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A Century of 201 Football

📁 Fall Season 🕔31.October 2016

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District 201 is celebrating its rich gridiron tradition in 2016, the 100th anniversary of its legendary football program.

Players, cheerleaders and coaches from throughout District 201’s storied football history will be honored Oct. 1 when Belleville West plays host to Belleville East. Afterward, West Coach Cameron Pettus said generations of players, fans and coaches will get together at Fischer’s Restaurant to talk about their glory days.

Belleville Township High School fielded its first football team on Oct. 7, 1916 and the squad had the humblest of beginnings.

The Maroons managed to put only six points on the scoreboard their entire inaugural season. The lone score came on an 85-­‐yard fumble return for a touchdown. The Maroons’ club, which was made up of only 15 players, would go on to lose four of its six games that first year, tying the other two.

While they got off to a rough start, the Township High footballers started to find their stride in the 1920s. In 1923, the program celebrated its first winning season. By the end of the decade, in 1929, the Maroons enjoyed their first undefeated campaign, posting a 9-­‐0 record.

The Township High School footballers graduated from good to dominant by the 1930s, winning the conference championship in 1938 and opening their brand new home, Township Stadium, in 1939 with a 19-­‐13 win over Sparta. The new field was the premier high school sporting facility in the region and drew fans from all over southern Illinois to Belleville’s football palace.

After Township High split into Belleville Westand Belleville East, both schools – along with Althoff Catholic High School – called Township Stadium home for six decades. Generations of fans watched football games punctuated by “train timeouts” every time a locomotive passed, with the engineer waving, along the railroad line that bordered Township Stadium on its south side. Township Stadium became part of Lindenwood University Belleville after Belleville West moved to its current location on Frank Scott Parkway and both West and East got new fields on their respective campuses.

At about the same time the new stadium opened, Township High School adopted the T-­‐Formation offense popularized by George Halas’ Chicago Bears. The Maroons proceeded to steamroll opposing teams with an imposing running game.

In 1942, Township High set an Illinois state high school record for the number of touchdowns scored in a game – 14 – a mark that still stands today. The Maroons set the single-­‐game record for yardage in that contest with 826 and the 699 yards Township High gained on the ground in that game are the third highest total in state history.

Local sports legend Bob Goalby, best known for his career as a professional golfer and winner of the 1968 Professional Golfers Association Masters Tournament, was a football star for Township High School in the 1940s.

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“In the days before people had televisions in their homes, you couldn’t just turn on the TV and see games every week,” Goalby said. “So when we played it was a pretty big deal in town.”

The Maroons made sure not to let down fans who waited in lines around the block for a chance to buy a ticket.

“We had some good teams, especially in 1944 and 1946,” Goalby said. “We had a lot of fun.”

Goalby marveled at how the Maroons became so sharp in an era where practice conditions were rough at best.

“Back in those days, the only time we saw our home field besides game days was for 30 minutes on Thursdays,” Goalby said. “They had to protect the field from getting torn up. So the rest of the time we practiced on a yellow clay field.”

The less than stellar conditions motivated Goalby to help raise money for District 201’s Turf for the Teams program which, in recent years, installed more resilient and consistent artificial turf for student-athletes to enjoy at both Belleville East and Belleville West.

Goalby said his most memorable play came in 1946 when he intercepted a pass to help preserve a win over rival East St. Louis in the annual Thanksgiving Day game between the schools.

“That was the first year for the Victory Bell,” a former railroad bell mounted on a two-wheel cart that is presented to the winner of the annual game between Township High School – later Belleville West – and East St. Louis Senior High School. “We got it the first time.”

From the 1940s through the 1960s, a ticket to Township Stadium could be tough to get, especially on Thanksgiving.

“There were a lot of houses where the turkey had to wait until after the game,” Goalby said. “It was quite a tradition.”

>Longtime Township High School and Belleville West basketball coach, teacher and administrator Jerry Turner said the size of the crowd may have been a bit exaggerated. But not because of a lack of interested fans.

“It’s said by some that they put as many as 10,000 people in the stadium for games,” Turner said. “That might be a bit of a stretch because capacity was something closer to 7,000. But they put people in every nnook and cranny, that’s for sure.”

In the days before shopping malls, video games and countless television channels competed for the attention of Bellevillians, Turner said everything stopped in town when the Maroons were playing at home on Friday night.

“The stores downtown closed so people could get to the game in time for the kickoff,” Turner said. “It was a wonderful atmosphere.”

While the Rivalry with East Side would live on, the Turkey Day tradition eventually ended with the creation of a high school football playoff system.

Hubert Taylor, who created the Belleville powerhouse, was the longest-serving coach in Maroons history, holding the role 24 years from 1935-1958.

The 1960s were both a glorious period — and a time of change — for District 201.

The mighty Maroons were 77-10 from 1961 through 1969 and it seemed like nothing could break up the Maroons juggernaut. But by the end of the decade, Township High School was bursting at the seams with record enrollment. A school that had 3,000 or so students at the beginning of the decade had nearly 4,600 in 1966. A new high school, Belleville East, was added to accommodate the growing number of students. Township High School – and its football team — were divided in half.

In 1969, the varsity Belleville East Lancers took the field for the first time. Players who were teammates as underclassmen found themselves on opposite sides of the ball when Township High School, now known as Belleville West, faced brand new Belleville East on the gridiron for the first time.

Township High School had come into its own as a football program,” Turner said. “So dividing into two schools was a bad thing as far as being a football power was concerned. But it was a good thing for the neducation of students and also for the athletes who had more opportunities.”

Turner said that, after the split, the Maroons’ top rival became Belleville East’s Lancers instead of their traditional foe, East St. Louis.

Dennis Snep saw the new rivalry from both sides. He coached at Belleville East from 1969-99 and was the head coach at Belleville West from 2000-08. He recalled that the first meeting between the two teams in 1969 was the event of the year in Belleville.

“I don’t think you could have crammed one more person into Township Stadium when they played that first game,” Snep said. “West went 10-1 that year. Belleville East was its only loss, ruining a potential undefeated season. So that’s how the rivalry started – with a bang.”

While they were rivals one week of the season every year, Snep said the coaching staffs at Belleville East and Belleville West were usually allies the rest of the season. Many of them worked together through the years at one school or the other, so they shared information about common foes in the Southwestern Conference in effort to pool their resources and push both programs forward.

As the years went on, the teams adopted different styles of play reflecting the makeup of their rosters and the styles of their coaches. But both schools have remained special places to play and to coach, according to Snep.

“It’s really a privilege to have the opportunity to coach in District 201,” Snep said. “People ask me what the difference is between coaching at Belleville East and Belleville West and I tell them that there isn’t much when you get down to it. They’re all great kids and both schools have excellent support from parents, fans and the district.”

Pettus said both Belleville West and Belleville East in recent years have restored the strength of District 201 football.

“We have a mission not only to play good football, but to help develop young men,” Pettus said. “We take a lot of pride in that and I think it shows.”

“It’s really pretty neat that this football program has been around for 100 years,” Pettus said. “We’re very appreciative of the fact that we get to be a part of that great tradition.”

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