From the vantage point of today, one can look back on the 1963-64 school year as an extraordinary time in America. Events like the assassination of the President, the civil rights clashes in the south, the emergence of the Vietnam War and even the arrival of the Beatles were signaling to our senior class that a new era was upon us – an era that still shapes our world today.
But while we as seniors at Salesianum High School in Wilmington, Delaware could feel the pull of the new turbulent world, we were at the same time becoming immersed in a tradition and culture that would be forever a part of our lives.
The senior sports banquet was an important part of that tradition which continues to this day. Like the classroom, athletic fields and the chapel, it fits neatly together with the Salesianum motto, “Tenui nec Dimittam” (I have taken hold and will not let go).
The Salesianum Sports Banquet of 1964
I attended my first Salesianum senior sports banquet as Captain of the 1964 undefeated golf team. Our class was decked out in rented white dinner jackets and bow ties, and we felt pretty special being toasted by the Governor, the Mayor, the Bishop and a head table of 26. Thankfully, most honored guests seated on the dais simply took a bow when introduced, but when a half dozen sports giants got up to speak, we were careful to listen to every word.
As I reflect back on that evening, I would not be surprised to learn that it was the largest and most impressive gathering of sports legends to ever speak at the same event in Delaware history.
And with the schedule demands and fees of major sports figures today, one could probably say if this was not the end of an era, it was the beginning of the end.
I would nominate the great Baltimore quarterback, Johnny Unitas and former Cleveland Indians Hall of Fame pitcher, “Bullet” Bob Feller as the headliners, but they were backed up on the dais by: Coach Don Shula, Philadelphia favorite Irv Cross, NFL Hall of Fame receiver Bobby Mitchell of the Redskins, legendary St. Joe’s basketball coach Jack Ramsey, AFL Rookie of the Year Billy Joe, Phillies manager, Eddie Sawyer and keynote speaker, Tommy Loughran, former light heavyweight boxing champion of the world.
Pitching Great Bob Feller
At the time of the banquet in the spring of 1964, Bob Feller was considered by the likes of Stan Musial and Ted Williams to be the greatest pitcher of the era, in spite of the fact that he served in the Navy for four years during WWII, including extensive combat in the South Pacific.
He spoke quite eloquently, clearly experienced on the banquet circuit and as serious about his assignment that night as he was facing Yankee batters, a team he once threw a no-hitter against.
But the most memorable talk that evening was delivered by boxer Tommy Loughran, a man most of us knew nothing about.
Loughran regaled the crowd, particularly the fathers in the audience with his stories of fights against the great boxers of the era like Gene Tunney and Max Baer.
One anecdote I remember vividly was his fight against the clumsy giant, Primo Carnera for the heavyweight championship – Loughran weighed in at 180 lbs. against the 6’6”, 275 lb. Carnera. Apparently they were not too serious about the rules in those days, and Loughran’s manager came up with a plan to distract and temporally blind Carnera by having Loughran’s hair coated with a smelly oily concoction that the Irish fighter would shove into the giant’s face every time they were in a clinch. While it made for great laughs at the banquet, the result was still a decision for Carnera.
The 1980 Salesianum Sports Banquet
The next and most dramatic banquet I remember attending was 1980. The headliner was Phillies manager Dallas Green. But the man with the message that emotional night was an athlete of more modest professional sports accomplishments than Green or those gathered at my 1964 banquet. Kevin Reilly was a former Philadelphia Eagle and Sallies sports hero who was returning to the famous gym only months after surviving an extensive amputation of his left arm and shoulder plus the removal of four ribs in order to arrest the relentless spread a desmoid tumor that had overtaken his body, ended his NFL career and continued to threaten his life.
When Kevin got up to speak, the normal buzz in the room full of athletes, parents and alumni tailed off quickly. Sweating profusely and still struggling with debilitating phantom pain, Kevin brought a message to the seniors about the more serious side of life and the real meaning of Salesianum in their lives.
He told the story of his darkest days of depression following his surgery in Sloan Kettering hospital when he received a call from Wayne Allen, his former Sallies football coach. Kevin told them how instead of sympathizing with his terrible circumstances, Coach Allen told him to “stop feeling sorry for himself” and get on with his recovery and meet the challenge that lay before him head on – make himself into a better person because of the challenge that God had given to him.
While I don’t recall many details from Kevin’s speech delivered without a note, I do recall him saying to the seniors, “You will never know when the spirit of Salesianum will come back into your life, but when it does you will realize the true meaning of the motto “Tenui nec Dimittam.” A student athlete by the name of Tim Szymanski, sitting directly in front of the podium that night was taking it all in. Soon headed to the U.S. Naval Academy, the top state wrestler dreamed of becoming an astronaut some day.
About ten years later I was invited to be the emcee for the sports banquet when the keynote talk would be given by former Eagles’ coach Dick Vermeil. About as nervous as I have ever been for any assignment, I prepared almost to the point of memorizing my ad libs. With a great act like Vermeil as the headline I made it through without making a fool of myself and got invited back the next year. That year the Eagles had just named Rich Kotite to succeed Buddy Ryan as coach and he was a last minute addition to the banquet program. Sitting together on the dais as the seniors came marching in in their white jackets, Kotite appeared almost stunned and transfixed. He leaned over to me and whispered, “this is incredible, our country truly needs more traditions and institutions like this.”
It turned out that neither Coach Kotite (who would enjoy 21 wins over his first two seasons as Eagles head coach) nor yours truly would be invited back to future head tables. I thought my second time in the spotlight would be a piece of cake after doing pretty well the first year and clearly did not prepare well enough. I remember thinking to myself – I can’t wait for this evening to end.
Fast forward to today and at least for this grad the return of Navy Rear Admiral Tim Szymanski captures as much interest as all the sports heroes who graced the head table in 1964. And it seemed fitting that the emcee for this 69th banquet, who would introduce the commander of the storied Navy SEALs was none other than Kevin Reilly. Following Kevin’s introduction of the Admiral there was a spontaneous and sustained standing ovation as the crowd proudly welcomed home a favorite son.
Szymanski’s message to the seniors was punctuated by references to the values instilled in him by the Salesianum teachers and coaches – values like loyalty, discipline and a thirst for knowledge. And while he seemed to make light of the fact that he never reached his dream of flying into space, he cited his personal journey to emphasize to the students to be prepared for adversity, to be prepared for failures, and to be prepared for “no.” He closed by tying the message to the famous SEAL motto, “The only easy day was yesterday!”
As he turned the podium back to Kevin Reilly for closing remarks and a prayer, the crowd of over 700 again rose to their feet to let this Salesian hero, warrior and role model know how much they appreciated his message and his service to our nation.