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Legacy Tribute: Great ’54 teams never got chance to meet

Pride of Schenectady

Friday, September 11, 2009
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The Mont Pleasant and Nott Terrace football seasons ended abruptly in 1954 when one player from each team was stricken with polio. Shown playing checkers in a hospital room were Danny Monaco of Mont Pleasant, left, and Oliver DeVito of Nott Terrace.
The Mont Pleasant and Nott Terrace football seasons ended abruptly in 1954 when one player from each team was stricken with polio. Shown playing checkers in a hospital room were Danny Monaco of Mont Pleasant, left, and Oliver DeVito of Nott Terrace.

— It was a lousy fall Saturday to practice. Cold. Rainy.

On top of that, Danny Monaco had never “felt that sick before, or since.”

Still, the classic Election Day football game was days away, a crowd of 10,000 was expected at Schenectady Stadium and Monaco’s Mont Pleasant team and crosstown rival Nott Terrace were undefeated, having outscored their opponents by a combined 364-39 through five games each.

“There was no way in hell I was going to miss that game,” he said on Thursday.

He did miss it. So did everybody else.

Mont Pleasant and Nott Terrace never played what was one of the most anticipated matchups in the history of Schenectady high school sports because Monaco, then Nott Terrace’s Oliver DeVito, were diagnosed with polio.

2009 Hall of Fame

To read Gazette sports writer Mike MacAdam's coverage of the 12th annual Schenectady City School District Athletic Hall of Fame, click the links below:

At first, the game was to be postponed, but in the interests of clinical precaution against a dread disease that was highly contagious, both teams had their seasons cancelled, with two games left.

Members of both teams are still haunted by the circumstances and timing of the thunderstrike that wiped out their game, but they’ll get a measure of recognition for how the rivalry symbolized the spirit of city high school sports during a special legacy tribute at the district’s athletic hall of fame ceremonies on Monday, which will include video recollections of some of the principals.

“A couple days prior it was off, and it was like pulling the rug out from under you,” said Al Burnham, a retired Schenectady police officer who played for Nott Terrace.

“The big thing was both teams were undefeated,” said Monaco, a retired Florida state circuit court judge who was a co-captain for the Red Raiders. “The game had built to a crescendo. Everybody I knew in Schenectady was going to go to it, and as I understand, the bookmakers were getting a lot of action. The odds went both ways. Just all around, it was building into a great game.

“We remembered the teams playing each other since we were kids, and that built it up for us.”

It started when Monaco, a senior fullback, felt sick at practice and was told by head coach Larry Mulvaney to hit the showers and get ready for a TV appearance that was a regular feature of pre-game hype then.

Monaco felt poorly enough that he uncharacteristically called his father to pick him up, and his dad, like Monaco’s teammates, could tell right away that something was wrong.

The doctor made a house call and diagnosed polio almost immediately, Monaco said.

“The next thing I knew, I was up at St. Clare’s. Then [co-captain] Lou DeMarco and Coach Mulvaney, after the TV interview, came to see me. The doctors confirmed it with a spinal tap, and then I was in isolation at City Hospital.”

A day later, he was to be joined by DeVito, a junior backup for Nott Terrace, and they got to know each other over the next four months, when they were hospitalized together.

Monaco eventually was transferred to Sunnyview to take advantage of better therapeutic measures there.

While he and DeVito were stuck at City Hospital, they had to come to grips with the reality of their ancient affliction, which reached the height of its epidemic in the U.S. in 1952, when 3,145 people died and over 21,000 were paralyzed to varying degrees out of almost 58,000 reported cases.

“Obviously, you’re afraid of the unknown,” Monaco said. “What you saw was people in iron lungs and walking with braces. It scared the hell out of you. But I thought if it was going to be a fight, I was going to fight it. I was not going to succumb to that iron lung. The thought was, once you were in it, you weren’t going to get out. I was lucky.

“I remember Sonny [DeVito] and I, they wrapped you in hot towels from head to foot, with no clothes on underneath, and they would lay you flat on your back, and you would eat like that. Thank God for the volunteers.”

Monaco said he and DeVito, who would become a dispatcher for the city bureau of public services and a prominent figure in Rotterdam youth sports before passing away in 2003, never talked about what might have been in the big game.

They were too wrapped up in treatment and just getting through each day.

Monaco said a Union College student in a room across the hall didn’t make it.

“Sonny had a lot of intestinal fortitude,” he said. “I recall around Christmas time, he started singing Christmas carols, which was a good thing, because I didn’t have a voice. I was thinking the nurses would say something, but they actually wanted us to keep singing, because it kept everybody else’s spirits up.”

The community rallied around the boys.

Fox and Murphy sporting goods kicked off a fund-raising drive by donating $100, and fans who had already purchased 3,800 reserved seats were encouraged to give their refunds to the effort.

“It was something that took you by shock, because everybody else got it, not you,” Monaco said. “I had enlisted in the Marine Corps reserves, and the year before had gone down there for training, and I came back pretty fit. I thought I could conquer the world. Everybody did.

“I’m going through [post-polio atrophy] now. I’ve got braces on, but I get around OK. I’ve had a brace on my left leg for the past seven to 10 years. With age, it gets weaker, because you’re substituting muscles that aren’t supposed to be doing that work, and that causes problems for them, too.”

A month before the Election Day game, a story in the Schenectady Union-Star proclaimed: “Powerful, rugged, well-coached, the undefeated teams should wage a battle worthy of discussion for years.”

The article was prescient, but for a different reason.

Monaco and Burnham and Nick Ronca from Nott Terrace got together last week to reminisce about that time for the video that will be shown on Monday.

“I’ll tell you, it was good to see them,” Burnham said. “Our season wasn’t finished yet, then when that came up, they told us turn in your equipment. It was a hard thing to do, how it ended. We were saying, geez, isn’t there something else we can do, like play a basketball game or something? Can we wrestle them? But there was nothing to be done. The season’s done. This is it.”

“I don’t know what to say, it’s great for everybody,” Monaco said. “I’m in awe of the fact that they’re honoring both teams. It’s deserved, and it brought back a lot of memories.

“All of us were full of bravado, but that was a tough team. In my view, it would’ve been a tossup. Probably the best thing that happened out of the tragedy of the polio was that nobody came out a loser, and both ended up winners. I saw [former teammate] Mike Ferraro a few days ago, and he said maybe this will bring closure. I’m not sure if that’s a fact.”

 
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