Gorman: Ultimate road warriors
The Central Catholic band played the school fight song as Vikings players in full uniform exited the locker room Friday night into a steady rain, walking in pairs as if they were headed for Noah's Ark.
The team walked up the driveway next to WQED, turning right onto Fifth Avenue during rush-hour traffic. Players tried to avoid being splashed by passing cars before turning right onto a private drive and walking through a parking lot until they reached the intersection of Forbes and Morewood.
Honking horns greeted Central players as they crossed the street and filed into Carnegie Mellon University's Gesling Stadium, one of several sites that serve as home field for the all-boys school in the heart of Oakland.
"It's a tradition I'll always remember," said Central senior Anthony Nixon, a wide receiver-safety. "When I think of a Central home game, it will be of us lined up two-by-two and people beeping at us."
What is most remarkable about Central Catholic's football success — the Vikings have won three WPIAL and two PIAA Class AAAA championships since 2003 and are ranked No. 1 in WPIAL and state and No. 20 nationally by USA Today this season — is it doesn't have a home field.
"We try to sell the kids on the fact that we'll play anywhere," Central Catholic coach Terry Totten said. "It's part of our identity."
The football tradition at Central runs deep. Photographs of six state championship teams, spanning 1951 to 2007, line the walls inside the locker room. Photos of the school's most famous football alum, Dan Marino, wearing both a Kodak All-American cardigan and a Pro Football Hall of Fame blazer, are outside the coaches' office, with framed jerseys of Marino and former Pro Bowl quarterback Marc Bulger in the weight room.
What's missing is a home field.
Central has no room to build a stadium on campus, so it has been forced to play home games anywhere from CMU and Duquesne University's Art Rooney Field to rival high schools such as Fox Chapel, Mt. Lebanon and Woodland Hills over the years. Fellow Catholic schools Bishop Canevin, North Catholic and Seton-La Salle also play off-campus but have one site serve as home field. The Vikings are thrilled that they get to play three games this fall at CMU, which is at least within walking distance.
"It's about as close to home as we're ever going to get," Central athletic director Chuck Crummie said. "A lot of Central Catholic alums dream, 'If we only had a home field...' Then we wouldn't be who we are."
Crummie is charged with the tough task of making Central's schedule, which requires finding schools willing to allow the Vikings to touch their turf. The resentment toward Central's ability to draw students from across Western Pennsylvania also runs deep, and whispers of recruiting advantages follow the Vikings everywhere they go.
"There's a lot of schools that don't want you in their stadium," Crummie said. "With most of the people we have used their home field, it's not a big deal. But some of the schools, I think, that was in the back of their mind: Why should we be an advertising agent for them?
"I just think it's all about perspective. I think most high school kids take for granted playing at a home field. When we play at CMU, it's a real treat. Too many kids have a sense of entitlement, like this is our field. We have kids who appreciate it and don't take it for granted. And they also appreciate going to other people's stadiums."
That makes Central Catholic the Notre Dame of WPIAL football, a program that draws as much passion from its followers as it does its detractors. The Vikings played their "home" opener at Gateway, against Archbishop Wood. Their next home game was against Bethel Park at Woodland Hills, where the Vikings always use the visiting sidelines and even wear away whites when they play host to the Wolverines, whom they beat, 31-13, last week.
Woodland Hills coach George Novak doesn't believe letting Central play at the Wolvarena had as much bearing on the outcome as did the talent differential. Central has Maryland recruits in Nixon and quarterback Perry Hills and Division I prospects in tailback Damion Jones-Moore, offensive tackle Logan Dietz and cornerback Juwan Haynes in its senior class alone.
"When you've got the players, you've got the players," Novak said, noting that Central's speed plays a factor. "Most fields are turf now."
The Vikings feel like the ultimate road warriors, believing their travels negate any home-field advantage for opponents, especially after the first round of the WPIAL playoffs.
"Away games never feel like away games," Central senior linebacker Louis Taglianetti said. "I like always having to go away, to prove ourselves on the road. It's an advantage either way."
That's the sales pitch, and it's working.
"They've been selling it for years," said Vikings offensive coordinator Dave Fleming, a '92 Central graduate. "It doesn't really matter. Tell us when and where and we'll show up to play football."