PIRATES FIRST VICTORY
Bill Yeneralo had a good feeling about the pass from the moment it left his hand.
The Wellington C. Mepham Pirates had one last gasp in what had become an epic football battle against their South Bellmore arch-rival John F. Kennedy Cougars. Down at one point in the game 16-0, with any hope of winning all but lost, the Pirates had somehow clawed back, tying the game on Neil Weingart's 5-yard touchdown run earlier in the fourth quarter.
Following a Weingart interception, which put the ball at the Kennedy 25-yard line with seven seconds left, the Pirates needed a big strike to win the game, and end a bit of inglorious Mepham football history on that one last play.
Yeneralo and the Pirates hadn't talked much in their sideline quorum before taking the field for that last play, but they knew what they had to do to win.
It was "one of our favorite plays," recalls Yeneralo, Class of '74. Play-action right, bootleg left, with Ed Heitner, wide receiver, Class of '73, getting open in the corner of the end zone for a Yeneralo pass.
The play looked like it had a chance, Yeneralo said, despite the Cougars sending back senior safety Mark Langdon and junior cornerback Gary Nelson to cover Heitner like a blanket as he cut for the left sideline.
"I rolled out to the left, I saw Eddie open for a second and threw it up there," Yeneralo said. "I had confidence ... Eddie was such a good athlete, he was tall and fast and he made a good move toward the corner."
As the ball arched up high into the afternoon sky, then down toward Heitner and his defensive escorts, several hundred Pirates fans, whose mood was oh, so dismal in that awful first half but whose hopes were pinned on that one last play squinted into that afternoon sun, hoping, praying that that one last play would bring with it the end they so desperately wanted ...
It was a day for poets, dreamers and outdoor sports lovers. An occasional cloud dotted an ice-blue autumn sky. The kind of day crisp enough to have you reaching for your letterman's jacket but not brisk enough to keep you away from an afternoon of football. In another time, it might have been the kind of day you'd end with the smell of burning leaves wafting in your nostrils.
It was also a day for ailing football teams to get well. Where the Mepham Pirates and the Kennedy Cougars were concerned, on that Oct. 21, 1972, all that mattered was both teams were winless; SOMEBODY was going to get well. Mepham, the school rich in Buccaneer history, with that legendary swashbuckling icon Sprig Gardner, was taking on a school that had no tradition; hell, Kennedy wasn't even going to have a HOMECOMING. Not enough volunteers to run parade floats. Or something like that.
Still, one thing cast a pall over the Pirates' sloop, like a sudden squall obscuring a summer sunset. In the school's seven-year history, Kennedy had NEVER lost to Mepham on the gridiron. Not the varsity. Not even the junior varsity.
Earlier that Oct. 21 morning, the JVs had set things up nicely for another Cougar sweep, beating the Pirates 16-0 on touchdown runs by Brian Bofill and David Grody, and the victory ride back to South Bellmore for the varsity clash at 1:30 p.m. that day was one of sheer optimism.
"I didn't like to lose to Mepham," said Cougars coach Greg Maushart, whose roots were inextricably tied to Pirate football. Maushart, Class of '50, sandwiched backfield stints at Tennessee and Wyoming around a hitch with the Army in the Korean War before returning to the island in the late 1950s. He got his first coaching job, thanks to Gardner, at Grand Avenue Junior High.
Now retired and living on a golf course in North Carolina, Maushart in 1966 helped open Kennedy and immediately began a winning streak against his alma mater, that numbered six on Oct. 21, 1972.
An entire school of some 2,000 knew how Maushart felt. Particularly the football players, some of whom battled opponents side-by-side while at Grand Avenue but who would be staring across the line at each other on Oct. 21, 1972.
"A lot of us had gone to school with Heitner and some of the other guys at Grand Avenue," recalled Jeffrey Herrick, a Kennedy senior wide receiver that year who lost his job to junior Artie Squillante earlier in the season.
Now a police detective in Norfolk, Va., Herrick, Class of '73, remembers that Oct. 21, 1972, very well. "We'd known them (Mepham players) a long time. Plus we were embroiled in such a bad season."
Though Yeneralo was a Pirate through and through, he'd come to know Kennedy, its players, its sparkling gymnasium and its equally decrepit football field, bereft of a single blade of grass, unable to grow because of its close proximity to Jones Beach and the salt waters of the Atlantic.
From the time shovel first tilled ground on the site of Kennedy in the mid-1960s, Yeneralo, whose father, Anthony, had turned the key at Mepham, Jerusalem Avenue Junior High, Calhoun High in north Merrick and who would also open Kennedy as its principal, would frequently go with his dad visit Kennedy during its construction days. Occasionally, he would enter the gymnasium to shoot some hoops, and recalled how much of a perfectionist his father was, demanding the gym be reconstructed after it didn't meet his desires. Or something like that.
