St. Dot’s vs. St. Bernie’s: A Drexel Hill football tradition spanning six decades
Begun on a dare in 1958, St. Dot's-St. Bernie's pits seventh and eighth graders on chewed-up fields. It evokes the mania for neighborhood, nostalgia and tradition that are hallmarks of Delco and its close-knit Catholic community.
Ignoring both his marinated flank steak and the spectacular views from the 52nd floor of Center City's BNY Mellon Center, Steve Bennett busily filled a sheet of Pyramid Club note paper with a scribbled litany of names and games from a Thanksgiving Day football rivalry between Drexel Hill elementary schools.
What triggered the tsunami of reverie was a question from a fellow lunchtime diner about the annual holiday matchup between St. Bernadette and St. Dorothy, an enduring, spirited and peculiarly Philadelphian competition that will mark its 60th anniversary Thursday morning at Steel Field in Havertown.
"Nothing like it," said Bennett, 68, a longtime social worker and 1964 St. Bernadette grad. "I played. My brother played. All the kids we knew played. And we still go to the games."
A few days later, during lunch in Springfield's Lamb Tavern, a handful of St. Dorothy grads provided their own oral version of the neighborhood spat's history, loudly recalling anecdotes, scores and a menagerie of former participants: "Bird," "Shark," "Monk," "Duck," "Rhino," "Dog," "Fox," and "Oyster."
Begun on a dare in 1958, Drexel Hill's "Turkey Bowl" is one of many longtime area Thanksgiving rivalries. But unlike the high school and college games, this contest pits seventh and eighth graders on chewed-up fields that lack grandstands and sometimes a scoreboard.
Yet St. Dot's-St. Bernie's is as popular as any area holiday matchup, in part because it evokes the mania for sports, parish, neighborhood, nostalgia and tradition that are hallmarks of Delaware County and its close-knit Catholic community.
"I think everyone in Drexel Hill was a sports fan," said Rosa Gatti, a retired ESPN executive and a St. Bernadette cheerleader in the late 1960s. "I've been gone from the area for a while now, but I'll never forget that game. I went for years after I graduated. It was the game. The big crowds. The beautiful days.
"Not long ago, the former president of ESPN [George Bodenheimer] wrote a book called Every Town Is A Sports Town. That might be so, but I'd argue that Drexel Hill is the best of them."
Each Thanksgiving morning, thousands of fans — many ex-participants — flood the natural amphitheaters at tiny Steel Field in Havertown or Drexel Hill's Dermond Field, the former Melson's Tract.
"It's the only time these kids are going to play before 3,000 people," said Denny Dunphy, older brother of Temple basketball coach Fran Dunphy.
"I remember running onto the field and looking up on the banks around Steel Field and thinking, `Holy [smoke], look at all these people,' " said Jerry "Bird" Collins, a 1963 St. Dot's player.
When the Delaware County Daily Times featured the rivalry on its cover several Thanksgivings ago, the headline called it "A Tradition Like No Other." And this year, when sports-talk radio station WIP-FM ran a contest asking listeners which local football rivalry they'd like to hear broadcast on the holiday, the final choices included six high-school games and St. Dot's-St. Bernie's. While that game finished fifth, its Delco devotees inundated the station with testimonials for weeks.
In uniform at Mass
Pep rallies, formal dinners and bonfires precede the annual matchup. Players often attend Thanksgiving morning Mass in their uniforms. According to one tradition, if St. Bernie's eighth-grade players deem it necessary, they can cut the hair of the seventh graders. And St. Dot's team once wore helmets bearing the message "Beat St. Bernie's!" and uniforms that said "Go, St. Dot's."
The stress this battle for neighborhood bragging rights puts on the competitors is palpable. The night before the 1965 game, for example, when their team was unbeaten and St. Bernie's had just one loss, St. Dorothy's nervous coaches retreated to a local bar.
"After a few beers, Shark [coach Jack McGuinn] said, 'We're not ready. We've got to do something,' " recalled Bud Tosti, a St. Dot's player then and now an assistant basketball coach at Rosemont College. "So one of them went to his garage and got paint and a brush. There was this pavilion where coaches and players got together for pregame pep talks. That night, they went inside and painted stuff about their own players on the walls. 'Benji wets his pants.' 'Finley sucks.' Stuff like that.
"When we walked in the next day, our coaches started shouting, 'Do you see what those guys did last night? Are you going to take that?' We were so ready to go, we were pounding the walls."
St. Dot's won that one, 12-7, and leads the series, 38-21. But St. Bernie's, which out of numerical necessity now includes players from Sacred Heart of Manoa, has won seven of the last eight. The winner gets possession of the Jack Gallagher Trophy, named for a late St. Bernadette coach.
At the games, there are a lot of music, tailgating and reminiscing. Afterward, thirsty alums of both schools meet at Craig's Tavern or Trophy Tavern.
"It's a rite of passage. I still go every year," Collins said, "although these days I may only last a half before heading to the bar."
