KULPMONT, Pa. — You sense how deeply football runs in this dusty, anthracite Coal Region town just by looking at a framed photo inside the End Zone sports bar’s front door. The team picture is a trivia quiz, offering points to those who name the most players on the Kulpmont Cougars.
Lots of sports bars have team photos and trivia, right? What’s the big deal?
The Kulpmont Cougars are a youth football team, made up of players between the ages of 10 and 14. This particular team played back in 1960.
A few blocks away, John Shimock III, shrugs at the observation. Shimock, whose family has run a furniture and mattress business in the area since 1915, coldly sizes up the local football culture.
“We have a football tradition, basically, because we keep winning,” he said.
A winning football tradition — the one that bred and shaped University of Maine quarterback Marcus Wasilewski.
Mount Carmel Area High School, where students from several local towns including Kulpmont attend, claims the winningest football program in Pennsylvania, a state renowned for high school football. Its record is 820-305-59, dating to the 1890s. The Red Tornadoes have won five Class AA state championships since Pennsylvania started its playoff system in 1988.
In this hardscrabble area, with an unemployment rate above 15 percent and about a third of the population that lived here 80 years ago, the Black Bears’ senior quarterback, who will lead his team against New Hampshire in a second-round NCAA playoff game Saturday in Orono, is a respected, but not revered, sports figure.
That’s mainly because of the local competition. Henry Hynoski, the New York Giants’ fullback since 2011, played ball at Southern Columbia, one high school over. His dad, Henry Sr., played at Mount Carmel, then Temple University and was drafted as a fullback by the Cleveland Browns in 1975. Sam Ficca, a Mount Carmel offensive lineman who went to college at USC, played 12 years for the Oakland Raiders and New York Jets in the 1960s.
You get the point. Starting four years at quarterback for Mount Carmel, winning a college scholarship and leading your University of Maine team to a 10-2 record and the national playoffs during your senior year — that’s good, the locals say, they’re proud of Wasilewski.
Coal and football
In most ways beyond football, this part of central Pennsylvania — there’s really no way to sugarcoat it — is a shadow of what it used to be.
Anthracite coal mining took off in the area during the 1800s and early 1900s, bringing waves of Polish, Italian and Irish immigrants to work in the deep mines. From 1890 to 1900 the population of Mount Carmel, which borders Wasilewski’s smaller hometown, went from 8,345 to 13,719, an increase of 60 percent. The local economy was so good that Thomas Edison himself made Mount Carmel one of the first downtowns in the world to have electric street lights.
By historical standards, however, the hard-coal era was merely a blip. Historians charitably say the demise of King Coal came in the 1950s, though jobs and the people that filled them started leaving the area at least a decade earlier.
Today, in a trend that some Maine communities may relate to, Mount Carmel’s population is about 5,900, or one-third of its peak of 17,960, according to the 1930 U.S. Census. Kulpmont, with 2,900 residents today and plenty of empty storefronts, shares a similar fate.
Through it all, one thing has not changed: The area rallies around its football team, still drawing 3,500 or more to games. The Red Tornadoes play on Friday nights at Mount Carmel’s Silver Bowl, a standard-looking, steel and cinderblock stadium, with a working coal operation — companies still reclaim and mine surface coal throughout the area — set immediately behind it.
And the local boys keep winning.
How high are the expectations? This year’s team finished 7-4 and made the district playoffs. It was, unquestionably, a down year.
Youth coach assesses
Phil Scicchitano owns Kulpmont’s only pizza and Italian restaurant. He coached Wasilewski’s youth football and baseball teams.
“Marcus was pretty good at everything he did,” Scicchitano said. “He focused on football, naturally, because of the tradition we have at Mount Carmel.”
Marcus Wasilewski said his hometown is a special place.
“For how small it is, you have multiple people who will call and when I go back home, they’ll say ‘how are you doing?’” he said. “Even when I wasn’t starting [at UMaine], they’d say, ‘what’s it looking like, how are the games this year?’”
He added that football means a lot to his hometown.
