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Century after 1st WPIAL title, Wilkinsburg tries to 'reintroduce our history'

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100 years of WPIAL football championships

1914

Wilkinsburg is awarded the first football championship by the Syracuse University alumni association.

1915

In the first WPIAL title decided on the field of play, Wilkinsburg defeats Pittsburgh Fifth Avenue, 12-7.

1918

An influenza epidemic forces the WPIAL to cancel the football championships.

1921

Rochester and Westinghouse played to a scoreless tie and were declared co-champs.

1927

The final Syracuse Cup is awarded to Greensburg (10-0-0). Despite the WPIAL's third highest win total all-time, it's the school's only WPIAL title to date.

1928

The WPIAL creates two classifications for football.

1932

The WPIAL creates a third classification for football.

Jeannette, McKeesport and New Castle are tri-champs in Class AAA.

1942

Dormont wins first of two straight co-championships, tying Hurst (in 1942) and Glassport, 13-13, (in 1943).

1943

Aspinwall outscores opponents, 245-0, throughout the season and defeats Pitcairn, 24-0, in the title game.

1945

Donora, considered one of the area's greatest teams, wins the WPIAL title after allowing just 13 points all season.

1949

Bridgeville erupts for a 64-0 win over Trafford in the title game.

1952

Aliquippa wins the first of a record 15 WPIAL titles with a 13-12 win over Washington.

1959

Coach Chuck Klausing wins the last of his six WPIAL titles at Braddock.

1960

Beaver Falls, led by QB Joe Namath, finishes 9-0 and is declared the WPIAL Class AA champion.

1966

Sto-Rox (7-0-1) wins the WPIAL title in its first year of existence by acclimation since it was Class AA's only undefeated team.

1971

For the first time, all undefeated teams are admitted to the playoffs and Kiski Area defeats Penn Hills and Thomas Jefferson for WPIAL honors.

1977

Penn Hills and Butler play to a 7-7 tie and were declared co-champs in a game that lasts 25 hours due to a power failure at Mt. Lebanon Stadium.

1978

Quigley is the first Catholic school to win a WPIAL title with a 14-8 victory over Western Beaver.

1979

Penn Hills is forced to forfeit games for using an ineligible player, gets a court order to compete in the playoffs, wins the title but then loses a ruling and the WPIAL declared no champion.

1980

Mt. Lebanon wins the first WPIAL Class AAAA title. The Blue Devils also win in 1981.

1986

Spawned by executive director Charles “Ace” Heberling, the WPIAL holds all four title games at Three Rivers Stadium in one day. Nearly 34,500 attend, including 20,000 to see Gateway beat North Hills, 7-6, in a WPIAL classic.

1987

North Hills, ranked No. 1 in the country by USA Today, finishes 13-0.

1989

Upper St. Clair, which declined to play in the inaugural PIAA playoffs in '88, becomes first WPIAL team to go 15-0 and win a Class AAAA title, finishing No. 4 in the nation.

1995

Burrell defeats Washington, 14-13, in the first WPIAL final to go into overtime.

1996

Blackhawk wins its fourth WPIAL title in six years. The Cougars appeared in six title games in the '90s.

2001

Heinz Field becomes the host site for the WPIAL championships and more than 38,000 attend.

2004

Seton-La Salle's Bill Stull throws for 323 yards, the most in a title game, in a 42-35 win over Aliquippa.

2007

Central Catholic beats Gateway, 35-34, even after the Gators scored 15 points in the final 1:02 to force OT.

2009

Hopewell's Rushel Shell runs for 274 yards, most in a title game, in a 36-28 loss to West Allegheny.

2012

Clairton, which won a state-record 66 straight games, beats Sto-Rox, 58-21, for WPIAL ‘A' title.

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The football player strikes a pose reminiscent of the Heisman, but time has tarnished the trophy to a faded green similar to the Statue of Liberty.

As Dremar Everette cradled the relic in his hands during practice at Wilkinsburg's Graham Field, he finally grasped the history he was holding and the tradition that began with his high school.

“It actually feels very special,” said Everette, a 6-foot-4, 236-pound sophomore tight end-defensive end for the Tigers. “I actually feel like I'm making history right now just holding it. I feel like I'm a part of history, holding this championship trophy in my hands.

“I've seen it lots of times, every day at school when I'm walking to class. I thought it was just a random trophy just sitting in a trophy case. It makes me feel like I have pride in my school. I've always had pride in my school, but I have much more pride.”

It was the embodiment of a phrase Wilkinsburg coach Michael Fulmore often shares during history lessons like these with his Tigers: If you want the glory, you have to know the story.

