

5. The Golden Years

“Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing.”
Vince Lombardi

Without question, the golden age of Crystal City football was a five season run from 1963 to 1967. The Hornets dominated the area with a 41-4-1 record. Along the way they pounded out an 18 game winning streak and spun the program’s only undefeated, untied season, 1965’s 9-0 masterpiece. After a   gut-wrenching last second loss to Herculaneum to end the 1963 season, the Hornets would not taste defeat again until 1966. Only a scoreless tie with Herculaneum in the second game of the 1964 season marred a perfect three year record.

Dick Cook had the unusual view from both sidelines for the classic Crystal City vs Herculaneum games of 1963 and 1964. “I was an assistant to Coach (Bill) Holmes at Herculaneum in 1963 and to Coach Popp here in 1964,” Cook says. “Those were two great games between two great teams, spirited but friendly rivals with coaching staffs that respected and liked each other, maybe the best short term rivalry this area has ever seen.”

The 1963 contest against Herculaneum is widely recognized as the best game in the history of Hornet football. Both teams entered the November showdown, the last game of the year for both teams, undefeated. With no post season state playoffs in 1963, this was a winner-take-all match up and the buildup was intense. On a bone-chilling cold night, the biggest crowd to ever see a football game at the Dr. J.J. Commerford Field was privy to a classic. Herculaneum overcame a two score 4th quarter deficit, scoring the go-ahead touchdown on a 9 yard last second pass to dethrone the Hornets, 18-13.

With 1:40 left in the game, “Herky” had scored a touchdown but had muffed the point after attempt and still trailed by one point, 13-12. After a mad scramble occurred for the ensuing on-side kick and after several minutes of debate amongst the officials as to who had recovered, much to the dismay of the Hornets’ bench, the ball was awarded to the Blackcats, setting up the last second heroics.

Ironically, if Herculaneum had been successful on the extra point attempt to tie the game at 13-13, the Hornet coaching staff had already made the decision to run out the clock and with no overtime rule in 1963, the game would have ended in a tie. By missing the extra point and being forced into the desperation on-side kick, Herculaneum had unknowingly given itself a chance to win.

In the ’64 scoreless tie, played at Herculaneum, Crystal City had two touchdowns called back by penalty and one denied by an “inadvertent whistle.” Long time Hornet Coach Paul Browning, for years, sarcastically referred to the 1964 game as, “the 18-0 tie.”

From 1963 to 1967, CC pitched five straight shutouts over their bitter neighboring rival, the Festus Tigers. Go back seven years, 1961 to 1967, and the Tigers only crossed the Crystal City goal line once; scoring a grand total of only six points, an average of less than one point per game. The Hornets won all seven. The two “Twin Cities,” separated only by a single street; played each other 45 times between 1946 and 1989, twice in 1947, the second game on Thanksgiving Day. The rivalry was intense. Older fans, for example, still debate the legality of the “sleeper play” CCHS pulled off in the 1949 game. The Hornets dominated the early years, the Tigers the later.

Coach Mills, a lineman during his playing days, was on the Hornet’s undefeated 1953 team and has memories that underscore the importance of the annual battle with Festus. “We tied Festus 0-0 in the first game of the year. If we had played them later, we would have won easily,” Mills states, in a matter-of - fact way. “But the rivalry had gotten so intense and the mischievous behavior turned to vandalism so bad, that both schools’ administrations agreed the game needed to be played early in the school year and gotten done with before the intensity had time to pick up steam.”

In 1989, the annual border war was discontinued by mutual agreement. The Tigers won the last ten played. As Festus’ enrollment grew and landlocked CCHS’s dropped, the game became no longer competitive. The finally tally stands as a draw, 21-21-3, perhaps, a perfect ending.
However, the long and dominant Hornet run of the mid ‘60s proved to be of poor timing as Missouri high schools did not adopt a state wide playoff system, culminating in the crowning of a state champ, until the 1968 season. How many state titles would the Hornets have claimed from 1963 to 1967 will remain always a historically unanswered question. 

After two atypical substandard back-to-back losing seasons in 1968 and 1969, the Hornets tore through the 1970 regular season schedule with a vengeance, unchallenged while qualifying for the state playoffs. Led by the dynamic triple option duo of quarterback Mark Dement and tailback D.J. Byas, running behind a line anchored by the bruising and aptly named 240 pound lineman, Greg Block, the Hornets led the St. Louis area in scoring. Dement became the final member of a long line of Coach Popp’s players to compete on the gridiron for the University of Missouri.

