The Last Game – Part 1

By Gary Repetto

Jack Onofrio was the captain of a struggling Bishop Quinlan Catholic High School football team in Chicago.

Jack Onofrio was the captain of a struggling Bishop Quinlan Catholic High School football team in Chicago. A school with a proud and rich tradition that had produced a number of highly successful and well-known graduates was in severe financial difficulty due primarily to the middle-class exodus to the suburbs that started in the fifties. The school’s enrollment had dropped precipitously which directly affected the number of football team members. By the end of the 1961 season the Quinlan team was down to sixteen players, an immensurable drawback in the powerful Chicago Catholic League. But Jack didn’t care. He didn’t care that he played against far superior teams each week. Teams that listed eighty to ninety players, of which several would go on to play college ball. He was hungry to play the game. Jack loved football. He wasn’t big himself, a tough linebacker at 180 pounds. But he used every pound economically to leverage himself against players that outweighed him by a considerable amount. It was rare for an offensive lineman to get the best of Onofrio for most went away with bloodied faces and broken noses.
The Quinlan team practiced in Lincoln Park, the only substantial stretch of grass near the old school building, and the team walked to and from the field to the school through the city’s busy streets each day with helmet and shoulder pads in hand. They practiced hard and were indeed quite parched at the end of the day. It was by pure chance that a former Quinlan ballplayer, who was also a Chicago cop, had opened a tavern on Clark and Webster that was conveniently located along the path the players took from the park. Equipment and all, they often stopped by for a cold one before continuing the several more blocks to the school and a hot shower. Though they were all of course underage, an eyebrow was never as much as raised for that was the way of the city at this time. Half of the team was already at the bar when Onofrio showed up and set his gear next to the others under the black tavern window. It was a blue collar Irish establishment that sold as much whiskey as it did beer and there was always a good supply of hard boiled eggs on the bar. Sean O’Rourke, the owner, maintained an Irish façade with green charm everywhere one looked. It was as if every day was St. Patrick’s Day.
Jack took a stool next to his quarterback, Jimmy O’Shea, and signaled O’Rourke for a beer, which was already on its way.
“You hit me hard today, Jack” O’Shea said rubbing a bruise on his jaw.
Jack smiled. His neck was thick and his shoulders broad. The brown- haired crew cut, matted down by his helmet, was starting to perk back. He picked up the beer and closed his eyes to savor the frosty taste of it going down his throat. But before he could respond to O’Shea, their coach stormed through the front door.
“What in the hell are you guys doing in here?” Tommy Gleason yelled in a raspy voice that had a hint of Irish in it. To the bartender he cried, “A fine example you set, serving minors that have a game coming up Sunday. “
O’Rourke chuckled saying nothing as he drew a beer for his old coach. He had heard this many times before.
“Now get out of here, the lot of you before I call a police officer and report you. You won’t be playing against Mt. Carmel on Sunday, that’s for sure.”
The boys took a last swig of their beers and started scrambling to fetch their equipment. Then the coach said to Jack, “Onofrio, you stay here. I want to talk with you.”
Jack sat back on his stool and shrugged his shoulders at O’Rourke.
“Give us a couple of beers, Sean,” the coach said. “I want to have a few words with my captain.” Tommy Gleason had a thick shock of white hair, parted on the side, and a beet red face with blue eyes. He has been the coach at the north side school longer than most could remember.
The beers appeared on the bar and Gleason took an enjoyable taste. “Ah, so good.” He turned to his captain and said, “So, Jack, what are your plans after you graduate?”
Without hesitation Onofrio replied, “I want to play college ball, Coach. Not small college. I want to play with the best.”
Gleason smiled. “You might be a little small for that bunch, Jack.”
“I’m big enough, Coach. I beat the hell out of O’Malley at Saint Rita and I hear he’s going to Michigan.”
The coach thought about that a second, then nodded. “Maybe you are big enough. Maybe you are.” He took another drink from his beer, and then continued, “You know what you got going that’s going to take you someplace?”
“What’s that, coach?”
“You read everything. You’ve always got a book in your hands. That’s good.” The coach glanced at his former player behind the bar. “More of my players should be reading books.” O’Rourke opened up the palms of his hands as if to say ‘give me a break!’
At that moment two cops in uniform came through the front door off of Clark Street. One twirled a night stick and came over to the pair at the bar. Tommy Gleason reached out and shook his hand.
“How you doing, Coach,” the cop said.
“We’ve got Carmel Sunday and we’re ready,” Gleason said and pointed to Onofrio. “Meet my captain, Jack Onofrio.” To Jack he said, ”Shake hands with John Logan, the best end I ever had.”
They shook hands while the other cop, likely not a former Bishop Quinlan player, was quiet looking over the bar.
“You’ve got a good coach, kid,” Logan said.
“I know.”
“You going to play college ball?”
“We were just talking about that,” Jack replied. “I am.”
The cop nodded. “Good. I played a year with Purdue, but tore my knee up. Wish I was able to play more, but that’s the way it goes. Just give it all you’ve got and you’ll do fine.” The former player looked at the other cop who nodded in agreement that it was time to go.
Gleason shook hands with Logan and said, “Good to see you John. Come out Sunday and watch us kick Carmel’s ass.”
The cop smiled and nodded then waved to Sean O’Rourke as the pair left.
The old coach turned his attention to his captain and said, “You better drink up and get a shower before Father comes looking for all of us. Jack finished his beer and shook his coach’s hand. Then he shook Sean’s hand and picked up his equipment. Jack thought his coach looked sad sitting at the bar. His days of coaching at Quinlan were numbered for there might not even be enough players to field a team the following year. It was strongly rumored that football would be discontinued at Quinlan after Sunday’s game.