Tragedy to history: The Clairton Bears
Clairton running back Tyus Booker and his teammates ride in silence as their bus crosses the Monongahela River Nov. 9 on the way to a playoff game in Belle Vernon.
Clairton head football coach Tom Nola: "I worry every game. But the players, one of their things, they always say, 'Oh, we got this.' And so far, they've always had it."
Ann Marie Ford hugs her son Robbie Boatright at their Clairton home. Ford said she is proud of her son and his Bears teammates. They put us on the map, she says.
Members of the color guard march with the band and cheerleaders from the high school, down Miller Avenue to the stadium a home game tradition before the Bears 52-0 win against Imani Christian on Oct. 26.
Star player Tyler Boyd leaps for the end zone during the Bears 39-0 win over Brentwood in the WPIAL Class A quarterfinals. Boyd is a nationally ranked running back and has received scholarship offers from a list of schools that includes Purdue, Boston College, Notre Dame, Penn State and the University of Illinois.
Defensive coordinator Wayne Wade coaches Devante Gardlock during the Bears playoff game against Brentwood Friday, November 9 in Belle Vernon. Wade, who played for the Bears in the 80s, said he wants to give back to Clairton. "I've always felt compelled to come back to give back because of the situation ... this is a changed town ... the mill was booming, business was booming. I think football gives them (players) a sense of hope," he said.
Tyler Boyd, center, and Armani Ford, right, kneel together with their teammates for the Lord's Prayer, a pre- and post-game tradition, after beating Brentwood in the WPIAL Class A quarterfinals, 39-0, in Belle Vernon.
From left, Vinny Moody (#8), Dakota Halcomb (#7) and Bryan Cllifford (#3) give their jerseys a final check before taking the field Friday, October 26 in Clairton.
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Third of four parts
Clairton assistant coach Demonje Rosser is standing in front of his house. It's early in the morning March 26, 2009.
A gun shot rings into the darkness. Inside the home, Rosser's wife is jarred awake. She runs into the yard. Her 28-year-old husband is lying on the ground, shot in the head by someone who might as well be a phantom. Minutes later, Demonje is pronounced dead, just as he was beginning to have the life he had always wanted, coaching at the school that molded him.
At the funeral, the Clairton Bears, the boys Rosser mentored as if they were his sons, carry his casket.
The town is in a state of shock. They must move on. Clairton coach Tom Nola hires another former Bears player, Wayne Wade, to replace Rosser. It was Rosser who had asked Wade to come back to Clairton as a volunteer assistant a year earlier because the team needed better discipline.
Wade can do this. He played college football at Akron, then for the Arena Football League's Milwaukee Mustangs for seven seasons. Through it all, he kept Clairton close to his heart.
The Bears dedicate their season to Rosser. They put 'DR' patches on their game jerseys. They vow to go undefeated, 16-0, for the first time in school history. In the first game, at Laurel, the Bears aren't emotionally ready. They lose, 15-8.
Clairton's seniors are devastated. They start throwing tantrums, hurling their helmets. The coaches try to calm them and get them on the bus.
Wayne Wade is embarrassed. The kids can't act that way again. At practice, a few days later, he enters the locker room. Wade tells them his story, reminding them who he is, and, in turn, who they are. They are all Bears, together, and Bears don't act that way.
The next week, on Sept. 11, 2009, Clairton beats Monessen, 46-0. The Bears haven't lost since.
The colors of fall are blurred in Duquesne. Outside the building that was once Duquesne High School, a girl wearing a blue-and-yellow West Mifflin track and field hooded sweatshirt talks to a boy wearing a black East Allegheny basketball hoodie, also with blue-and-yellow lettering. Six years ago, both of them would have been wearing Duquesne red and white.
Fridays used to ignite a fire here. Duquesne, a town formerly known for its mill and its Dukes football program, now beats on slowly, yearning for any spark.
Former Dukes Yusef Washington and Omar White stand across from the school on South Fourth Street, reliving the good old days, a quarterback and a wide receiver tossing it around one more time. Then, Duquesne and Clairton were bitter rivals, having played their first game in 1915. They're convinced that Clairton's streak would not be alive -- or at least as long -- if Duquesne High was still here, waiting for the Bears at the end of each regular season.
Because of forces out of their control, they can only wonder. One day in summer 2007, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania decided Duquesne was no longer capable of properly educating its own teenagers.
"The unity that we had has kind of disappeared," says Washington, who played at Duquesne from 1983-86 and then at Pitt. "It's becoming like a ghost town."
On this same afternoon, 2 miles away at West Mifflin High School, the school's athletic director, Scott Stephenson, is busy selling tickets to a Titans playoff game that night against Mars. Stacks of money sit on the table of his office as he talks about the ease of transition for the Duquesne kids to the West Mifflin district.
"They're us now," Stephenson says.
West Mifflin offers 24 varsity sports and more extracurricular activities and clubs than he can count. They just built a $2.3 million baseball and softball facility with money from the general fund. When the football playing surface was replaced with an artificial surface, Stephenson was told it was the same kind used by the Indianapolis Colts. Duquesne's future is better developed here, he says.
Omar White was a Duquesne assistant when the school closed. He went to East Allegheny, hoping to usher the kids into the unknown. He's still there, but only out of loyalty to the kids who followed him.
The generations have stopped connecting in Duquesne. Grandsons can't share tales with their grandfathers about what it's like to play Clairton. Duquesne won four WPIAL championships and one PIAA Class A championship, in 1993, but those accomplishments are now just fading type in a record book.
Could today's situation really be the best option for Duquesne's kids?
At every East Allegheny game, White stubbornly makes his opinion known. Underneath his blue-and yellow-coaching attire, he wears a red Duquesne football T-shirt.