In the 1970 state semifinals, before a packed stadium, the home team Hornets suffered perhaps the most frustrating loss of their 90 year existence. The locals agonizingly shot themselves in the foot time and time again, falling 14-12 to South Shelby. Seven times Crystal City drove inside the visitor’s 10 yard line, misfiring on five and came away with only two touchdowns. Two failed extra point attempts proved to be the game’s difference. “To this day,” remembers Cook, “that game frustrates me. We were a    powerhouse on both sides of the line of scrimmage. The play that stands out is on our last drive late in the game. (Quarterback) Dement threw a pass to (Steve) Biehle and he was wide open in the end zone, but the wind was strong that day and the pass was into it and the ball was held up for what seemed like an eternity by the wind and their back had time to recover and break it up.” The following week, South Shelby waltzed to a state title many CC fans to this day claim should have been won by the better team, their Hornets. 

Through the 1980s, 1990s and the first decade of the new millennium, the Hornets would periodically rise up and there were some shining football moments. For example, there were the Bequette brothers of the early 80s, Jay and Chris; both who went on to star for the University of Arkansas Razorbacks, following the footsteps of their father George, a Hornet who played on the U of A’s 1956 Cotton Bowl team. But, it was just not the same. There was no blame, specifically, to place. The kids still played hard and the coaches still coached hard, and as the parents often reminded the players, it is only a game. But the world had changed and so had Hornet football.

At its zenith, Crystal City was a quintessential setting for the Great American Dream, the ideal Rockwellian hometown. In 1986, with the town’s halcyon years now a bygone memory, PPG - itself a victim of shifting worldwide economic trends and the bulldozers of progress - was shuttered and eventually torn down. Any salvageable materials were crated and shipped out on the same railroad tracks that had once dispensed to the world the highest grade plate glass produced in North America. The rails were then summarily (and symbolically) ripped up. By the mid-1980s, Crystal City had transitioned from a factory town to a bedroom community, many of its citizens now commuters dependent upon jobs 30 miles north in the metro St. Louis area. With its small town identity now lost, the exalted esteem the town once held for its high school football team also diminished.

As a landlocked entity - the Mississippi River on the east and three other school districts boundaries abutted on every other side – the Crystal City schools has neither room nor direction to grow. Coupled with an aging population that each succeeding year has fewer and fewer sons and daughters to send to the local public school, enrollment has today dropped to below 150.

Matt Holdinghausen is the current Crystal City High School principal. Entering his third school term occupying the main office, Holdinghausen is a third generation Hornet and readily admits that he bleeds red and black. A 1995 alum, Holdinghausen coached the Hornet’s baseball team to the 2010 Missouri small school state title.

“We have to reinvent ourselves,” Holdinghausen admits, with a nod of acceptance to a future with a limited student enrollment. The 600 member student body of the 1950s’ and 60s’ glory days will never be seen at CCHS again. “Our opportunities for growth are limited, but that doesn’t mean we cannot provide a top notch educational experience for our students, and we do. We stress that our size allows for everyone to participate, to be involved. Eighty five percent of our students participate in an extra-curricular activity, 65% in more than one. We see that as a huge drawing card for people moving into the area and choosing a school district. We market it as such. ” He acknowledges that the number of boys currently playing football is a concern, only 22 last season. “It is a problem with high school football everywhere,” he says, “one area school (Maplewood) has dropped football and another (Grandview) will only have a JV squad this fall, and they both have larger enrollments than we do.”

There is an administrative backed blue print in place for increasing participation in the football program. “We now have some stability with our football coaching staff, they are here for the long run and they are working hard down in the junior high and elementary levels to plant the seed, to get those kids excited to grow up and be a Hornet on (fall) Friday nights,” Holdinghausen states.

“This town still wants to win, to be proud of our student athletes,” the principal says. “Last fall we won the state cross country meet and the town was very supportive. Seven years ago when we won the state baseball title, even though school was already out for the summer, we had an escort into town and when we got to the school 300 people were there to welcomed us back. We are working hard to maintain our long standing tradition of excellence, both in academics and athletics. The times have change and we have to change with them and we are.”

6. The Glory of Their Times

“All these were honored in their generation,
   And were the glory of their times.”
Ecclesiasticus   44:7

Bob Freese is a long time Hornet booster, maybe its most avid, the kind of guy when the wife asks, “Are you going to the game tonight,” answers rhetorically; “They are playing, aren’t they?” A 1954 grad, he has served many roles over the years in backing the local team, from Booster Club president to long time official scorekeeper. Freese revels in the past glories of his home town teams. “It just meant everything back then,” he recalls, tapping his fist on the table for emphasis. “Friday night in the fall meant high school football. I went to games with my dad as early as I can remember.”

The spring of 1965 was the high-water mark for Crystal City athletics. The football team had gone undefeated and was in the midst of an 18 game winning streak. Springtime saw the Hornet’s baseball team, in a game played at Busch Stadium against St. Louis Southwest, win the large school state championship. Hornet Randy Cayce set a state record that to this day still stands, with four stolen bases. And alum Bill Bradley was just finishing up his career at Princeton as the best collegiate basketball player in the nation, the kind of favorite son who would make any hometown button-busting proud.

