CLAIRTON, Pa. — The blight is unmistakable, a feeling of despair palpable.
These days, so is the joy. “The City of Prayer” has found salvation in its high school football team.
Citizens of this small, economically ravaged southwestern Pennsylvania city are grateful for their Clairton High Bears — a spirited, tough-minded bunch of at-risk teenagers who defy odds stacked higher than the smokestacks that line the Mon Valley. The Bears are a beacon of light amid the gloom, infusing a sense of community spirit and pride by virtue of the nation’s longest high school football winning streak — 59 games.
“In Clairton, if you don’t play football, you are on the streets,” says team trainer Tammy Ridgley. “The way I see it, this is all the city has left.”
The former steel-mill town hard on the banks of the Monongahela River has much to be grateful for when it comes to its inspirational Bears. The last time Clairton was on the national map was when the potent Vietnam-era film, The Deer Hunter, nominally was set here in 1978.
Perhaps another movie is in order. In a city that mandates a curfew, and where Clairton High students must pass through a metal-detector each morning, the predominately black football team soldiers on despite numerous challenges. The Bears serve as a torn city’s respite from issues involving high unemployment, crime, drugs and racial strife.
“For a lot of (players), it is a hard life,” says head coach Tom Nola. “They may have only one parent — or no parents. It’s difficult sometimes, but they rise above it.
Some people think we just throw out a ball and play. But there’s so much extra that goes beyond the Xs and Os, especially at a school like this. The streak is a prideful thing for this community.”
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Winners of three consecutive Class A state championships, the dominating Bears (12-0) can establish a state record Friday with 60 consecutive victories, if they win their 25th playoff game in a row since 2009. The Bears will wear all-black as they take aim at a fifth straight title in the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League. In a rematch of last year’s WPIAL championship game, the Bears will play the Sto-Rox Vikings at Heinz Field, home of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
If the Bears win, they will advance to Hershey, Pa., for the second round of the state playoffs.
In pads at 5 or 6
In these parts, black-and-gold fever is coupled with black-and-orange mania. Clairton High, built in 1906, was a larger 3A school in the ’50s. As a 1A entity, the athletic budget for grades 7-12 is $60,000 a year. For years, the talk has been that Clairton High would be closed or merged. The school’s modest football facilities have faded bleachers and chipped paint.
The Bears do not permit limited financial resources to prevent them from mauling teams. In three playoff games this season, they have overwhelmed opposition by a combined score of 134-13. Often, Nola pulls his starters early so the Bears do not embarrass their opponent.
The Bears’ 44-player roster includes three Division 1A recruits — highly touted running back Tyler Boyd, plus defensive back Titus Howard and wide receiver Terrish Webb.
“This (streak) means the world to us and our community — they’ve got our backs,” says Boyd, whose elegant Marcus Allen-like running style has produced 5,079 career rushing yards and 107 touchdowns, including 41 as a senior. Boyd, also a stellar free safety, is considering Arizona, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Pittsburgh and Penn State.
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“We’re striving to break this (state) record,” Webb says. “We don’t want to be the class that breaks the streak. And we don’t want to let down the town. There’s a lot of pressure. This is very important to us.”
The Bears’ phenomenal success largely derives from an abundance of superior athleticism, excellent coaching and a grassroots feeder system.
“The kids are in pads at 5 or 6,” says Bears athletic director Peter Mathis. “They all know each other.”
The senior class has lost one game, the opener of the 2009 season.
Nola receives the lion’s share of the credit for transforming the Bears into a small-school powerhouse. The unpretentious 59-year-old McKeesport, Pa., native bears a slight resemblance to a famous former (Chicago) Bear — Mike Ditka. Nola has worked at the school for 18 years, 11 as head coach.
“Tom is nothing but class — humble, noble and so caring,” says assistant coach Jim Dumm. “I’ve never seen anything like it in a coach. And it’s not easy.”
While Nola does not subscribe to a tough-love approach, per se, his discipline is evident. During a game last month, the Bears unraveled with 17 penalties, including two personal fouls and a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct. Worse, as the teams exchanged post-game handshakes, a Bears player punched an opposing player in the groin in retaliation for dirty play.
