Morel Pagano – “Football”

IMG_2131 The second unpublished story by Mo Pagano.  We all know Mo’s history in Greenwich Village, his escapades in Atlantic City at the jazz halls, his career as a bricklayer, his time in the Army.  Some even know about his short boxing career. This autobiographical account takes us way back to his high school days, playing football.

Mo, beside painting and writing stories and non-fictional articles, wrote prose and poetry. He frequently ended his story with a bit of prose, as is the case with this chapter, one of the last he wrote as far as I know.

FOOTBALL

I never played on the first team or the forth team; as a freshman there were only two that made the J.V. team, I was one and became part of a squad that in 1943 were group four, South Jersey champions. So I got to know and travel to games with champs

We had a coach that put players in positions by how they were built; back in the day football was a simple game, the single wing and the double wing, plays with odd numbers went to one side, even the other, zero was over the center. It was basic blocking in the right direction and playing both offense and defense. The tall thin guys were ends, the heavy bulky ones, tackles, the quick short stocky, guards, and a big tough bull was the center. The center had to pass the ball back through his legs then block, the opposition always put a man directly in front of him. The backs were chosen by their timing, speed and coordination and if one could throw a pass, that was a rare treasure and he was protected. I played High School football off and on for four years but never received a sweater letter “V”.

My downfall as a football player started in elementary school. I was 12 years old maybe the best running back on our small sandlot team that played area teams. We were playing a game within our own team when a car drove by with a middle-aged couple. The ball was left on the field, every player jumped on their bicycles or ran to this house down the street The middle-aged couple were foster parents of a girl that enjoyed sex or the popularity it gave her, I followed, took my turn. I DISCOVERED SEX !

In High School the coach selected me to play left end and was given the number 17. Had a great year, scored 9 touchdowns and got to make friends with players from county cities, expanded my world and sometimes got to meet their sisters and their female friends. We had a passer that threw a “soft” pass and it was easy to catch also we had an end-around play that let me run.

Our coach taught Algebra 1 but he was dedicated to football and winning. I sat in the back of the room, believe he thought I was related to John Pagano, who played for him in the late ‘30’s. John was an “A:” student, a Varsity football, basketball and baseball player. That wasn’t me! Anyway, he would not call on me unless I raised my hand and would come back before the class ended to discuss football plays with me so I didn’t learn much and paid for it with Algebra 2.

In my Sophomore year, still on the third team, started dating a few girls; it took money for movies, sweet shops and whatever. So I quit in mid- season and took a job at a clothing store to support my main interest. The coach still believed in me and would stop me in the hallways and talk to me say things like “Look at you, ducks ass hair cut, zoot suit, all that hair no wonder you can’t think, you belong out on the football field showing pride for your school”

I’ll be there next year.”

The next year I was there. Made 2nd team ,played in every game except one. My father needed me to labor for him one weekend.

I no givva a damn about ah football, you gotta worka fa me”

Got my Mother to call the coach and say I was sick.

I was the best defensive end on the team and whenever the passer had too much time he put me in. Once against Atlantic City, I crashed in, grabbed the passer by the face and threw him to the ground, 15 yard penalty, pulled me out of the game. Coach yelled; You dummy you cost us 15 yards go sit at the end of the bench I don’t even wanna look at you!” The next play the boy that went in for me got punched in the face by their 220 pound tackle, they got a 15 yard penalty.

See coach it’s O.K., we got it back.”

I was always put in the two minutes before half time and two minutes before the game’s end. One game I hid a small box of Wheaties and just before half time took it out for all to see, coach became furious. I didn’t get to play much that day

Senior year, a new coach; he had played under the previous coach and was just the opposite. With him it wasn’t all about winning, it was about building character. Keep it simple be a good student follow the rules.

I’m not your other coach, go out for any position you want.” I hadn’t scored a touchdown since my freshman year so went out for halfback, didn’t know what I was doing, got the shit kicked out of me every time I got the ball, went back to left end. The team had too many ends and none could catch the ball. Our quarter back was an accurate passer but threw a hard spiral pass.

