Special to The CS&T
La Salle, Archbishop Wood and West Catholic were technically the Catholic League football champions this year.
But in the eyes and hearts of some fans, there was a fourth.
On a much-anticipated Thanksgiving Day contest against rival Frankford before an overflow crowd at LaSalle University’s McCarthy Field, North Catholic used a late touchdown to cap a dramatic 28-22 comeback victory in the school’s last-ever gridiron battle. North Catholic is slated to close its doors this June.
For 80 years, a football clash with the neighborhood Pioneers has been a vital part of the community landscape. As the seasons continued throughout the decades, the annual competition for bragging rights intensified, hence the huge crowds that usually gather when the two teams square off.
While North’s triumph had nothing to do with Catholic League lore, it did not prevent the Falcons from commencing a boisterous celebration shared with thousands of fans who had made certain to show their support on such a bittersweet occasion.
“This was our championship,” said senior tailback Eugene Byrd, who scored the winning touchdown – and what better a last name when considering that it was scored on Turkey Day. “This is something that can never be taken away from us.”
Asked later if he and his teammates would have been devastated if they had lost, Byrd did not hesitate with his answer.
“Yes,” he said. “We wanted this win for not only us, but for all the North Catholic graduates who are feeling the pain of what is happening. At least for a little while, it helped ease the pain.”
A seesaw affair included the Falcons struggling early and falling behind 14-0 before waking up in the nick of time, and then ultimately engaging in three unbelievable lead changes in the final 2:30 of regulation.
With the Falcons trailing 22-21, the clinching tally occurred on a dramatic 20-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Anthony Reid to Byrd.
Byrd caught the game-winning pass at the 11-yard line and followed his blockers into the end zone with only 13 seconds remaining and North out of timeouts. The victory improved North Catholic’s record to 43-35-4 versus the Pioneers.
When Byrd reached the end zone, the ensuing reaction from North Catholic’s sidelines and stands was what one would expect – absolute bedlam.
“It was a great effort by both teams, and there was a lot at stake for our players,” said North Catholic coach Charlie Szydlik. “I know that everyone is proud of how hard they played.”
When North fell behind by two scores, a blowout defeat in the worst-possible scenario appeared to be a distinct possibility.
But according to Byrd, the Falcons knew that wasn’t going to occur.
“We still felt confident that we could win,” said Byrd. “We felt the energy from (alumni) and everyone stayed positive. We just started slowly, but once we settled down, I knew we would be fine.”
In the end, the Falcons were more than just fine. They left the field holding their helmets high in the air. They looked like champions.
And in the ways that count most, that’s precisely what they were.
John Knebels can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.