Storytelling: The Fates conspired against Langley football long before it expired
"For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, 'It might have been!' "
The poet John Greenleaf Whittier had it right. Life seems to have a way of leading you to the summit and then sends you crashing down.
I was reminded of such cruelty recently when Post-Gazette scholastic sportswriter Mike White told his readers that Langley, no longer a high school, had gone its entire athletic existence without winning a City League football championship.
You should have been at South (now Cupples) Stadium in 1962, Mike. Had you been, you would have seen a dream turn to mud -- literally.
On a fateful November morning (10 o'clock kickoff) everything that could go wrong, did. Langley, seemingly a team of destiny, was destined to write just another chapter in an ignominious gridiron history.
The City League at that time was divided into two sections. Westinghouse dominated both the entire league and Section One. The 'House had two iconic coaches: Pro Burton and Pete Dimperio. Between the two, they produced one champion after another. A win by a Section Two team was so rare as to be an afterthought.
The year 1962 was to be different. First of all, Peabody and not Westinghouse was the Section One winner. And Langley, from Section Two, was an experienced team with a wealth of talent. It had its starting lineup virtually intact from a team that had been competitive in losing the title game to Westinghouse the previous year.
Langley was now the consensus pick to win the championship, possessing a potent lineup: Pat Buratti was the league's premier lineman and would go on to play at West Virginia; tackle Billy Wagner would later play in the Canadian Football League; two running backs, Jimmy Burnett and Gary Smith, were three-year starters; quarterback Joe Kabana received a free ride on scholarship from Idaho.
This was clearly not a team lacking in talent. In fact, over the course of the 1961 and '62 seasons, it had held most of its City League opponents scoreless. There was reason for optimism.
The fates would not have it so. The first indication was a two-day downpour that made the field a quagmire. It would be years before the field would be fitted with artificial turf. It is a football truism that a muddy field is the great equalizer.
The next indicator was Peabody's punter. In football, there is a term called "hidden yardage." It denotes the yards gained or lost from the kicking game. Peabody had an accomplished punter. Kicking mostly on third down (remember that) the Highlanders constantly gave Langley a long field. In such miserable conditions, sustained drives were more than difficult.
Near the end of the first half, Langley was kicking from about its 15-yard line. The snap sailed over the punter's head, out of the end zone for a safety. Two-zip, Peabody. The second half was more of the same.
Langley took to sending nine or 10 players after the punter, going for a block, while the Peabody coach continued to have his team kick on third down. On one such occasion, the center snapped the ball to the upback, John Brewer. The Langley would-be punt-blockers flew right by him, and Brewer ran untouched for the score. Game over, 9-0.
If only history could be rewritten. If only there had been artificial turf. If only the Langley coaches (I was one of them) had made better decisions. If only ...
Among the Fates, Moira is the Greek goddess of destiny. Not even Zeus can in any way alter her decisions.
On that November morning, her mood was such that a fine school with a history of remarkable educational achievement would be consigned to that morose wondering of what might have been ... what should have been ... what wasn't.
In 1964, under coach Don Walter, Langley would again play for the championship. Under Dave Mankey later, it would have another opportunity or two. The curse (damn you, Moira) would not be lifted.
Now Langley football is no more. Golf writers have a saying, labeling someone prominent "the best golfer never to have won a major." That team of 1962 was the best team not to have won a championship. Believe it.
First Published November 2, 2012 12:00 am