The new coach saw I was a competitive fighter and asked me to play guard.

No way I wanna make touchdowns.”

Later as we got to know one another and he realized I was a loud-mouth, smart-ass, clown that detested all his rules, when he saw me veins would pop out of his head. He put me back on the scrimmage team.

Coach number one build this team, coach number two destroyed it. He had only a dozen plays. “ If everyone executes their job we will win.” He replaced good players with good obedient students. It could have been a championship team. We had a super quarterback, Gene Caterina; he could run and pass, made all-state and the award for best high school football player in South Jersey. Later after two years varsity at Temple University won the award for the best college player from South Jersey. I scrimmaged against him. Hard to tackle, so quick, so coordinated; once I committed he beat me. I learned to go for his waist and maybe drag him down. At best he was 5ft 9inches and 160 pounds. He was drafted by the Chicago Bears but was cut, came home to play for a paid semi-pro team. Got $100.00 a game.

1946, Vineland High School, a special day; at assembly a red an gray woven for a sweater large “V” was presented every football player that played the required amount of quarters in varsity games.

It was my senior year. I expected to receive a letter, not because I played on the varsity team but because I had participated as a player for four years. It was an unwritten rule (we called it the Howard Fraley letter, he played on the forth team for four years and was awarded a letter). All names were called – not mine.

In those days Newfield students rode the train to and from school. When we were all seated and the train was moving, my fellow Newfield students left me and went to the front of the passenger car and sang the Vineland High Alma-Mater. Howard Smith, the teams starting halfback stood up and pretended to be the school principle, introduced “coach” Frank Mangino, a junior who had already three varsity letters. Frank called my name and presented me with his letter; proclaiming I earned and deserved it. I took it and laughed but when I got home a tear fell. I treasure that red and gray letter more than any coach Testa or Vineland High School could have given me. IT’S SPECIAL !

Now you know coach number two’s name, coach number one’s was Dallalio.

Dallalio was all about winning. He built winning teams and his record shows it. He played end at Georgetown where he was also an outstanding baseball pitcher. Dallalio was very dramatic, loud, caustic and sarcastic but it was quickly forgotten if he needed you to win. I liked to mess with him. His big fault was he played his best players even when they were injured, destroyed some careers because of this. A tough fullback came out of the game with his shoulder hanging out of the socket, coach called him “SISSY“, another good back broke his arm broke his arm below the elbow in the 3rd quarter; they taped it up and put him back in to complete the game”. If he had a good passer, no one could touch him in practice but when he was the baseball manger and had a good pitcher, he put him in every game. In a game when they started hitting the starting pitcher, manger tossed the ball to his best pitcher, “Here get in there.”

No way I pitched yesterday.”

You Prima Donna, I pitched double headers.”

That’s why you threw me the ball underhand.”

There were at least a dozen new plays to learn every week for the next game at the end of year the players learned a hundred plays. Coach Dallalio didn’t care if you played “dirty”, got angry only if you got caught.

Coach Testa was a religious man. He liked to win but was more concerned with the discipline of a team sport and making one a better person. He favored good students that followed the rules and had a problem with good players that were not obedient and questioned, a guard quit the team, a running back transferred to another school and excelled there and Mo went down to the 3rd team again, but as a senior could not play in J.V. games, hung in, scrimmaged every night and “broke the coach’s balls” and watched him walk away with veins popping out of his forehead. I teased but had great respect for him. He was what I could never be, an excellent football player, a running back at Temple University on the only team Temple brought to a Bowl Game. Later he and I met in stores or wherever and had healthy conversations, he was an honest man and surprisingly kept up with what and how I was doing.

He gave his team a dozen plays and that was it,” If everyone does their job we win”. If you played dirty for coach Testa you were off the team. Think he lost more games than he won, after a few years he became Athletic Director.