Winning at Crystal City, in 1965, was expected. “Maybe we got to taking it for granted,” says Freese, “but darn, it was such a great time. Home games, away games, the whole town was there. We had a saying around the town back then, ‘You never bet against Vince Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, Ara Parseghian and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on Saturday or Arvel Popp and the Crystal City Hornets on Friday.’ We have lost that and it is a shame. Losing the factory hurt, not just for the jobs, but for the stability. They (PPG) were always very supportive of the schools.”

“We have had some great players here,” Freese observed, “many who had great college careers and several who even went on to play pro ball, but it’s also the little guys you remember, the ones who played and then got on with life. They represent what our teams were all about, what this town was all about. There were so many over the years, but to hold up just one, I would say, Tony Picarella on our ‘63 and ‘64 teams.” Freese’s longtime friend Cook enthusiastically concurs. “He was 150 pounds, maybe 155, but no taller than 5’8”, but man could he hit you. He just loved playing football,” gushes the veteran coach. “And was he fun to watch,” says Freese. “He was never going to play in college at that size, but he was one tough little Crystal City Hornet.”

Most, who wore the CC football uniform never let themselves be deluded by athletics, never let their dreams grow bigger than what the limited reality of a Tony Picarella’s 5’8” 155 lb. body allowed for. Crystal City was a blue collar town. High school graduation meant time to find a job, to “get on with life,” as Freese says. Factory workers are practical people and they raise practical sons. For most, football was never a means to an end, a college scholarship. As much as most adored football, four more years of studying just to buy four more autumns of football was not an attractive offer. Most stayed in Crystal City, which makes sense. Where else would a hometown hero live besides his hometown? In the early days, at least, employment meant a laborer’s job at Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company; trading a letter jacket for a lunch pail, 40 hours of toil a week and a union paycheck; plus, a seat in the bleachers come fall and Friday night. It would be a tough wean, at first, for many, but Crystal City football was about family and in a few years yesterday’s hero would be toting along his own young sons to the game, embedding the next generation of Hornets into the proud tradition.

That was then, now is now. Times change. Towns change. The days of the baby booming post war 1940s, 1950s and 1960s is no more and like the PPG factory; they are not coming back, ever. But, the glory of those times need not be forgotten. Cook and Freese intend to see it is not.

Freese has spent hours documenting the history of Hornet athletics. “Once I start, I just can’t quit,” he observed of his time on the computer searching for past nuggets to archive for future generations. “I have so many projects going right now I doubt I can live long enough to finish them all, and heck, when I do go, the kids will probably just throw it all out in the trash anyway,” he says with a laugh. “But this is too important to just let it die. People need to know not only what a great football team we had at one time, but what a great town we had, as well.”

High school football is special. It just is - a unique slice of Americana. There is nothing like a small town coming together each fall to celebrate its Friday night heroes. High school football has its limits, but to a young man in the throes of its adulation, the consequences seem boundless, the opportunities endless. The glory heaped upon the few blessed becomes intoxicating, but often painfully fleeting.

From their football inception in 1926, the Hornets were winners. It was the town’s team, fortified with a cradle-to-grave interest in football. When depression-era golden boy La Presta sprinted away from the helpless opposition, flying down the far sideline in his leather helmet on the way to another touchdown, he was lustily cheered on by a group of evening shift “lunch break” factory hands perched on the bordering railroad tracks, the fitting image of a blue collar town’s defiant pride.  The roar of the faithful, they say, sounded as though Lindbergh had landed in Paris.

Tradition spawned a win ethic as pervasive as the cold November night winds that whipped through the packed stadium, the town throwing its collective support around the team like a cozy blanket. In its post war glory days, the close-knit community of Crystal City was from a slower, warmer time, a place where being a good neighbor meant something, not exactly Mayberry, but close, and high school football was the social glue that bound it all together.

From the beginning, the town’s backing for the Hornets raged uninhibited, crossing all social barriers. Black and white, rich and poor, old and young, all seated side by side on Friday night in support of, “our boys.”

For those who lived the glory days: Dick Cook, Bob Freese, Rodney Mills, and surely many others now growing long in the tooth, Crystal City Hornet football remains a roaring flame that burns deep in the gut. To dismiss their passion as a mere dalliance of age would be shortsighted. Instead, appreciate that with the inexorable passing of the so called “Greatest Generation,” it is imperative that in our quest to understand who we are that our history become paramount in our search. It must be garnered and shared, handed down from father to son, perhaps, in a metaphorical sort of way. For, if Ray Kinsella and his father had bonded through football instead of baseball, the setting for the movie “Field of Dreams” might not have been misplaced in some mythical Iowa cornfield. But, instead, duly planted in the hallowed 100 yards of a very real Crystal City, Missouri river bottom football field, where suspended in time like Peter Pan, the patron saint of our eternal youth; the Benny La Prestas, the Danny LaRoses and the Randy Cacyes still play on, always forever young.

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