By Tom Rowe
Sun Contributing Writer
Editor’s note: Today’s look at the 1937 football team is the final profile of the 2012 Norwich High School Sports Hall of Fame induction class. The article will run in two parts with the completion in Friday’s edition.
In an instant, the word conjures up an array of ethereal splendor that rivals Charles Martel’s meeting with Dante in the Heaven of Venus, during the author’s final chapter – “Paradiso” – of his classic “The Divine Comedy.”
Like Dante, all people strive to find that perfect something. It could be the perfect mate, the ideal vacation spot, that most appealing outfit, the ability to ace the big exam or owning the car of your dreams. But, unfortunately, those quests usually hit a quick and very imperfect brick wall.
The world of athletics, however, can produce that much sought-after nirvana. Steeped in numbers crunching, sports has long elevated individuals and teams to mythical heights. For example:
Nadia Comaneci of Romania scored the first-ever 10 on the uneven bars at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. She would go on to record six more perfect 10s before the Olympics closed.
Twenty-one times during major league baseball – 18 since the modern era began in 1900 – there have been perfect games. The most notable of these gems is Don Larsen’s perfecto back on Oc. 8, 1956 in a 2-0 victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers in Game 5 of that year’s World Series.
Basketball, an afterthought for years, finally inched its way into the headlines when John Wooden’s UCLA cagers started their unparalleled run to success. Besides giving the Bruins 11 NCAA titles, those Wooden-coached ensembles recorded four unblemished seasons – 1964, 1967, 1972, 1973 – to set themselves apart from any other hardwood five.
And, to this day, no NFL team has been able to match the sanctity of Miami’s run to perfection in 1972. The Dolphins went an unprecedented 17-0 overall, outscoring their opponents 440-209 en route to the title in Super Bowl VII.
But, some 19-plus years before Larsen’s claim to fame, a horde of young Norwich men secured their place in local football history by not only recording an undefeated and untied season, but, in so doing, blanked all eight of their foes en route to their perfect campaign.
With the Depression’s tentacles still wrapped soundly around the country, many of the Norwich High students – athletes as well as not – were forced to work either prior to or after school. Yet 40-plus would-be gridders reported for fall practice, 10 of whom were returning lettermen. “We had a lot of good teams back then, but this club was special because we were fortunate to have 18 very good players,” noted head coach Kurt Beyer in an interview with this writer back in 1987. “We could substitute without ever minimizing our strength. They were tough times, but we had tough kids. “Most of these kids worked before or after school, and so when it came time for football, well that was fun.”
In an article in the Wednesday, Sept. 22 edition of The Norwich Sun, then sports editor Perry Browne surmised that, “Spectators at the Alumni Field workouts have agreed that the Purple should have a pretty fair team on the grid this fall.”
Anchoring the starting front line on the left side were Frank “Sonny” Wassung at end, tackle Tom Byrne and guard John “Piker” DiStefano, while completing the front wall on the right were Jim Rotundo at guard, tackle Walt Odenkirchen and Vernon “Yank” Robertson at end. Jerry Farnham and Vince Panaro split most of the season initiating the fray at center. Team captain Burt Palmatier called the shots at quarterback, Sal “Toots” Mirabito was the fullback horse and the halfback duties were filled by Stan Burdnell and Elmo Robertson. First off the bench to spell either Burdnell or Robertson or to make an occasional start were Tom Mirabito and Lee “Bunky” Morris.
That core remained intact throughout the season also because of a much-different substitution rule in 1937. If a player left the game, he could not return until the next quarter, hence the present constant shifting of players in and out of the game did not exist.
Also, of a different nature then was the way team rules were established. Wassung, Palmatier and Rotundo headed a committee for formulating an honor system of training for the season. Thus, the players policed themselves, rather than the school setting down the standards.
The season was set to convene at home on Saturday, Sept. 25 when Kingston came to town and conclude with a road trip to archrival Oneonta on Saturday, Nov. 13. What transpired during those 50 fall days nearly 75 years ago would not only change the lives of the players involved, but Norwich gridiron history forever. A complete synopsis of those eight contests follows.
THE ROAD TO GLORY
Kingston (24-0) – Sept. 25 (Home): With weather more like July 4 rather than four days into autumn, the Purple opened their season under a blazing and scorching sun against the Colonials.
Although Norwich was able to produce seven first downs, en route to a gamewise 15-5 edge, in the opening quarter, neither team was able to cross the goal line. But early in the second quarter, Toots Mirabito broke the scoreless battle with a 1-yard burst. After a Kingston punt, Mirabito and Morris took turns marching the ball to the Colonials’ 10-yard line, from where Mirabito found Burdnell on an aerial strike to up the halftime score to 12-0.
Kingston, bolstered by the intermission, ran off four of its five first downs to start the third quarter, but a fumble recovery by Byrne on the Purple’s 47 ended any further threats by the visitors. On the very first play from scrimmage, the speedy Morris skirted around right end, escaped three potential tacklers and fell in behind interference provided by Mirabito and Burdnell to streak 53 yards for the third touchdown of the game. The final tally of the day was on another pass, this time from Morris to Burdnell.
“I really think the feeling of a good season came about after that Kingston game,” recalled Beyer in that aforementioned interview. “But, I really believe the players began thinking about the undefeated, untied and unscored on season coming home from the Cortland game.”
Both teams made frequent substitutions during the game for experimental purposes and due to the intense heat. Coming in to spell some of the Tornado starters were Dominic “Dusty” Annesi, Fred Burdnell, John Caezza, Glen Cushman, Fred Johnson, Willard Mowry, Armand Ramaccia, Bernie Thompson and Andy Zaia...