Notable participants have included three future NFL players (Anthony Becht, Tom Savage and Don Clune), two future NBA GMs (John Nash and Ed Stefanski), one Division I basketball coach (Fran Dunphy), as well as players who remain Drexel Hill legends: St. Dot's Bobby Cox; Bennett's brother, Frank, who became an all-Catholic at Bonner and played fullback at Cornell alongside Heisman Trophy runner-up Ed Marinaro; and Joe Dreger, who scored 55 touchdowns for St. Bernie's.
Dreger played in one of the rivalry's most noteworthy games. After trouncing St. Dot's, 48-0, in 1963's regular season, St. Bernie's was upset in the Turkey Bowl, 21-6.
"The game is such a neat thing. And when I think of it now, I think of [longtime St. Dot's coach] Ed Smith," said Fran Dunphy, a St. Dorothy running back in two 1960s Turkey Bowls. "He meant so much to all of us and did so much for us, but we didn't recognize it until years later when it was too late to thank him."
Smith coached varsity and JV in football and basketball at the school, guided the track team that ran in the Penn Relays, ran the intramural program, and started a baseball team. He also was an Upper Darby motorcycle policeman and the school's custodian. And each Sunday, he used to transport the old newspapers collected after Mass to a recycling center to raise money for the football team's uniforms.
"We always had the best uniforms," Dunphy recalled.
Why the hoopla?
St. Dot's green-and-white colors along with the blue-and-white of St. Bernie's are still prevalent among the spectators who return each year for the grade-school grudge match, a loyalty many outside parochial Drexel Hill can't comprehend.
"My wife has a big family, so we have maybe 60 people for Thanksgiving," said Collins, who lives in Collegeville. "When I go to the game, her relatives always say, `You're going where? To a grade-school game?' I tell them unless you grew up here, you can't understand."
Just 1.3 miles separate the schools. Even their histories are intertwined. According to local legend, Cardinal Francis Dougherty selected ground for both parishes on the same post-World War II visit to Drexel Hill. St. Bernadette opened in 1948; St. Dorothy, two years later. While their school building was rising, St. Dot's students attended class at St. Bernie's. And because their borders abut, kids on the same block often attend different schools.
"The kids in this game all grew up in the same neighborhood," said Jim Stewart, who coached St. Dot's for 50 years before retiring in 2015. "They played Little League together, went to the pool and dances together. All those elements unify this area. So when they play on Thanksgiving, all that closeness comes together."
It all began in 1958. That year, St. Dot's went unbeaten in its CYO league, defeating St. Bernie's, 22-11, in the regular season.
"After the season, their coach called and said, 'Our guys can't get over the loss. They want to challenge you,' " recalled Mike Schanne, then a star St. Dot's back. "So Smitty [coach Ed Smith] said, 'Let's play them on Thanksgiving at Steel Field.' They won, 7-6, and that how this all got started."
Throughout the years, games were contested in mud, in icy cold conditions, without goalposts, and less than a week after President Kennedy's assassination. Often there was just one referee. Once, an official had to be pulled from a parked car in which he and a fifth of whiskey had spent the night.
As its popularity grew, local merchants and adults took notice. Game programs began to be filled with ads. Gatti's father, a photographer who owned two local camera shops, started filming games.
"He'd take the film and give it to St. Bernie's coaches," said Gatti, whose two brothers played. "I don't think St. Dot's had anybody doing that."
And then there was Len's Den, a Township Line soda shop/beer distributor that was a St. Dot's sports hangout.
"Jack Kelly, one of the owners, was a real fan, and he would keep a book behind the counter," said Schanne, 72, of Newtown Square. "If he saw that you scored a touchdown in the game, he entered your name in it. Then when you came in, he'd congratulate you on the touchdown and give you a free milkshake and hamburger."
Years later, Schanne returned to Len's Den, which would close in the early 1980s. He entered with his daughter and, before ordering, asked Kelly if the book still credited him with any free meals.
Declining enrollment, fewer players
The two schools have dominated in spurts. St. Bernie's won four of the first five, but St. Dot's responded with eight of the next 10. St. Dorothy has the longest winning streak, 15 in a row between 1976 and 1991. But St. Bernadette has captured seven of the last eight.
The Turkey Bowl has endured through the end of the Baby Boom era, the decline in enrollment at archdiocesan schools, and changing neighborhood demographics. In recent decades, it's sometimes been difficult to find players.
Youngsters who live in the parishes but attend public schools are now eligible. Still, St. Dot's roster is down considerably from the days it numbered 40 or 50. St. Bernie's, even with the infusion of Sacred Heart players, is at 20 now and has been as low as 14. In 1980, the game was canceled when St. Bernie's couldn't find enough bodies.
But the tradition and intensity continue, thanks to committed generations from both schools.
"We'd bring up the history and traditions to the young kids, and that got them excited to play," Stewart said. "Most of these kids have been watching the game since second grade, have played in the JV games as fifth and sixth graders. They're young, but they know what it's all about. They've got memories."
Though perhaps not as many as 60-somethings such as Bennett, Collins and Gatti.
"I'll never forget that game," said Gatti, 61, who lives in California. "I'll never lose my memories of Drexel Hill, of the great teachers we had, the great people we knew. But the best memories tend to surround sports. And for us at St. Bernie's and St. Dot's, the Turkey Bowl was the best."