Pride of Schenectady: Together Once Again
Three-sport Linton standout Mike Meola to be inducted on Monday
SCHENECTADY It might as well have been the Sharks and the Jets.
The game was on. Eight or nine guys from Central Park Junior High School crested a hill next to the football field in the park, and an equal number from Oneida emerged from the woods.
No pads, no helmets, just sweatshirts, jeans and an intense desire to knock somebody’s head off.
“It was just like West Side Story,” Pat Riley said on Thursday. “We didn’t know each other, somebody organized it, and it was about as rough and brutal a game as you can imagine.”
It wasn’t just a physical collision of boys from “two sides of the track,” as Riley said, it became a fusion of competitive spirit, a quality he quickly identified in the dark-haired Italian kid from Oneida, Mike Meola.
Meola, a three-sport star from Linton High who was in the middle of some of the most memorable high school sports moments of the early 1960’s, will join his old friend as a 2009 inductee to the Schenectady School District Athletic Hall of Fame.
An honorable mention All-America in football who helped the Linton basketball team go 46-7 in three seasons, Meola will be honored at the 12th annual Hall of Fame dinner at Proctors on Monday, along with Dick Bennett, who was known as Dick Bednarkiewicz in the late 1930’s, when he was one of the best to ever play for legendary Mont Pleasant basketball coach Sig Makofski.
The school district will also pay special tribute to the undefeated 1954 football teams from Mont Pleasant and Nott Terrace, whose season was stopped before they could play each other due to a polio outbreak.
The guest speaker will be Riley, the Miami Heat president who won five championships as an NBA head coach and was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame last year. He’s in Springfield, Mass., this week for the 2009 induction, then will attend the Schenectady Hall of Fame induction to help usher in one of his best friends.
“I’m absolutely overwhelmed,” Meola said. “The anxiety is really starting to build. It’s a wonderful honor, and I’m going in with my coaches and athletes I truly admired and tried to pattern myself after, like Eddie Catino and Walt Przybylo and Dom Denio. It’s overwhelming.”
“I think it’s long overdue,” Riley said. “There’s so many people in the Capital District area who have been honored, and so many more to be honored. Mike has definitely always been in the minds of the selection committee — and I have to say I’m not on the committee — and so deserving.”
When Meola, a 1963 Linton graduate, played in high school, he was the steady one, Riley said, while Riley was “a little more emotional.”
Linton’s football teams went 7-1 three years in a row after Meola started playing varsity ball as a sophomore, winning two Class A league titles.
He was a two-time Schenectady Gazette Five County Football All-Star, at end and halfback, and won the coveted Thom McAn Award in 1962. He also starred on a basketball team that beat Power
Memorial of New York, featuring a freshman center named Lew Alcindor, 74-68, in 1961 and batted .300, .333 and over .400 in three respective seasons of baseball.
“I would say beating Power Memorial, with Lew Alcindor, my junior year, is one of my best memories,” Meola said. “One of the things we had was a balanced scoring attack. He was a ninth-grader and not really developed yet, but had a great supporting cast.
“Another memory is, as a sophomore, we had the 46-game winning streak stopped by Mont Pleasant. That was always my agony of defeat. It was a crosstown rivalry, so it was a very bitter pill to swallow.”
Like pretty much all of the inductees, Meola can identify with the ferocity of the Schenectady high school rivalries.
When he was in junior high, Oneida dominated Central Park and this Riley kid in basketball. Once they were teamed up as sophomores at Linton, they were intent on carrying on a greatness that had become a generational heirloom in the city.
“I idolized all those guys that came before me,” Meola said. “I wanted to throw a behind-the-back-pass like Billy Connors. I used to practice stuff like that.”
“He became one hell of an all-around athlete,” Riley said. “He was good at all of them. He wasn’t the fastest, he couldn’t jump the highest, but he was a skilled, skilled athlete who was dedicated to what he was doing and came from a great family.
“The night before our first practice in 10th grade, I slept over at his house, and back then you’d see guys sleeping in converted attics with drywall nailed up. That’s what I had, and he had the same kind of thing at his house. We were so excited, we had our cleats and all our stuff in our bags already. We went over to the field and have been fast friends ever since.
“I thought we complemented each other well. I might not have been the easiest guy to play with. I always thought I could beat all five guys by myself. Mike had more of the demeanor to be the overall leader. He ran the offense.”
Another one of Meola’s “agony of defeat” moments came in 1962, when Linton and Mont Pleasant squared off in the annual Election Day football game.
Linton was looking at an undefeated season, but Mont Pleasant quarterback Frank Pidgeon, in thick glasses that, according to Meola, made it difficult to read where he was throwing, found Joe Massaroni in the back of the end zone in the closing seconds, then kicked the extra point to beat Linton in one of the most galling losses ever for the Blue Devils, 14-13.
Riley was covering Massaroni and, although it may have been subject to some debate over the years, he said on Thursday that he takes full blame for the loss, even though Meola, who was on the other side of the field playing outside linebacker, is willing to maybe give his friend an out, based on Pidgeon’s deceptive delivery.
“It was my fault, absolutely. All we had to do was stop one pass play,” Riley said. “[Pidgeon] didn’t throw me off. I got picked. Nobody ever got behind me. I always thought that anything they threw up there, I was going to go get. They just ran a good play, and Pidgeon put it right out to him.”
“We were two- or three-touchdown favorites against Mont Pleasant in the big Election Day game,” Meola said. “God knows why we were two- to three-touchdown favorites. They had such an array of talent.
“That rivalry was incredible. They always handled it with grace and dignity, as did their coaches.”
Nowadays, it isn’t unusual for Meola and Riley to sign off with the name of an old play, “Blue 99,” a quarterback sneak that coach Dick Lalla gave Riley free rein to call in goalline situations.
Meola, at halfback, would chew up 10-yard gains as Linton marched down the field, then Lalla would send in “24 Dive” or “25 Dive” for Meola to finish it off from inside the five. If it looked safe enough, Riley would check off to “Blue 99” and stuff it in himself.
“He always used to kid me about that,” Riley said. “He led the county in yardage, and I’d have 18 touchdowns on 50 yards. A couple times he’d get upset. Now we’ll sign off with “Blue 99.” That’s code, and it means ‘Forever together.’”