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High school football in this town sure ain’t what it used to be. Time was when the annual Thanksgiving Day matchup of the champions of public and private high school leagues, the Turkey Bowl, was the toughest ticket on the local sports calendar. No Redskins or Senators game came close. You can look it up.
The city-title game isn’t played here any more. One of the worst, and least talked about, race riots in D.C.’s history led to its demise nearly 40 years ago. And, although the revival of the title game seems desirable on both symbolic and competitive levels, there’s not a great chance of its happening anytime soon.
In football terms, what happened at D.C. Stadium on Nov. 22, 1962, is that the Catholic League champion, then-perennial powerhouse St. John’s College High School, pounded public rival Eastern High School. In its 20-7 win, St. John’s outgained Eastern on the ground 270 yards to just 38 and allowed only four first downs all day. A crowd of 50,033 showed up, which at the time was the largest ever to witness a sporting event of any kind in the city, surpassing the 49,888 who came to see Eastern beat St. John’s in the same game a year earlier.
But what made the 1962 game most memorable had nothing to do with football or crowd size. It had to do with violence and race. Athletic programs at private schools in the area were thriving at the time, in no small part because the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown vs. Board of Education had led many whites to abandon public schools rather than attend integrated institutions. The St. John’s team, like most of the teams in the Catholic League, was almost all white, having only two black players; the Eastern squad, except for Coach Dick Mentzer, was all black. The racial makeup of each team’s fan base corresponded.
Tensions were high in the grandstands and on the gridiron all game long. Things got really ugly with a few minutes left in the fourth quarter, when Eastern defender Calvin Harris got into a squabble with St. John’s two-way star Jay Calabrese. Only Harris, who threw a punch, was ejected, and he got so worked up over his banishment that he had to be rolled from the field strapped to a stretcher.
The Eastern bench emptied during the Harris-Calabrese tussle, but St. John’s players stayed on the sideline. Stadium security restored order, but the stage was set for something really bad to happen. And so it did. Eastern fans and other troublemakers began a menacing countdown as the clock was running out, and when the final gun went off they swept across the field and attacked those on the St. John’s side of the stadium.
“It was like the Alamo,” recalls Calabrese, now living in Montgomery County. “All these people just jumped the stands and charged….But nobody went after me or other St. John’s players. They just went after our fans.”
The ensuing melee lasted into the late afternoon and spilled out into the neighborhood surrounding the stadium, which, as St. John’s fans’ luck would have it, happened to be where Eastern High School is located.
St. John’s fans weren’t the only ones who had trouble getting home. D.C. police made the St. John’s team stay on its bus in the runways beneath the stadium for three hours. “When the police finally told us it was safe to leave, they didn’t escort us out of the neighborhood,” says Joe Gallagher, the school’s legendary football and basketball coach. “We hadn’t gone a block and every window in the bus had been broken out with rocks. I told my kids to keep their helmets on and stay down. I just had a fedora to wear, so I was laying on the floor of the bus. It really was quite terrifying.”
Eastern may have lost the game, but it won the war. When it was over, more than 350 people, almost all of them whites, were reported injured. The riot quickly became a national and international story. Syndicated columnist Drew Pearson wrote that priests could be seen leaving the stadium with bloody faces. The Saturday Evening Post, a magazine then noted mainly for its placid Norman Rockwell covers, ran a feature, “How a Race Riot Happened.”
“We even heard this was a big story in Russia,” says Calabrese.
A House of Representatives committee ordered a study of the civil unrest, with D.C. resident Shane MacCarthy, the former head of the President’s Council on Youth Fitness, put in charge of the investigation. MacCarthy’s group put most of the blame for what it called a wave of “unprovoked attacks on white persons” on Calvin Harris, for throwing the punch that superheated the already charged atmosphere, and Eastern Coach Mentzer, for failing to control his players adequately. The investigators’ report also advised that the city-title game not be played again without additional security and less tolerance for fighting and alcohol use by fans.
D.C. public-schools employees didn’t trust the investigation. Many thought that MacCarthy had a pro-Catholic school bias. “When he would start lecturing you, he’d start talking in this Irish accent that was thicker than even the people of County Cork would have,” says Frank Bolden, a onetime director of athletics for the city schools. “I didn’t like the job that he did at all.”
In his response to the report, then-Superintendent Carl F. Hansen refuted MacCarthy’s findings, insinuating that the riot might not have happened had Calabrese been penalized during the game.
The most enduring fallout from MacCarthy’s investigation was the termination of the city-title game. In the early ’70s, a movement to renew the championship in the name of racial healing got some attention. And in 1972, another Turkey Bowl was held at the site of the riot, by then renamed RFK Stadium. Everybody agrees that the matchup of St. John’s and Roosevelt was a disaster, from both financial and emotional standpoints.
“The crowd was so small, and nobody came to support the Catholic League at all,” says Bolden. “All I saw were black faces, and I knew almost everybody there by name.”
“It was just too soon after the riot for a lot of people,” says Gallagher, whose son played for St. John’s in that game. “People were truly scared to go down to that neighborhood again.”
Because of the small crowd, cleanup costs exceeded revenues. So, as quickly as it reappeared, the city-title game went away again. And in the ensuing years, there’s been little movement toward a rekindling.
Bolden, for one, doesn’t seem to care if the game gets another shot. Though retired from his job with city schools, he remains on the committee that oversees the public-school title game, now held on Thanksgiving Day before crowds of around 6,000 at, of all places, Eastern High School.
“As far as I’m concerned, this city has a championship game: the public-school championship,” Bolden says.
When asked if, given the reason behind the termination of the public/private championship, he thought renewing the game would send a healthy signal to city residents, Bolden responded, “We can talk with the Catholics all we want about getting the [city-title] game going, as long as everybody knows we’re not giving up Thanksgiving. That’s not open for discussion. We’re not giving up Thanksgiving.”
Gallagher, now 79 and retired, seems far more enthusiastic. “Listen, the ’60s were tough times around here, really tough times,” he says. “But you look at the Catholic league now, with so many black players and black coachesthe racial feeling between the two leagues is really passé. I’m sure there’s still some feeling there, but not enough to deter the playing of a football game. I think it would be nice to get the title game back. It’s time to move on, and this is one way we can all move on.”
Calabrese says he doesn’t think about the Eastern game much, but when he does, it’s not about riots but about how excited he was that day to play, and play well, in front of so many people. His son T.J. is now a star receiver for St. John’s, and Calabrese wishes his boy would have the same opportunity to wear his school’s colors in such an important game. He realizes, however, that even without a title game, his son isn’t lacking for big rivalries. “There’s always Gonzaga,” he says.Dave McKenna