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MCGRATH: A celebration of Kennedy Park and the Catholic League

Joe Marsico Fenwick High School guard captasqueezes through door City Hall with City Championship Football Trophy with fullback Jim Di

Joe Marsico, Fenwick High School guard and captain, squeezes through door at City Hall with City Championship Football Trophy, with fullback Jim Di Lullo acting as doorman. Fenwick, which beat Schurz for city crown, received trophy Wednesday in City Hall ceremonies.

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Updated: May 27, 2013 8:59PM

I grew up in a sports-minded community, which is one way to justify a life built around fun and games.

Future Notre Dame teammates Don Hogan and Tom Goberville were distinguished products of the Kennedy Park area and high school rivals; Hogan played at St. Ignatius and Goberville at Mendel Catholic. Mike Sheahan, the future Cook County sheriff, followed Goberville to Mendel and played college ball at St. Joseph’s in Rensselaer, Ind., before going into law enforcement, then politics.

Among dozens of neighborhood luminaries, I have a special affinity for Sheahan, who as Kennedy Park’s youth director kept us busy (constantly) and out of trouble (mostly). And it was always a thrill to be invited to round out a side if his older crew was one guy short when they took over the basketball court (just don’t get any ideas about shooting).

I think the guy I really wanted to be was Jay Standring, who played defensive back for Ara Parseghian at Notre Dame after a three-sport career at Leo. Only one thing held me back: talent. I didn’t have nearly enough to play any sport beyond a little high school basketball, but I wanted to stay in the game, as it were, and journalism . . . why not?

It was sort of like stealing for a living — ‘‘They pay you to go to games?” a relative once asked me — and you lived in constant fear of exposure: Anyone who had seen me “in action” had surely spotted my shortcomings and could ask (justifiably) where I came off criticizing athletes who were good enough to play for a living.

Even my kids had misgivings. From accompanying me to media-league softball games or shooting hoops or taking BP in the park around the corner, they knew I was pretty feeble. So eye-rolling skepticism was the reaction anytime a television appearance by Sheriff Sheahan prompted a nostalgic recall of his athletic background: “How good could he have been if he played with you?”

Good enough to be a Chicago Catholic League Hall of Famer, and he’ll be recognized as such Wednesday night, when the CCL wraps up a yearlong celebration of its 100-year anniversary with a banquet at Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace.

It has been a historic and eventful run for an organization that was founded as a means of providing recreational outlets for the children of immigrant families who came here as the city reinvented itself after the great fire of 1871. Athletic competition promoted cultural assimilation, but anti-Catholicism was a fact of life in turn-of-the-century Chicago. So nine Catholic high schools took matters into their own hands in 1912 after St. Ignatius and DePaul Academy were rebuffed for membership in the snooty Cook County League.

The Catholic League has survived several transitions, including a much-debated 1973 decision to join the Illinois High School Association. The move did away with “lightweight” basketball and forced some other changes, but it opened the door to statewide competition and further solidified football as the Catholic League’s signature sport — CCL teams have won 25 state titles in five divisions, the most of any conference.

Yet geezers such as myself believe the league was at the peak of its powers in the ’60s, when it won 10 consecutive Prep Bowls and demolished Public League opponents by a cumulative 314-86. I can still see Fenwick’s Jim DiLullo going for 224 yards and five touchdowns on only 12 carries in a 40-0 demolition of Schurz in ’62. The Bears won the NFL title a year later, but the loaded, unbeaten St. Rita Mustangs might have given them a game.

My friend Jerry Schumacher was the starting tight end on Mount Carmel’s 1967 city champions and later played for Michigan teams that won 30 of 33 games, including a Rose Bowl. He was probably better known as the father of Jerry Jr., a fellow Mount Carmel great and an All-Big Ten linebacker at Illinois, and Katie, the UIC volleyball coach and former Penn State standout who was one of the most decorated prep athletes in state history at Mother McAuley.

Jerry died last week, finally succumbing after a 10-year battle with cancer. He fought the disease as he lived his life: nobly and courageously. We wanted him on any team we ever put together, in any sport. Fittingly, his wake and funeral drew turn-away crowds to St. Cajetan’s Church, a block from Kennedy Park, where we knew him, simply, as the best of us in the categories that matter most.

Safe home, Schu. We’ll hoist one to you.

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