Pride of Schenectady: Legacy Tribute - Poiriers on both sides of classic football rivalry
For Jim Poirier, playing quarterback for the “other” public school football team in Schenectady was, among other things, a source of amusement.
“It was always funny to see the reaction of my dad’s friends when they found out I was the starting quarterback for Linton,” said Poirier, who in 1985 sparked the Blue Devils to a 33-0 win over his father’s alma mater, Mont Pleasant, marking the final game of the intra-city rivalry between the city’s two public high schools. “I grew up listening to those stories about my dad quarterbacking Mont Pleasant and how great those teams were. It was funny to me, sort of an oddity, that I would be playing for the other school.”
Poirier Jr. won both games he started against Mont Pleasant, and three decades earlier, in 1955 and ‘56, his father, Jim Sr., quarterbacked the Red Raiders to two victories over Nott Terrace. In 1956, the 51-12 victory over the Blue Devils was the most lopsided margin of victory ever in the 53-game series between the two teams, and 1985’s 33-0 win with Poirier Jr. at the helm was Linton’s biggest victory margin ever.
The success of the Poiriers, as well as countless other stories about the crosstown rivalry, will be circulating around Proctors Monday when the Schenectady High School Athletic Hall of Fame holds its 14th annual Hall of Fame and Reunion Dinner. The football series, which was typically played on Election Day up until the 1970s, will share the reunion spotlight with 2011 Hall of Fame inductees Rhonda Phillips, a former MP track star, and Armand Farina, a Nott Terrace graduate and professional golfer.
“I didn’t know a thing about the rivalry when I got here in 1952,” said former Mont Pleasant coach Larry Mulvaney, a member of the Hall of Fame’s inaugural class of 1998. “Shortly afterward, however, I got the message. ‘You lose this one, it won’t matter if you go 7-1.’ Beating Terrace or Linton was the game that mattered.”
The series began in 1932 when, due to expanding enrollment, the city built a second high school and called it Mont Pleasant. The original high school became Nott Terrace, and the two schools squared off on the football field for the first time on Nov. 8 of that year, playing before 6,000 fans at Union College’s Alexander Field. Pleasant, coached by the legendary Sig Makofski, posted a 25-0 victory, and also won in 1933 and 1934 to take a 3-0 lead in the series.
Nott Terrace stormed back to win the next four games, and the 1935 and 1936 games, also at Alexander Field, each drew about 10,000 people.
The 1941 game was the first time that both teams entered the game unbeaten. Nott Terrace’s Leroy Siegel scored from one yard out in the fourth period to give NT a 6-0 win, secure its perfect year and even the series at 5-5. The 1943 game ended in a 0-0 tie, and after Nott Terrace posted wins in 1944 and ’45, MP won in 1946, 7-0, beginning a run of seven straight wins to help the Red Raiders forge a substantial edge in the series.
Ed Dempsey, who grew up on Albany Street in the Woodlawn section of the city, scored the only touchdown in the 1946 game and also kicked the extra point before 7,000 fans at Alexander Field.
“I remember the huge crowd, and how it was a close game, and that we didn’t score until the third quarter,” said Dempsey, who now lives in Ballston Spa. “We didn’t have a very good year, but that win made our season. It didn’t really matter what happened previously.”
The game’s only score came when Dempsey, at halfback, broke free for a 46-yard touchdown run. A teacher in the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake district, Dempsey served as offensive and defensive line coach there for 30 years, creating the program along with Spartan head coach Murry O’Neil. He remembers his touchdown run like it was yesterday, and, like you might expect from a line coach, gives all of the credit to his teammates in the trenches.
“I had some great blocking on the play by my offensive line,” said Dempsey. “It was a trap, the guard pulled, took out the end and I just ran through the hole. Nobody touched me. I remember I was running so hard I ran straight through the end zone. There was a cop on a motorcycle right at the end of the end zone, to keep back the crowd, and I almost ran into his motorcycle.”
The seven-game MP winning streak begun by Dempsey and his mates came to an end in 1953 at the hands of a Nott Terrace team generally recognized as the best in school history. With Derry Cooke running the ball behind an offensive line anchored by All-American guard Bob Czub, Nott Terrace won the game, 19-0, before more than 10,000 people at Schenectady (McNerney) Stadium. The Blue Devils finished the season 7-0, outscoring the opposition by an incredible margin of 277-6.
“I can remember back in the fifth grade, when Pleasant was beating Terrace regularly, thinking to myself, ‘Maybe one day, I’ll get a chance to change all that,” said Czub, now a farmer living in Schaghticoke. “It actually could and should have been a higher score, but I missed one or two blocks. I can remember [coach] Pete Shula jumping all over me.”
Shula didn’t jump on Czub that often. Initially a second-string wingback, Czub became the key part of a close-knit offensive line after he was switched to the guard position in his junior year.
“I grew up on Van Vranken Avenue, and the other guys on the offensive line were also all from the north end, the Goose Hill neighborhood,” said Czub. “We went to Yates and then Oneida Junior High and then Terrace. We didn’t know the Pleasant guys; they were the enemy, so we stayed away from them. But after the game, we talked and eventually we got to know them. They were good guys.”
Czub has no regrets about the move to guard, away from the more glamorous wingback spot.
“I learned it was much better to give than to receive,” he said, laughing. “I had a lot of guys come up to me and say, ‘that was as hard as I’ve ever been hit.’ ”
The following fall, the game was cancelled due to a polio outbreak. Both teams were unbeaten and finished the 1954 season 5-0.
“That would have been one helluva game,” said Jim Poirier Sr., a sophomore that season who was sharing time at quarterback with Eddie Riccardi. “It was such a big disappointment, and I think that helped create some more excitement when we did play the next year.”
