One day, I may sit down and count all the high school football games I have been to in my lifetime ~ although many of them I was so young I wouldn’t remember. I was just six months old when I went to my first ever high school football contest at Penncrest High School in Media, Pennsylvania.
At 38 years old, I was bringing my own son to a PIAA state playoff game at Plymouth Whitemarsh High School on a bitterly cold evening in late November where Dad was head coach, my youngest brother was quarterback, my nephew was one of his wide receivers, and my two-year-old toddler was stuffed in a snowsuit.
My entire family traveled from as far as Maryland to attend the Friday night clash. Our brother was a senior, and, at this stage of the season, a lost game would mean his last. The opponent in front of the Rare Breed that night were the Bucks of Dunmore.
I knew nothing of the Bucks except that they had won their District crown, as we did, and that, under longtime Coach Jack Henzes, their football program was becoming one of the most reputable in the state. The playoff system in Pennsylvania high school was just eight years old at the time, yet both the Rare Breed of Lansdale and the Bucks of Dunmore had established themselves as formidable forces since their teams of the late sixties and early seventies vied for their own league championships. Tonight would be the first time they ever met.
At first, I kept my little Dodge Omni positioned where I could see the field. It was small but toasty, and we shuffled the young ones there that night in and out as the first three quarters were played. By the fourth quarter, we were nowhere near that car. Instead, we had forgotten about the freezing temperatures and were on the sidelines engrossed in a high school football battle that went down to the wire. On this night, Lansdale Catholic’s Rare Breed would prevail, 18 to 14, and move on to the state semi-final.
Fast forward twelve years later to Scranton Memorial Stadium in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Dad, like Henzes, is still head coach, both my brother and nephew are his assistants, and my son is now a fourteen-year-old who has far outgrown his snowsuit. It is a painfully cold Friday night on the last day of November, and, for only the second time in the history of their programs, Lansdale Catholic and Dunmore meet in a playoff encounter which will end one team’s season. That night, again, the game went down to the wire. This time, the Dunmore Bucks would emerge the victors, 21 to 14. They would make their way all the way to the PIAA State Championship in Hershey, where they would find themselves two more times in Coach Henzes' overwhelmingly successful career.
On both nights, it was cold. On both nights, it was close. Perhaps, more than any other similarity, however, on both nights, two Pennsylvania high school football teams exemplified everything that young student-athletes can be as they demonstrated fight, fire, and a fierce respect for their opponent.
The Rare Breed would never play Dunmore more than twice in its forty-four years, and, yet, those two contests are among the most memorable we ever played.
And I suspect that the greatest likeness between the two programs was not in the coaching styles or the types of players or a common playbook. Like Lansdale Catholic, where, on its three green fields, the mantra of “Faith, Family, Football” was planted and nourished for over a generation, the forty-seven teams of Coach Jack Henzes learned that football is more than a game. And as exciting and dramatic as high school football can be in the life of a young man, his family, and a community of loud and supportive and fervent fans, it does not last forever.
What does last forever are not just the memories, but the moments, both in loss and victory, that forge the men, the workers, the husbands, the fathers that those young boys become. Whether on the field, in the weight room, or within the walls of the locker room, the ironclad truths, values, and lessons hammered at for nearly fifty years will survive any and every opposing force for several lifetimes to come. To, Coach Jack Henzes, who with 444 career victories is second in the state only to the late and great George Curry of Berwick, much respect and more.
Here’s to “God. Family. Dunmore Bucks.”