“People look forward to the season. Local businesses take pride in putting their name on it and being sponsors,” said Wasilewski, whose 5,374 passing yards rank No. 7 at UMaine. “It’s a great effort by the whole town to come together. It brings our town together.”
In recent years, Wasilewski is considered one of Mount Carmel High’s two best quarterbacks. The other is Dave Shinskie, who played minor league baseball after high school, then attended Boston College as a 25-year-old freshman and was the backup quarterback for BC when the Eagles faced Maine, and Wasilewski, in 2012.
“Marcus gave 100 percent all of the time, and he was one of the most coachable kids you could ever have,” Scicchitano. “He wasn’t just blessed with all kinds of ability.”
Wasilewski comes from a strong, high-profile family. His father, Mark, and brother, Zachary (quarterback of the 2013 Mount Carmel team), live in a ranch home in Kulpmont’s Den Mar Gardens neighborhood. It’s a new development by Coal Region standards, initially built in the 1980s for people displaced by the infamous, underground Centralia mine fire.
Marcus’ mother, the late Lisa (Covas) Wasilewski, was a well-known physical education teacher in the area and responsible for the Maine quarterback’s drive, Scicchitano said. She died from cancer in 2009.
“She was the first girl in Mount Carmel Junior League baseball to ever play with the boys — playing hardball, and she was good,” Scicchitano said.
His favorite story comes from youth baseball in Kulpmont, when Scicchitano coached a team of 8-to-12-year-olds, including Marcus.
“I remember getting a call from Lisa — it’s March, the season hasn’t even started — and she asks, ‘Do you have your lineup set yet? Is Marcus going to start? You have a good team. If he’s not going to start, I’ll switch him to another team.’
“I said, ‘He started last year as a 9-year-old. I’m sure the 7- and 8-year-olds didn’t pass him by,’” Scicchitano said, grinning at the memory. “I’m thinking, ‘Lisa, geez, ease up already.’”
Statistician’s a statistic
If the part about the 1960 youth football trivia picture doesn’t convince you Coal Region football runs deep, maybe Jose Gonzalo will. A pharmacist in Mount Carmel, Gonzalo is the team’s official statistician, has been for years.
“I’ve only missed one game since 1958,” Gonzalo said.
He had a good excuse, too. In 1966, when he was a pharmacy student at Temple University in Philadelphia, the weather was bad, Gonzalo had an exam coming up — and he missed a game.
“I think I have 575 straight since then,” he said.
Ask Gonzalo to rank Wasilewski among Mount Carmel’s all-time quarterbacks, and be ready for a challenge.
“That’s such a tough question,” he said. “It’s hard to compare. What do you mean? As a person? As a leader? His arm?”
Generally, Wasilewski ranks in Mount Carmel’s top 10 and maybe top five overall. That’s saying something, Gonzalo explained. Since the 1960s, Mount Carmel quarterbacks have played for Stanford, the University of Miami, Penn State, Bucknell and other big-name schools.
What stands out about Wasilewski? He started all four years at Mount Carmel and “from the minute he walked on the field as a freshman, they all respected him,” Gonzalo said.
“He’s one of the best leaders we ever had. Very cerebral. He reminds me of a [Tom] Brady or [Peyton] Manning — not athletically or in stature, but cerebrally. At the line of scrimmage.”
In a few ways, Wasilewski may not be the best quarterback in his family. His brother, Zachary, led the 2013 squad as a senior and is a better runner, “a kid who would run into a wall if you asked him,” Gonzalo said.
Gonzalo speculated that Maine coach Jack Cosgrove, back in 2009, saw in Wasilewski a quarterback who might not have eye-popping athletic ability or skills but possessed a certain strength.
“He’s willing to run, he’s willing to take a hit,” Gonzalo said. “He brought Coal Region toughness to Maine.”
Eric Conrad is a native of Sunbury, Pa., and was a reporter for the daily newspaper covering Kulpmont, the News-Item, in the 1980s. In Maine, he was editor of the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel and sports editor of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. He lives in Winthrop with his family and works as Director of Communication & Educational Services at Maine Municipal Association.
BDN assistant sports editor Pete Warner contributed to this report.