One hundred years ago, Wilkinsburg won the inaugural Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League football championship. It was awarded the trophy, presented by the Pittsburgh chapter of the Syracuse University alumni association. The Tigers would claim the first three WPIAL titles, in 1914, '15 and '16. They would win again in 1922 and '57, but have gone more than a half-century without winning another championship.

What was the first WPIAL football powerhouse has been one of its worst programs the past decade. Wilkinsburg is 14-76 the past 10 seasons, including three winless campaigns. It went 23 months between the 499th victory in school history and the 500th, in September 2010.

The Tigers haven't had a winning season since 2002, made the WPIAL playoffs since 2001 or won a playoff game since 1998.

“One of the first things I did was try to reintroduce our history and put it in the forefront,” Fulmore said. “We talk all the time what historic Graham Field means, that this dirt has been fertilized with a lot of blood, sweat and tears.

“One of the challenges is to change that expectation. Winning breeds winning, but losing breeds losing. That cycle is very hard to break. That's where we use the rally of our tradition of Graham Field, of that trophy, of the tradition of the Tigers.”

‘Dealing with this neighborhood'

So much has changed about Wilkinsburg, a borough adjacent to Pittsburgh's East End, in the past century: Everything from its complexion — its first WPIAL football champions were all white, the current team is all black — to a population that has been cut almost in half to its perception as a crime-ridden community.

Once known as The Holy City because of its high concentration of churches, it became synonymous with the LAW (Larimer Avenue-Wilkinsburg) gang in the mid-1990s. The school district suffered, and is one of the poorest and most troubled districts in the state. Wilkinsburg was the state's most violent school in 2012, with a rate of 47.23 incidents per 100 students — which has since improved — and had the state's lowest School Performance Profile score for 2012-13, according to the state Department of Education.

These were the challenges Fulmore faced when he became the school's behavioral intervention crisis facilitator five years ago. This is his third season as Wilkinsburg's head football coach, ending a string of three consecutive one-year tenures.

The Tigers opened the first day of PIAA-mandated heat acclimation practices with just 11 players. Six players were attending funeral services for a friend killed in a shooting. Three players are homeless, Fulmore said. Several others have to wear house-arrest ankle bracelets.

“That's just everyday life in Wilkinsburg,” Fulmore said. “They're dealing with this neighborhood. Every one of these kids has a story.”

When loud pops rang out in the distance during that Aug. 6 practice, the Tigers never flinched and continued running drills. Minutes later, the sirens of two police cars and an ambulance blared as they drove by Graham Field, responding to a call that a man was shot on Wesley Street. Before practice was over, Micah Goodman, 41, was pronounced dead.

“We don't worry about it,” said Stephon Byrd, a junior guard-linebacker. “We're used to it.”

What Fulmore stresses is that Graham Field, and the football team, should serve as a safe haven for Wilkinsburg students. But it's one that requires a commitment, some sacrifice and a different standard.

“It takes a lot to walk through that gate, but once you do I tell them, ‘You're a football player,' ” Fulmore said. “We have talks about the qualities that make us good people. This is their opportunity to experience success. If you're a successful football player, you can be a successful person.”

Numbers game

Success, however, has been in short supply.

So have students. According to PIAA enrollment figures for 2013, Wilkinsburg had 300 students (151 boys) in grades nine-12. But Fulmore said almost half of those students attend charter schools, leaving only about 75 boys at the high school.

“There's always a big deal made about our numbers,” Fulmore said. “My kids are all over the place. It's not the kids that are walking the halls that are hurting us; it's the kids walking the halls at other schools.”

What's worse, the Tigers have lost talented players to other schools. Wilkinsburg natives Reggie Mitchell and Dennis Briggs both attended Shady Side Academy and now play at Pitt. The Jackson twins, James and Timothy, attend Allderdice and led the Dragons to the City League championship game as sophomores last year.

“It makes a big difference,” said Everette, who played with the Jacksons in pee-wee football. “If we had those two kids right now, we'd have 30 or 40 kids. They'd say they want to play with the Jacksons. We're trying to bring a sense of pride to the school through the football team.”

Fulmore implores upon his team that while he has only 17 players, he has 17 who can play. Doubling the numbers would afford the luxury of depth so everyone wouldn't have to play both ways and on every special teams snap, as well as providing fresh legs for fourth-quarter rallies.

“I would have 30 kids,” Fulmore said, “and we would have another one of those trophies.”

For now, Fulmore sets small benchmarks and attainable goals, focusing on what's working for Wilkinsburg instead of what isn't. The Tigers are young but talented, a building block for the program. So their coach lets them hold a century-old trophy, as both a reminder of Wilkinsburg's past and a challenge to win one of their own in the future.

“It gives me motivation to work hard so we can get back to winning championships and add another trophy,” said Gennaro Coleman, a sophomore receiver-safety. “It makes me want to go down as a Tiger who won.”

Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

 

 

 
 


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