With Poirier starting at QB and throwing two touchdown passes in 1955, Mont Pleasant posted a 21-0 win and recorded its second consecutive unbeaten season. Next fall, Poirier was back at the helm and the Red Raiders had an even easier time of it, registering their 51-12 shellacking of the Blue Devils. The ’56 game, also played at Schenectady Stadium, marked the fifth year of Mulvaney’s reign as head coach at Pleasant, and throughout the second half of the 1950s and much of the 1960s, the Red Raiders were usually listed among the best teams in the state.
“As I look back now, I can say that we had superb coaching,” said Poirier, “Larry and Tony [Parisi] were absolutely fantastic, and in ’56, I had a great group of guys that could catch the ball and run with it.”
Pleasant came one win away from posting their third consecutive unbeaten season, losing a non-league game to Kingston.
“We wanted to go undefeated again, but if you could beat your crosstown rival, the season was a success,” said Poirier. “We lost that one game to Kingston, but we beat Terrace, so it was still a great year.”
As powerful a program as Mulvaney created at Pleasant, good things were also happening on the other side of town. The Blue Devils, now known as Linton (the new building and name change came in 1958), won back-to-back games in 1960 and ‘61. And, in 1962, with All-American Pat Riley and Thom McAn Award winner Mike Meola on the team, Linton was unbeaten heading into the MP game and favored to make it three straight over the Red Raiders. Unfortunately for Linton, MP quarterback Frank Pidgeon knew how to get the ball to Joe Massaroni, and with 27 seconds left in the game, an eight-yard connection between the two seniors on fourth down tied the score at 13-13. Massaroni’s extra point kick gave Pleasant a 14-13 win.
“It’s a real treasured memory, and I think that’s because it was a really exciting game, it was the Election Day game, and the thing that made it really memorable was the success that Pat Riley went on to achieve. That’s why so many people remember it; because we beat Pat, and he was such an outstanding athlete.”
A former basketball All-American at Kentucky who went on to play and coach in the NBA, Riley was the defensive back on the side of the field where Pidgeon found Massaroni for the game-tying touchdown.
“Pat says he was picked on the play, and be that as it may, like I told my wife, people have been re-living that play and that game for 49 years now,” said Pidgeon, who grew up in the Bellevue section of the city. “We’d been running that play for much of the game. I fake a dive to the fullback to hold the linebackers, and Joe ran a quick down and out. It was a safe play. If he was open, I’d throw it to him; if he wasn’t, I would just throw it away. I can remember I felt a tug on my ankle, so I ran out of the pocket to the right, and when I looked up, Joe was waiting with anticipation in the endzone.”
Pidgeon underplays the importance of his game-winning PAT.
“I think what people should remember is who blocked their extra point to give us the opportunity to win the game,” said Pidgeon, singling out two-way lineman Joe DiBartolomeo. “Joe [Massaroni] and I have certainly enjoyed the memory of that game over these many years, but it was DiBartolomeo who opened the door for us.”
Mulvaney, who coached at Pleasant from 1952 to 1976, remembers the 1962 game fondly as well as most of the 1960s when the Red Raiders won six of seven games, the one non-victory being a 6-6 tie in 1966. His 14-7-1 record in the series is by far the most wins by any coach, and during his run he had some of the best players to ever come out of the city.
“Paul Della Villa was a great running back who went on to play at Boston College; Ronnie Page was an excellent runner who played at Syracuse; I had a tremendous lineman in Gale Knull, and Gary Trout was an end who moved here from California and was an All-American receiver,” said Mulvaney. “There were so many great players.”
Linton and Nott Terrace also had their share.
“Pat Riley and Mike Meola were fantastic athletes, and that great 1953 team had that guard, Bob Czub, who was just outstanding and blocked for Derry Cooke,” said Mulvaney. “It was a great rivalry, and we used to build it up with pep rallies and bonfires. It was intense, but we didn’t have too many problems, and when the boys graduated, they became friends.”
As for a single game, Mulvaney’s favorite is the classic 1962 contest.
“That was the most exciting game of the bunch,” he said. “In the Pidgeon house, they call it ‘the pass,’ and in the Massaroni house, they call it ‘the catch.’ ”
Mont Pleasant enjoyed a substantial edge in the series throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, and heading into the 1984 matchup owned a 33-16 edge in victories. Poirier Jr., however, helped Linton and head coach Gerry Baker end the series on a high note, sparking his team to wins in both his junior and senior year. In the final game, he connected with his favorite target, Vinnie Pedone, five times for 108 yards and two touchdowns. He finished the game with eight completions in 14 attempts for 140 yards.
“I had no idea that that was going to be the last game,” said Poirier, who went on to play at Union College and is now a physics teacher at Ballston Spa High School. “I was a senior, it was a shutout and the most lopsided victory that Linton or Nott Terrace ever had, so it remains my greatest memory from high school.”
While Poirier grew up in the Stockade neighborhood, his father’s youth was spent mostly on the other side of State Street in Mont Pleasant.
“I grew up on Albany Street around McClayman, but then I married a girl in the Stockade and moved down there,” said Poirier Sr., now a General Electric retiree. “When Jim started playing for Linton, there was no question who I was rooting for. A few people kidded me about it, but I was rooting for my son. There was no question about that.”
That seems undoubtedly true. But Jim Poirier Jr., even after all these years, can’t help taking a good-natured shot at his old man.
“He had 8,000 people at his game and we had 2,000, so it was probably a bigger thing in his day,” he said. “But it was definitely the biggest thing in my little world at that time. I was into it. I don’t think I ate the breakfast he cooked for me that morning.”