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Gorman: H.S. football at heart of it all

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Friday, Sept. 4, 2009

Thirty-one years ago, a father followed what has become a rite of passage on Friday nights in Western Pennsylvania. He took his 5-year-old son to a high school football game and introduced him to a new world.

A small world, it turns out.

They followed the Mt. Lebanon Blue Devils, home and away, over the next several seasons. The kid missed only a handful of games, mostly when he was forced by the father to go trick-or-treating on Halloween. His costume• Football player. Every year. Here's the irony: The father taught him to love football but wouldn't let him play. Maybe because, in one of those games the kid missed in September 1980, the father watched Ringgold football player Bruce Groomes die of a chronic heart disorder.

The kid loved the sport anyway.

It's where he learned the difference between stars and heroes.

Who would have guessed that the kid would become a sports writer who covered high school football for the first 10 years of his career and still follows it closely• That his picture would appear at the top of this column?

People often ask, what is so special about high school football in Western Pennsylvania• It's the fabric that connects a community, a bond that links one generation to the next. It's the final time you see a group of kids who grew up together playing on the same team. They could be your family, friends or neighbors - sometimes, all of the above.

Fortunately, my introduction to high school football coincided with the start of Mt. Lebanon's era of dominance. After being upset by Gateway in the WPIAL semifinals in '79, the Blue Devils won the inaugural WPIAL Class AAAA championship in '80, the first of four in a five-year span.

They were star-studded, my memories of them vivid: lineman Bob Schilken jumping over a center to sack the quarterback - 15 years before the LaVar Leap - and running back Mark Hart racing 100 yards for the game-winning kick return against Aliquippa at The Pit, only to have it negated by a clipping penalty. From fifth to 12th grade, it was Hart's only loss.

My favorite player, though, was a running back by the name of Danny Gorman, my cousin and the reason we followed Lebo so fervently. A photo of him carrying the ball once ran in a local newspaper -- with our last name misspelled. My father, the late Paul Gorman, used it as a lesson in accuracy, a reminder of how important it was to get the facts straight.

That conversation was later taken into consideration that, in every story, you were writing about what might be the biggest moment of a player's sports career. And that it was your responsibility to treat it as such.

Covering high school football never got old, whether it was watching Woodland Hills' Steve Breaston bolt 87 yards for a touchdown at Heinz Field, West Allegheny's Tyler Palko hurdle a Perry player into the end zone at Cupples Stadium, Aliquippa's Darrelle Revis score five different ways in Hershey, or Jeannette's Terrelle Pryor weave through defenses and dash down the sidelines just about everywhere he played.

The best thing was every season ended with a championship game.

It was full of surprises, none more so than this: the kid's career path crossed with the stars of his childhood. Hart is director of business for the Steelers - his son, Kevin, is a sophomore all-purpose back at Seton-La Salle - and Schilken an orthopedic surgeon with AGH Sports Medicine.

A small world, indeed, one I plan to formally introduce my 5-year-old son, Kieran, to this fall. We'll be following the defending WPIAL champion Bethel Park Black Hawks, where our cousin, Nick Marshall, is a sophomore running back - and Schilken is the team physician.

Hopefully, high school football will make the same impression on Kieran, and he'll learn to distinguish a star from a hero.

The stars are the players we follow every Friday and beyond.

The heroes• The men who take us to the games.

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