LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT: Inductees share honor with friends, and some old foes (with video)
SCHENECTADY Pat Riley walked through the Proctor’s Theatre arcade Monday evening, looking for the right entrance.
“How do we get into this place?” he joked.
Practice, Pat, practice (rim shot).
It’s more complicated than that, of course, even for someone who claims to have snuck in the side entrance with a pack of friends more than a few times when he was a kid.
On Monday, Proctor’s hosted the 12th annual Schenectady City School District Athletic Hall of Fame and reunion dinner, for which Riley, the five-time NBA champion head coach and 2008 Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame inductee from Linton High, was the guest speaker.
He summed up what is common to all the inductees when he said:
“We’ll all get up there and say this is a wonderful honor, and it is, but it’s a life that’s been lived with a lot of people. The one thing that hits — and it hit me last year with all the people that were there with me along the way — from that standpoint, that’s the emotion they’re feeling tonight.”
That was a theme that hit home for 2009 inductee Mike Meola, a 1963 classmate of Riley’s who was a three-sport star, especially in football, for which he earned an honorable mention All-America award, two Five County All-Star selections and the 1962 Thom McAn Award for player of the year.
“It brings back incredible memories. It’s very nostalgic, and somewhat overwhelming,” Meola said. “I look at some of these pictures, and since I lost many of my scrapbooks, it brings back memories not just of the Pat Rileys and Warren DeSantises, but guys that, quite frankly, I don’t think I would’ve accomplished what I did, athletically, had it not been for this great supporting cast that I had in all three sports.”
The other inductee was Dick Bennett, who was known as Dick Benarkiewicz during his days as one of the best basketball players ever for legendary head coach Sig Makofski at Mont Pleasant in the 1930s.
“I’ll tell you what he always said, those were the best years of his life. Which was not too flattering,” Bennett’s wife of 66 years, Ginny, said with a laugh. “I started dating him when he was at Siena.
“It’s been a thrill, just thinking about it. He was the best player ever. I didn’t even like basketball until I saw him. But now it’s my favorite game.”
“It’s a big honor, as far as I’m concerned,” Dick Bennett said. “It’s been so long since I played, over the years, that it’s nice that somebody remembered that something happened at one time or another.”
Also receiving recognition were the undefeated 1954 football teams from Mont Pleasant and Nott Terrace, who were headed for a classic showdown that promised to draw 10,000 to Schenectady Stadium, until Mont Pleasant player Danny Monaco was diagnosed with polio a few days before the game, and then Nott Terrace’s Ollie DeVito also was stricken.
The game was cancelled, leaving everyone to wonder what might have been.
The players from the respective teams were easy to spot at the ceremony, as the Mont Pleasant Red Raiders wore red carnations, and the Nott Terrace Blue Devils wore blue.
“There was no question, we knew we were going to win,” Joe Green of Mont Pleasant said. “They’d probably say the same thing.”
“Here we are. It’s good to see a lot of these guys,” Nott Terrace’s Al Burnham said. “Man. But we’re friends. I don’t know if there’s any animosity or hate, but it’s great to see them.
“But ... we would’ve won.”
The two most talked about events at the dinner were the polio game, of course, but also the 14-13 victory by Mont Pleasant over Linton in 1962, when Joe Massaroni caught the game-winning touchdown in the closing seconds while covered by Riley.
Meola, on the field for that play as a linebacker, rehashed memories with Massaroni.
“I say the same thing over and over, he bobbled it for a long time,” Meola said. “It’s funny how visual it is, I can picture it right now.
No. 4 [Frank Pidgeon] dropping back, then Joe pulling it in. And there goes our undefeated season with it.”
“It’s crystal clear to this day,” Riley said. “In order to have a fairy tale, you’ve got to have a happy ending, but to have a happy ending, you have to go through some moments like that.”
The haunting element about the 1954 polio game is that there was no ending, not even a beginning.
But the game that never happened remains a strong bond holding together everyone involved.
“It’s very emotional,” Monaco said. “Here’s John DiCocco, my tackle. He was the one I ran behind. He was big enough to protect me.”
“He was an animal,” DiCocco said. “You wanted a yard, just give it to Dan, whether there was a hole or not, he’d be in there.
“We were mad, that’s for sure, because the game wasn’t going to happen.”
Chuck Abba Sr., an assistant to Nott Terrace coach Pete Shulha, now deceased, recounted how disappointed the Blue Devils were when the coaches called a team meeting to give them the news.
“The rivalry was very, very intense, so to even try to predict an outcome would’ve been difficult,” he said. “But that matter was resolved for us. And understandably so, because the doctors didn’t want to have the spread of polio. There was no Salk vaccine in those days, and they didn’t want to have to worry about the responsibility of whether more kids would get it or not. It was a good decision. A disappointing one, but a good one.”
“Polio was a nasty thing, it was like cancer today,” Nott Terrace’s Nick Ronca said. “People today hear about polio, and they don’t know what it is. Back then, it was devastating. You wound up crippled. A lot of people died. They couldn’t take the chance of any of us getting it.
Ronca can point to the fact that at least Nott Terrace had won the year before, 19-0, although that game was a difficult one for a team that averaged 45 points in the rest of its game.
Green prefers to look at 1955, when Mont Pleasant won, 21-0.
“I was one of the lucky ones. I was only a junior.
“We beat ‘em, 21-to-nothing,” he said, laughing. “I got some resolution out of it.”