A Championship Year
Spiro Athanas graduated from McKinley in 1960, one of six children, all of whom went to McKinley. He lettered in football, basketball, and baseball. Spiro attended Washington University in St. Louis where he also lettered in football. He was in the restaurant business for twenty-five years in Bloomington, Indiana. After selling his restaurants in 1994, he retired to play golf, travel, write and paint. He has published a book of short stories, The Voice of the Titans, and has had two one man art shows since retiring in Bloomington.

As anyone knows who played sports for McKinley High, our uniforms, equipment and facilities left more than a little to be desired. But despite these physical shortcomings, over the years we fielded our share of championship teams. In fact, in my senior year (1959-60), we won the Public High School football championship, tied for the basketball championship and came within one out of winning the baseball championship.

When I reflect on how we were able to accomplish that feat with our small enrollment of males, compared to schools like Roosevelt and Beaumont, and the relatively diminutive size of our athletes, I can only shake my head in wonderment. I don’t think we had one kid on that 1959 football team that weighed 200 pounds. Central High had a halfback who weighed about 230. Our tallest basketball starter was six foot three, while Roosevelt had a six-nine center.

We never played a home game in any of those sports, unless you call Lemp Park a home field for baseball. We practiced football on a rock, cinder and broken glass strewn field less than eighty yards long a block away from school. We had to walk across busy Russell Boulevard just to get there. To practice kickoffs, we would sometimes use Roosevelt’s field more than a mile away. We practiced basketball in the Salvation Army gym, at least a mile away from McKinley in the other direction. Our baseball practices were held at the aforementioned Lemp Park, again at least a mile from our school.

There were no school buses to take us to our practices or our games. A few kids had cars, some of the players’ fathers would drive us, and, of course, our coaches would take a few of us. But some of us walked, or took a city bus. No one explained and no one complained. That’s just the way it was.

So how did we do it? How did we win all those games? Several people who have written for this web site have mentioned the special bond created by growing up in the McKinley neighborhoods. It is a difficult thing to define, but certainly the neighborhoods from which McKinley drew its students were both diverse and homogeneous. There was ethnic diversity and for the most part economic homogeneity. I think it is the latter that really created the bond. McKinley was integrated in the 50's without a problem. If there was racial tension during my time there, I didn’t see it. If there was an occasional fight between a black kid and a white kid, it always seemed to be because one or both of them were jerks rather than the color of their skin. Three of the best athletes and best guys on our 1959 football team were Afro-Americans. One of them had a successful professional football career. I always delight in the fact that we also had three Albanian-Americans on that team.

Then, too, we had three remarkable coaches—Jules Blanke, Leroy Glore, and Joe Mittino. They were not remarkable because they were great coaches, but because they were superior human beings. In my experience they were fair, honest and hard-working men who cared about the kids in their charge. They wanted to win, to be sure, but never at any cost. They were excellent role models and good teachers, not about X’s and O’s necessarily, but about how to conduct yourself on and off the field of play. Who could ask for anything more?

And, finally, we won because we had a number of excellent athletes, many of whom played more than one sport. The kind of athletes who were superior and unselfish at the same time. The kind of athletes who created a team spirit -- that Goldbug spirit -- that made it difficult to be denied. It was a joy to play on those teams with those spirited good athletes, and for those remarkable coaches, and with the support of the whole McKinley family.

Spiro Athanas
orips@aol.com