I had to go back to school, half a day for half a year to make up credits to graduate so I became a member of the class of ‘48, knew them all well. Was eligible even to play football but chose to play with a semi-pro team, The Vineland Eagles.

Went to every High School home game that year, my hometown boyhood friend was the best player on that team.

Long before the Chicago Bears had the “refrigerator” Vineland High School had it’s own “refrigerator”. It was in the season of 1947. The ‘47 yearbook reads “ Then came the Bridgeton game. The Bridgeton fans and their team expected to see a slaughter they came in droves. The final score was Bridgeton on the long end of a 15-12 count but the red and gray put up on of the greatest battles ever seen on Gittone Field, coming nearest toward spoiling Bridgeton’s undefeated season.”

It is easy as time passes to over do the performance of one football player and they may become a legendary name but in my mind it is safe to state that no one else ever played as inspired as even he had been able to surpass. After truly remarkable achievements on both offense and defense as a lineman, coach Danny Testa allowed him to carry the ball as a fullback. I believe this was a way of Mr. Testa thanking Frank for his superior efforts, a tribute. There was a resounding ovation from all the fans as Frank barreled into Bridgeton’s defense for gains time after time.

Frank Mangino has never been taken lightly to us that watched him play sports or knew him.

He was seriously injured in his Freshman year at the University of Delaware. He said they put him in a flat wooden wheel barrow and wheeled him off the field.

Semi -pro. The Millville Blues had dis-banded, So the Vineland Eagles was made up of players from both cities and was a winning team. The teams we played against were never scouted so we depended on the plays we had, and they were good. Our coach was a lineman from Villanova, assistant coach a running back out of Notre Dame.

We were paid by splitting up the gate money and had sponsor’s to buy our equipment. Made as little as $5.00, on away games, we got a contract and a fixed amount, most we ever made was once $25.00. Always felt the men in charge of the team’s business skimmed some off the top.

I went to play end and was a substitute the first year, the first string ends were Bert Gullock, who played on the 1943 South Jersey championship team and Dick Harris starter on Vineland’s legendary 1939 team, undefeated and only scored on once., he was unbelievable, long stride, deceptive speed, large hands and any ball he could touch HE CAUGHT.

The coach seeing that I wasn’t much or a receiver, asked me if would play guard, after watching Dick Harris,“ YES“. Coach Testa had the last laugh. After going to Church in the morning he came to everyone of our games, many of our players played for him. He motivated me, I had to show him I was good, played hard and had outstanding games, got good write-ups in the local paper but still at times a clown, the fans liked that, the sports writer named me “the peoples choice”.

We compiled an impressive record in 1947 season, winning 9- losing 2.

Then my last game, our county rival the Bridgeton Indians. It was late in the season of 1948. The Indians were coached by Bob Deuber, the fleet-footed touchdown ace of the University of Pennsylvania and mentioned for All America until a track injury put him on the sidelines that season. The game was close and he put himself in at the forth quarter.

For me that game was WWIII, face to face with Sam Scafidi, who once played with a minor league professional team, a short , stocky, tough, proud man; he was stronger but I was quicker and beat him many times. All through the first half we punched each other, no face masks in those days, threw dirt in one another’s face, even kicked if no Referee was around. At half time he unscrewed his rubber cleats and left just the metal screws, I made a tackle down field, was on my back, he jumped on both my legs, holes in my legs left me paralyzed, was carried off the field in a stretcher. Doctor cleaned the wounds with alcohol wrapped my legs and in a little while went back in the game.

We lost the game in the final minutes with a 35 yard pass, 6 to 0.

I spent the next week in bed, in pain, keeping the sores from becoming infected. Missed a weeks pay.

Never played football again.

Ten years later developed blood clots in my legs, the Pathologist said they were caused by this injury.

Back in the day

Body blocks

Shoulder blocks

Blocking in the back

Horse collar tackles

Bump and push receivers

All legal

But

All one needed

Was

A

Big heart

To play.

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