Tom Nola is spooked. Only three victories stand between the Clairton Bears and history, and their head coach doesn't have a good feeling about this rematch against Brentwood in the WPIAL quarterfinals, even though the Bears won the first time around, 42-7. His assistants know to give him space.
The contrast between Nola and Wayne Wade is unmistakable. Wade brings that Clairton swagger. He envisions everything going just right. Of course, it's easier for Wade to relax. If the Bears lose, it's Nola who will receive most of the blame from folks in town. Nola taught history at the school for 16 years and has represented them admirably, but it's Wade who's the beloved son of Clairton.
Nola, 59, had a decision to make a year ago. He retired from teaching after the 2010-11 school year, and he wondered if it was time to leave coaching behind, too. There was no doubt he still loved the competition. And, with Tyler Boyd and company coming back for one more year, Clairton's chances of winning a fourth consecutive PIAA championships were good. But Nola couldn't deny what the job was doing to his health. Was he worrying himself to an early death?
"If stress and pressure shortens your life," Nola says, "then I guess it has."
Nola decided to come back and coach. He is the same as ever, quiet and understated, and he and Wade divide up the duties the same way, with Nola handling the minute details and the coaching of the offense, Wade taking on the motivational tactics and the defense.
The Bears have mauled every opponent except one. Still, Nola lives with the fear that he will be the coach who ends the streak. Never mind that he created it.
"I worry every game," Nola says. "But the players, one of their things, they always say, 'Oh, we got this.' And so far, they've always had it."
Nola admits the players have given him more confidence as a coach, and it's clear why against Brentwood. Boyd takes over the game early, rushing for 288 yards and scoring five touchdowns. Clairton wins its 58th in a row, 39-0, and Tom Nola can breathe for another week.
For the Clairton midget league team, the moment has arrived to prove that they're ready to be Bears. The boys just have to finish the job. Late in the fourth quarter, they lead, 6-0, on the North Shore's home field at Oliver High School.
"They ain't built like us!" says their coach, Corey Wright.
Wayne Wade watches from the sideline. This game, taken in the greater scope, could be just as important as any of the varsity's. It's a championship, and the midgets haven't won a title since Tyler Boyd and the current seniors were eighth graders.
The Clairton midgets need one more stop. North Shore passes the ball deep. It's intercepted by Taymier "Feather" Jamison.
Wade claps as the Bears assemble the victory formation. Quarterback Noah Hamlin kneels the ball. The officials signal the end of the game, and the Bears run around the field in circles, screaming into the darkening sky.
Dennis Dreher, wearing a white-collared shirt that says "Coach Dennis, Line Coach," smiles. The kids, they had better get it now.
"All that hard work paid off," midget player Tyler Blue says.
Wayne Wade is on the phone, relaying the news.
"The Clairton midgets just won the championship," he says.
The boys come together for a photo, holding their gold trophy. They scrunch together tightly and hold up their index fingers, flashing No. 1.
Leaning forward at his desk, Wayne Wade moves an orange Hi-Liter over names on four printed roster sheets. He's looking for seniors.
Until now, he hasn't done the math, speaking about the success of his mission in mostly general terms. Under each horizontal streak of marker lies a question: Did this player make it out?
Wade is wowed by the totality of the answers: Of the 36 football players who have graduated from Clairton High School in the past four years, 19 are in college. More than half.
With this year's seniors, Wade expects similar results.
"What we're accomplishing now is kind of contagious," he said. "There's a lot of hope, possibility, that they couldn't see before."
Another routine Friday night is nearly complete. Clairton leads the Neshannock Lancers, 37-7, late in the fourth quarter of a WPIAL semifinal game, but there's no mention of the history being made until a man takes the microphone in the press box.
"We'd like to recognize the Clairton Bears ..."
Clairton is tied with Central Bucks West, a Class AAAA school in the Philadelphia suburb of Doylestown that had its streak end in 2000, atop the state list of longest winning streaks. The Bears would have to string together five more undefeated seasons to approach California's Concord De La Salle's national record of 151 consecutive wins.
"We're going to Heinz Field again!" Tom Nola reminds the boys.
The Bears' trip to Heinz Field to play Sto-Rox is big locally, but it's the streak and the odds overcome along the way that will soon spread their story around the country.
Clairton's long-awaited time in the sun is on the horizon. Standing outside the team huddle are two reporters from major national newspapers who have traveled to town this week. Certainly, Robert Boatright never would have thought he would be interviewed by The New York Times and USA Today.
The coming week will bring more attention. Win 60 would be the record-breaker, and thanks to a stranger in New York City, the Bears would get to wear those custom-made T-shirts first fashioned in the mind of Wayne Wade.
Through a connection to Clairton team trainer Tammy Ridgley, attorney Joseph M. Horn heard about the Bears. A supporter of Don Bosco Prep in New Jersey, which ended the 2011 season ranked No. 1 in the country, Horn became inspired by the obstacles that Clairton's boys have had to face in comparison. So he sent along a check for $2,000 that will help Wade purchase the players new jackets along with those "60" shirts.
Horn included a letter that he wrote to the players. It is posted on the door of the Clairton training room, and it reads:
"I am aware of what they may say. That you're poor. You'll never amount to anything. You cannot be successful. Can you prove them wrong? Can you put the same heart and drive and passion into every aspect of your lives and be champions in every sense? Or will you just be a five-minute feel-good story on the 5 o'clock news? That choice is yours.
"The biggest tragedy will not be that a football winning streak comes to an end. The biggest tragedy would be if all the members of the teams that built that streak didn't take what they have learned and apply it to their lives."
Coming Saturday: The Bears seek football immortality -- a state-record 60th consecutive win -- against Sto-Rox.
First Published November 23, 2012 12:19 am