George Curry, Coach of the high school football team in Berwick, Pa., is telling how a number of his team's fans nearly met their maker earlier this season. "We're playing a team, Scranton, that's oh and five," says Curry, 48, during a recent lunch. "It's a half hour before the kickoff, but our stands are packed, like always. Then there's a rainstorm. It's pouring. Next comes the thunder and lightning—I mean boomers! We pulled the kids off Crispin Field. Once we were in the locker room, I looked outside. Nobody had left. They were holding umbrellas, sitting on metal bleachers. How can that not inspire you?"
Don't be misled. It is the Berwick High football team, not its following, that is Crispin Field's true lightning rod. The Bulldogs attract more than 10,000 fans on Friday nights (Berwick's population is 10,976), and at least half of them are season-ticket holders.
"If you want to rob a bank in this town," says former running back and current assistant coach Jon Pruitt, "Friday night is the time to do it. Football in Berwick is insanity."
With good reason. Going into Friday's game against Pittston the Bulldogs were 9-0 and, in this nation of 12,768 football-playing high schools, the team is ranked No. 1 by USA Today. Not coincidentally, the Dawgs also have the most coveted prep player in the land, 6'4", 210-pound quarterback Ron Powlus.
By the way, if you do plan to pull a heist in Berwick, you may be disappointed with the pickings. This Susquehanna River steel town has been hard hit by the recession. Just beyond Crispin's western end zone lies Berwick Forge & Fabricating, a dilapidated behemoth of a factory that once employed more than a thousand people. Today that number is 67. Across the street from the eastern end zone is the dormant Consolidated Cigar Company, whose fortunes went up in smoke several years ago.
These days the area has more success manufacturing football players than manufacturing steel. In the last seven years, Susquehanna River towns such as Berwick have produced Ricky Watters; Greg Skrepanek; the Ismail brothers, Raghib and Qadry; and now Powlus. It is a region where the best players are named All-Anthracite and are forged as tough as steel, and if you want to call Coach Curry's operation a football factory, that would be fine with him.
Besides producing Division I players (Houston Oiler safety Bo Orlando and West Virginia QB Jake Kelchner are alumni) as though it were an assembly line, Curry's program has a following that includes Whitney Houston, who once performed at West Virginia University sporting a Bulldog jersey, and John Paul II, whose personalized papal blessing hangs on Curry's wall. "Oh, that," says Curry, as if everybody has a friend in the Vatican. "The pope's a big fan of Berwick football."
Actually Berwick football, with a record of 213-48-3 since Curry's arrival in 1971, is more like a successful family business than a football factory. Curry is the unassailable father figure. The defensive line coach, Alf Melito, who represents the second of three generations of Melitos to play for Berwick, assumes an avuncular role. Pruitt—all 5'6" of him—who set the state rushing record playing for Curry in 1977, is a favorite son. Freshman coach Cosmo Curry, 24, is the only son.
"If you're tough and you demand stuff out of kids, you'll get it," says Curry of his paternal approach to the 175 young men in his program. "Even parents are afraid to demand of their kids. That's what's wrong with people today."
Progressive Curry is not. Posted in the football weight room is the sign: NO EARRINGS ARE ALLOWED IN HERE. THIS IS A MEN'S LOCKER ROOM. Long hair is similarly forbidden. On school nights a 10 p.m. curfew is enforced. "Let's face it," says Curry, who says he has never cut a player in his life, though some have quit, "Berwick football is not for everybody."
During the season the players have one day off a week, which is one more than Curry and his staff have. Practices sometimes last four hours. Offensive skill players, who are introduced to Curry's complex system as seventh-graders, are expected to remember more than 30 formations without the aid of a playbook.
Somehow they absorb all of it because, well, as Powlus says, "Coach demands it." And meeting his demands brings rewards. Berwick has won 12 championships on different levels in the last 15 years, including a state championship in 1988 and a mythical national championship, bestowed by USA Today, in 1983. In the early 1980s the Dawgs ripped off a 47-game winning streak.
And like any successful operation, Berwick football operates in the black. "Heck, we saved this town $500,000 by building the new football field house ourselves, and all of the money was donated," Curry says of the generosity on the part of Berwick alumni. "Not to count the millions of dollars we save our kids' families through scholarships."
Curry, who doubles as Berwick's guidance counselor, is smart enough to know that not every teenager is a Ron Powlus who will soon entertain scholarship offers from Notre Dame, Michigan and Penn State. "Look at this," Curry says to a visitor, pulling out a roster of names and positions. "Eddie Carter, he's a dentist. Larry Pruitt [Jon's brother] fought in the gulf war; he's an Army major now."
That's right, Curry charts every one of his former players' work positions, and you won't find any of them wasting—or doing—time. Over the years Curry has found dozens of jobs and more than $5 million in scholarship money for his athletes. "Football is going to do for my players more than they can ever do for me," he says.
According to Curry, Powlus is the "nicest kid you'd ever want to meet, a prototype Berwick Bulldog." And modest. If you rely on Powlus for a biographical sketch, you're not likely to find out that he has thrown for 6,000 yards in his high school career or that he has a 93% academic average in school. Or that as a sophomore in 1990, starting in his first high school game, he had to withstand the pressure of playing before 40,000 people in Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium; his team ranked No. 1 in the nation then also.
Powlus's parents, Ron Sr., a high school P.E. teacher at Northwest High in nearby Shickshinny, and Susan, Berwick High's switchboard operator, like to tell about an incident that occurred during their son's vacation in Ocean City, Md., last summer. Ron was walking on the beach with a friend who was wearing a Berwick Football T-shirt. A teen confronted the friend, asking him if he knew Ron Powlus, because he had intercepted one of his passes. Powlus would have been content to get away with "Oh. Good for you," but his friend spilled the beans.
Of course, sometimes Powlus does have to assert himself. Earlier this season, for instance, the Dawgs found themselves in the unfamiliar position of clinging to a 7-6 lead on their own field as the fourth quarter began. Apparently no one had told the opponent, Hazleton (Pa.), just how good Berwick was. With 11:49 remaining, Powlus—who in the first half had fired a 34-yard TD strike to flanker Dante Pecorelli—took matters into his own hands. Literally. The play was a rollout left QB keeper, and Powlus, who can motor, was already turning upfield when he heard the defense's cries of "Pass!" Sixty-one yards later, he politely tossed the ball to the ref and lined up to kick the point after. Berwick won 14-6.
There may well be a high school football team better than the one Curry has assembled this fall. There may be a coach more astute than Curry, perhaps even a quarterback more promising than Powlus. But nowhere, surely, is there a town where football means more to the community than it does to Berwick. "Berwick and football have this love affair," says Curry. "If you're going to play, coach or watch football, this is the town to do it in."