Gorman: Clairton dances with its destiny
History awaited the Clairton Bears. For 59 games, the small school from the steel town on the bank of the Monongahela River had been unbeatable.
Now a chance to win a fifth consecutive Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League Class A championship and set a state record for consecutive victories was upon them at Heinz Field.
Where the boisterous Bears believe in their invincibility, their coach has a soft-spoken, understated manner.
Tom Nola stood at the center of the locker room, told his team to turn down their music and take a knee for prayer. They surrounded him, placing a hand on the shoulder of a teammate until everyone in black and orange was in an embrace.
“We've got to take care of business right now,” Nola said. “This is what we do.”
Then Clairton did what no team in Pennsylvania had ever done.
The Bears took care of business by beating Sto-Rox, 58-21, on Friday to become the first team in state history to win 60 consecutive games, breaking a tie with Central Bucks West of Doylestown for the record that will serve as their lasting legacy.
A distressed school district in a depressed city in a state slashing school budgets, Clairton faces a future as cloudy as the overcast skies that hovered over the North Shore on Friday morning. Couple that with players all too familiar in dealing with the devastation that drugs and violence have had on their community, and the streak took on added significance.
“We're amazed and honored to do what we've done,” Nola said. “They've put Clairton on the map. Everybody knows about Clairton now. We're just a small town that's economically depressed, and they've brought a lot of pride back.”
The Bears have brought a lot of pride to Western Pennsylvania, representing a region that prided itself on football while persevering after its steel mills closed.
What the Bears wanted to bring back to Clairton was not just another WPIAL championship trophy but a record that could last for decades, maybe generations.
To do that, they had to beat Sto-Rox in the WPIAL final for the second consecutive season. Embarrassed by a 42-6 loss to Clairton last year, Sto-Rox was not about to back down in the rematch. During pregame warm-ups, the teams met at midfield and traded barbs.
What Clairton did not expect was to trade touchdowns, but the Vikings took a 7-6 lead that marked only the second time this season Clairton has trailed. By halftime, the Bears had built a 22-13 lead but had an uncomfortable, unfamiliar feeling. They were used to blowouts, not single-digit leads, and the locker room was quiet.
Dyran Davenport sensed that they were playing too much on emotion, so he broke the silence and spoke up from a small space in the corner.
“How long have we been playing together?” Davenport asked.
Our whole lives, someone shouted.
“We've got to start playing together,” said Davenport, a senior tackle/linebacker. “We've all got the same dream. We've got to come back out here — one unit, one heartbeat.”
Clairton started the second half strong. The Bears scored on a pass to Terrish Webb and after a Davenport interception, a Tyler Boyd run.
Soon the celebration began. In the final two minutes, the players donned T-shirts with their title years on the front and 60! on the back.
“It means a lot because where we come from, you could choose the negative world or the positive world, which is football,” said Webb, a senior receiver whose father was killed when Terrish was 11 years old. “These boys are like my brothers. When we were little, all we talked about was how we couldn't wait to play for the Clairton Bears.
“Now we're breaking records.”
Where the Bears did not believe there was pressure — “That don't run in our blood,” senior two-way tackle Devonte Harvey said — Nola was relieved when it was over.
The streak was starting to get to him, knowing that anything less than breaking the state record this season would be considered a failure.
And failure was not acceptable.
When the Bears broke the 51-year-old WPIAL record for consecutive victories in the PIAA final in December, legendary Braddock coach Chuck Klausing made a congratulatory call to Nola. Long after Braddock merged with North Braddock, Scott and Rankin to form General Braddock, which later became part of Woodland Hills, Braddock's name lived on through its streak.
“I told the players, ‘This is something you'll remember the rest of your lives. You'll be part of what happened here. You'll tell your kids, and everybody will remember for a long, long time — whatever 10, 20, 30 years from now,'” Nola said. “Even if the school would happen to merge with somebody, that name will still be out there like Braddock's was. I guess when somebody approaches it, our name will be mentioned again.”
Until then, the Clairton Bears will represent their town in the way they know best: by winning football games.
It's what they do.
Kevin Gorman is a staff writerfor Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7812.