At a ceremony last week marking the 50th birthday of RFK Stadium, Mayor Vince Gray remembered some big Redskins games played in the building—and then brought up an event that isn’t talked about enough around here.
“There were 50,000 people in this stadium to see the game between St. John’s and Eastern High School,” Gray said.
It’s all true: High school football could once fill big stadiums here. In fact, before Sonny Jurgensen arrived, schoolboy ball was the biggest game in town.
The St. John’s College High School/Eastern High School tilt in 1962 drew 50,033 fans to what was then known as D.C. Stadium for what was then called the City Title game, played each Thanksgiving Day between the D.C. Public Schools champion and the local Catholic school champ. That was the largest sports crowd in D.C. history to that point. The previous record had been set a year earlier at another game between the schools.
Gray, a former star athlete at Dunbar High School, attended the 1962 matchup, which ended up being the last City Title game. In his speech, he said bringing high school football back to RFK, which lost the Redskins 15 years ago, could keep the stadium viable.
This isn’t the first time Gray has tried reviving the City Title game. In 2007, as chairman of the D.C. Council, Gray teamed up with the Washington Post to approach the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference with a plan. That didn’t pan out. A year later he joined with the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission to found the All-City Senior Bowl, which matched DCPS football players against private schoolers. At the time, Gray told me he hoped the public/private pairing would inspire a reprise of the City Title game.
At last week’s ceremony, I asked Gray about kickstarting the long-dormant tradition. “I think it can happen,” he said. The confidence isn’t unwarranted given Gray’s record in forging public/private partnership in prep sports.
The City Championship basketball game, also traditionally played each season between the DCPS and Catholic league champs, was foundering and near death few years ago before Gray got involved and returned the event to the Verizon Center and to sporting prominence.
And although the favorite sport of his youth, baseball, has been on life support for a couple generations in city schools, Gray melded his political clout and his sporting passions while helping put together the Congressional Bank Baseball Classic, a day-long diamond tourney featuring the best public and private teams at Nationals Stadium each year.
But the City Title football game is different. Gray admits that returning the game to the way it once was would be tricky.
There’s the date, for example. “The public schools play the Turkey Bowl on Thanksgiving Day and don’t want to give it up,” he said. “The private schools don’t want to wait until after [Thanksgiving]. But, I’m thinking, if I can get the city schools to move, we’ll see.”
Then there’s the matter of who would be eligible. The level of play in the traditional public school league, now called DC Interscholastic Athletic Association, has never been poorer. The best non-private football team in the city is currently Friendship Collegiate Academy, a charter school.
And, in recent years, the best football team in the old Catholic league, now called the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, has been Our Lady of Good Counsel, located in Olney, Md.
“It’s called a City Title game, but you could have a Maryland or Virginia team playing,” Gray said. “Then you’ve got public charters that have become a force, like the Friendship team. So we’d have to look at if we bring it back, what’s the structure we’d use.”
Not everyone who remembers the 1962 game shares Gray’s desire to overcome the logistics and restore the tradition.
In his speech, Gray didn’t mention why the City Title game went away. As he knows firsthand, it went away because of a race riot, an event so ugly that 50 years isn’t long enough to keep it gone for some folks.
The trouble started in the fourth quarter, with St. John’s up 20-7. The scoreboard didn’t reflect the Johnnies’ domination: Eastern didn’t get a first down until the third quarter and only netted 87 yards of total offense on the day; St. John’s had 270 yards just on the ground.
The scoreboard didn’t show the racial makeups of the squads, either: St. John’s had two black players and an all white fan base; Eastern, a whites-only school in the days before Brown v. Board of Education, was now all-black on the field and in the grandstands. (Its coach was a white man).
Things got nasty after a tussle between St. John’s star Jay Calabrese and Eastern lineman Calvin Harris. Harris was ejected for fighting, but fired up the base by storming the field trying to get another piece of Calabrese. Harris was then removed from the sidelines with a police escort and on a stretcher.
“You could see something bad coming for a couple minutes so I headed for the exits early,” recalls Kevin Dowd, then a Gonzaga senior. “As soon as the game ended, the Eastern people charged straight across the field like Pickett at Gettysburg.” (Dowd says his sister, future New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, stayed home from the game, missing the riot.)
The St. John’s fans took a whupping inside the stadium, in the parking lots, and on surrounding streets. Police wouldn’t let the St. John’s bus leave for three hours; their antagonists waited outside the stadium: “We hadn’t gone a block and every window in the bus had been broken out with rocks,” Joe Gallagher, the legendary St. John’s coach, once told me. “I told my kids to keep their helmets on and stay down. I was laying on the floor of the bus. It really was quite terrifying.”
Nobody died, but reports on the number of injuries ranged wildly, from 40 to over 500. Syndicated columnist Drew Pearson wrote to his national audience about priests being beaten bloody by the Eastern fans.
Dowd says he found a canister of game film several years ago. But the ugly parts were missing.
Calabrese thinks the fight scenes wound up being taken by the lawmakers who decided to investigate what had happened. “I bet the second reel got taken by Congress,” he says. “Really.”
The report that resulted from the federal investigation, issued in January of 1963, declared that the “reputation of the Capital city of the world’s greatest democracy was tarnished.” Back in those days of trying to win the world’s hearts and minds, legislators saw the riot as a national security issue: “Our city is the most important city in America to demonstrate that Negro and white can work together, live together and play together as a symbol of democracy to nations throughout the world,” their report declared.
But by then, with Eastern’s fans and coach having gotten most of the blame, the Catholic schools announced they would not be playing any more City Title games.
A month after the report, DCPS superintendent Carl F. Hansen issued a rebuttal. He implied Calabrese should have been tossed out with Harris, and accused the investigators of ignoring “community conditions” that “produced the stadium incidents”: “These conditions are overcrowding in homes and in schools; poverty, ignorance and deprivation in the presence of advantages available to others; joblessness, particularly among the young; mobility and family instability; irresponsibility; and the most devastating handicap, the absence of hope among many young people.”
“In a lot of ways, what we saw in 1962 was the coming attractions to the riots of 1968,” says Dowd.
Dowd doesn’t think renewing the City Title game is realistic. “You need tradition,” he says. “A charter school has no alumni, so that wouldn’t work. You need more than just guys like me who want to see a good football game. And I don’t think the Catholic schools right now have anything to gain by playing a D.C. school.”
Calabrese doesn’t believe enough healing has taken place yet to bring the game back to the old stadium. He feels bad, however, that it’s been generations since any local high school player felt what it was like playing in a packed RFK.
“You walk out on the field, and you see 50,000 people, basically on top of you,” he said. “And then, yeah, all those people were on top of us.”
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