Years after Kennedy had opened, Yeneralo and the Pirates would play each other in a crucial basketball game on a Saturday night, "then the next day, I'd be down there shooting hoops with the Kennedy guys," he said.
"I'd always played well against Kennedy, in football and in basketball," said Yeneralo, then a string bean of a quarterback and a forward but now a muscular, body-built mechanic working in Webster, in upstate New York. "That was a big rivalry."
Briefly, after the opening kickoff, it looked as if Oct. 21, 1972, would be different for Mepham, at last. Neither team scored in the opening quarter. But reality quickly set in.
Bob Mathias, Class of '73, lined up to punt 'neath the shadow of his own end zone, but was tackled for a safety by Cougars junior linebacker Tony Luparello. The two-point lead became nine when junior quarterback Bill Smith found Squillante open on a crossing pattern from 28 yards out. Senior Wayne Gersoff's extra-point kick sent the Cougars into the lockerroom ahead 9-0 at halftime.
A sheet of paper blew out of the two-tiered press box on the visitors' side of the field and into the stands. It was a radio play-by-play broadcaster's nightmare, and for Dave Vieser and Bob Lawrence of WGBB 1240 AM radio, based in Merrick, it meant having to call the plays without the benefit of names to go with numbers - at least until the Mepham team roster could be retrieved.
"All we could say was, 'The quarterback hands off to the fullback, gain of four yards,'" said Vieser, WGBB's "Fearless Forecaster," who made his living at the time as a disc jockey and football play-by-play/prognosticator. "I figured anybody who was listening must have thought we were nuts."
Now spokesman for Nassau County Executive Thomas Gulotta in Mineola, Vieser remembered games between Merrick and Bellmore schools to be "always high spirited," and the Kennedy-Mepham game fit that bill to a tee.
"Those games were great to broadcast, because you never knew what was going to happen," said Vieser. "You could throw out the team records and expect anything. High school sports are a great character builder and it was great to be a part of that spirit and sportsmanship."
Pirates fans might have disputed that early in the third quarter, particularly after a Mepham fumble set up a 29-yard touchdown sweep by junior Sonny Wagner. The point-after kick by Gersoff sent the packed Kennedy side of the stands into near-delirium.
But the Pirates' schooner then began to pick up steam.
Mathias cut the deficit in half with a touchdown run, coupled with Weingart's two-point conversion. The gap became 16-10 when a Kennedy snap on a punting down sailed over Smith's head into the end zone, where he was tackled for a safety with a little over seven minutes left.
That preceded Weingart's game-tying touchdown, and a last-ditch drive by the Cougars, who had watched the lead get away and were determined not to let the game do the same.
The play was called "Artie down-and-out." Squillante would shed his block at the line of scrimmage and go up field five yards, then left toward the sideline, with Wagner trailing him or staying at home to block. A completed pass would keep the drive alive with time winding down, either getting the Cougars in position for a game-winning field goal by Gersoff or a final shot at a touchdown.
The Cougars got neither.
Weingart leaped out of nowhere and stepped in front of the pass. As the Kennedy sideline looked on in shocked disbelief and the Mepham faithful leaped out of their skin in sheer joy, Weingart kept on running, relentlessly, finally going down deep in Cougars territory.
Yeneralo never saw the ball go into Heitner's hands. As he released the pass on that one last play, with seven seconds left, he was hit hard and dropped by a Cougars defensive lineman who'd chased him and was a split-second too late to sack Yeneralo and preserve a tie.
"I didn't know he'd (Heitner) caught the ball," said Yeneralo. "I didn't see what happened until I saw everybody jumping around."
The celebration seemed like a dream to most, a happy dream to the hundreds of maroon-clad Pirates fans who erupted in a Mount Vesuvius of ecstasy. "I can't believe it _ we beat Kennedy!" several said afterward.
The mood on the home side? The kind usually found in a library. Or a cemetery. Look at most of them, and you'd have thought somebody had died.
Players in Kennedy white and Kelly green threw their helmets or buried their faces in the ground in disbelief.
"We had 'em, we had 'em," junior guard Elliott Good, tears streaming down his face, moaned as he headed to the lockerroom.
"We never gave up," Yeneralo said, even after the Pirates fell behind by those 16 points early in the second half. "We were all good players, even in junior high. Even though we were winless at the time, we never gave up."
The Pirates would go on to win just two games and tie one that season, while the Cougars ended up winless. But even 25 years after that glorious victory on that sweet Oct. 21, 1972, afternoon, the memories of the spirited comeback over Kennedy would remain fresh in the minds of Yeneralo and the others, a comeback that added yet another chapter to the legend of Pirates football.
David Ornauer, Kennedy '74, is Sports Writer for the Stars and Stripes in Tokyo.