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."