Nola apologized to his coaching counterpart — then ripped into his team. His swaggering Bears were punished the following week in practice with extra running.
“They love smackin’ people,” says Duquesne University offensive lineman Dante DaBaldo, who was raised in Clairton. “They’re not dirty, but they want to hurt you.”
Mathis says he and defensive coordinator Wayne Wade are among those who deal with in-game discipline issues. The Bears’ intimidating, highly physical style “leaves us with a target on our backs,” he says.
Says trainer Ridgley: “They give our kids a bad rap, but they are good kids. They just want somebody to care about ’em. That’s what is so sad.”
The team’s high achievement has “spread throughout the city and has people caring a little bit more” about the city, says Clairton Mayor Rich Lattanzi.
22% at poverty level
Once a bustling mill town, the city continues a four-decade slide into irrelevancy despite being home to U.S. Steel-owned Clairton Works, the nation’s largest coke CQ mill plant. Economic retrenchment has left a shriveled tax base, triggering a crumbling infrastructure that limits upward mobility.
A bleakness hangs over the frayed city, one scarred by closed businesses, condemned properties and boarded-up houses.
Clairton does not have a grocery store.
“It’s like the Twilight Zone,” says state parole officer Joyce Douglas.
In its heyday, in the late 1950s, Clairton’s population reached nearly 25,000. But with less than 7,000 residents, Clairton’s population has decreased 20% since 2000.
Twenty-two percent of the city’s families exist at the poverty level — nearly three times the state rate and more than double the national average. The median household income level for black families is $21,783, more than $13,000 less than the U.S. rate for African-Americans.
Prior to the late 1980s — when the state classified Clairton as a distressed municipality — restaurants, supermarkets and movie theaters brightened the downtown area along St. Clair Avenue and Miller Street.
“It was really a great place to live at one time,” says Amzi Lightner, 60, an ex-mill worker. “People kept their doors unlocked, everybody knew everybody. But everything is deteriorating. It’s sad to see it like this.”
But the retired Marine says the Bears’ stunning success makes residents no longer “ashamed to say they’re from Clairton.”
Indeed. Visitors to the decayed rust-belt city are greeted by an orange sign featuring a black grizzly bear: “Welcome to Clairton! Home of Champions.”
“That’s our heart and soul right there. The Bears bring a lot of hope to the city,” says Jeanette Meacham of the Community Economic Development Corporation of Clairton. “They are all we’ve got, basically.”
The players seem to sense it might be their one opportunity, too.
“Everyone’s not college material but many of them figure football gives them a chance (to advance),” says Donna Hudson, a security guard at the school. “If they don’t keep up their grades, there’s no football.”
The city’s rugged demeanor “makes us tougher mentally,” says senior linebacker Robert Boatright.
“This isn’t the best place,” he says. “We see a lot of people struggling. A lot of people are going down the wrong path in Clairton. As football players, we’re trying to go down a good path so kids can look up to us.”
He credits the Bears’ coaching staff with serving as role models — “You could call them father figures,” he says. “They teach us about life. How go grow as a young man and proceed as a grown man. It isn’t just about football.”
But when Friday night lights turn on, so do the Bears.
Prior to last week’s playoff game against Neshannock CQ, Bears lineman Dryan Davenport shouted a familiar command: “Squad up!” Jumping around in a gaggle at midfield, the Bears stared at their opponents and rhythmically slapped their thigh pads. Davenport, a high-energy sophomore, led his teammates into a frenzied chant:
“All my soldiers ... are you ready?”
“All my soldiers ... are you ready?”
“You know” is inscribed on the players’ 2011 state championship rings.
After the team returned with a third state championship last December, the town greeted players and coaches with a boisterous celebration. Annette Halcomb, class of ’77, describes a scene of pure joy.
“People were lined up on the streets, flags were hanging out of windows and folks were screaming, ‘Clairton Bears!” she recalls. “It was just like out of the movie, Remember the Titans. This is the greatest thing that ever has happened to our little city. The Bears have put us on the map. We’re finally famous — ain’t that crazy? Make sure you tell ’em we need a movie deal!”