The Lenten season is a time for reflection.
And there are many years of reflection in this boy’s life, both personally and professionally, that come to mind at this time.
I often think about my grandmother taking me to 11:30 a.m. Mass at St. Rose de Lima Church after I received my first Communion.
Back then, you received the host on an empty stomach. My stomach would growl as Msgr. Prendergast prefaced his homily by reading an endless message from Archbishop Joseph Rummel.
My thoughts at that age were for the ice cream and comic book grandma was going to buy after Mass from Daste Drugstore next to the church.
After Mass one Sunday, I blacked out leaving the church through the side door. I remember awaking to four sisters who taught at the elementary school kneeling over me.
I thought I had gone to heaven.
I also reflect on what I consider the golden age of high school sports covered by three local competing newspapers – The Times-Picayune, The New Orleans Item and the New Orleans States.
Let me tell you about that era and why it has become a mere footnote in journalism history that will soon be forgotten when this generation I belong to departs.
As a typical boy interested in sports, I got my news from the daily papers. I went to my friend’s house to watch baseball and boxing when we weren’t tuned in to Howdy Doody or Kuckla, Fran and Ollie on his family’s TV, because my family didn’t own one.
There was a time
Back then, there were five public and four Catholic schools in the Prep League and several smaller schools in leagues known as Riverside, Jefferson Parish and Metropolitan. Not only did the three newspapers cover the games, but they also wrote advance stories on game day and provided a detailed box of statistics (which, by the way, was more informative than the terse player quotes or “it was a great team effort” offerings of today’s articles.
The New Orleans Recreation Department (NORD) was in its heyday, and the players of the week were featured in four playground sports of football , basketball, baseball and track.
All-Prep teams would fill an entire page.
Games between Warren Easton and Jesuit or Jesuit and Holy Cross practically filled stadiums. NORD football games were so popular, the city had to build a stadium for that playground sport (on South Claiborne Avenue and Leonidas Street).
When football and basketball seasons ended, baseball would take center stage.
During this era when Security Sporting Goods in the Carrollton Shopping Center was the Schwegmann’s of recreational and hunting gear, Maison Blanche Department store sponsored the local Babe Ruth baseball program.
Few people today remember that developmental program for pre-high-school-age boys. It’s one of the many dinosaurs the youth of yesterday enjoyed.
American Legion baseball, which today has just more than two handsful of teams, appears to be on the endangered sports list. But back in the day, Legion and the baseball Pelicans were the things to do in the summer when you weren’t at Pontchartrain Beach or Lincoln Beach.
The sports sections of each newspaper was massive. Prep sports filled at least two and sometimes three pages of the Sunday paper.
Each paper had a prep columnist who wrote opinion pieces twice a week.
For many years, the dailies ignored the African-American schools. The only news about those schools could be found in the Louisiana Weekly. But when the black community called the traditional media down for their exclusion, a new era was born.
The T-P hired a writer named Marcus Neustetter, and the States-Item (now a merger of the two afternoon newspapers by the T-P), hired Russell Stockard to cover LIALO schools.
Prior to these two pioneer newsmen, little was known about the black prep athletes.
Then in 1970 when the LIALO folded and the African-American schools were admitted into the LHSAA, prep fans were introduced to the great teams and athletes from a culture that had been ignored for decades.
The first Top 20 Basketball tournament after the merger was played to a capacity crowd as basketball stars like Robert Parish, Bruce Seals and Louis Dunbar made their LHSAA debuts.
Track meets sponsored by the Westbank Lions and Knights of Columbus had records broken practically every year by runners from Carver, Cohen, Booker T. Washington and the newly integrated O. Perry Walker, who streaked home first in sprints and relay races.
The Washington basketball team of 1971-72, which I consider the greatest local prep team to never win a state title, packed every opponent’s gym as long lines bought tickets to see Seals, Williams, Berniard and Growe work their magic on the court.
The annual LHSAA All-Star weekend in Baton Rouge was a showcase for future college talent in the likes of Istrouma’s Billy Cannon, Baton Rouge’s Jimmy Taylor,
East Jefferson’s Mike Miley and Godchaux High’s A.J. Duhe.
The answer is evolution, my friend.
A series of milestones has snatched the limelight from high school sports.
It began with the advent of the New Orleans Saints in 1967.
Before the NFL came to town and the Superdome built, Tulane, LSU and Loyola sports shared the headlines with the preps.
With the advent of Title IX, a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity, kicked in in 1972, the media realized the importance of women’s athletics, and accordingly, as the LHSAA expanded its sports, the newspapers had to make room for girls with the preps.
With the advent in 1972 of Title IX, a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity, the media realized the importance of women’s athletics, and, accordingly, as the LHSAA opened a new area of championship events, the newspapers had to make room for girls.
As high school sports proliferated in the high schools, the LHSAA increased its sanctioned championship sports to 23.
News space has shrunk while the number of sports has grown. Sports staffs that once numbered into the teens are now filled by a handful of full- and part-time writers.
How times have changed
The great days of sports journalism have come and gone, thanks to the technology that spawned the internet and the worldwide web. Every newspper has had to adjust by trying to reach a younger audience in creative ways, reaching them where they are – and usually, that’s on the iPhone or the laptop.
There was a time when the final story deadline was midnight to accommodate late sports news. Deadlines are now 9 p.m. So, forget reading about any event that ends after that time.
I sometimes lunch with a group of guys who find it hard to face the reality that the great days of reporting are the casualties of technology.
Lack of coverage has translated into smaller attendance at games because schedules appear sporadically.
To borrow a line from Mary Hopkins’ 1968 folk hit, “Those were the days, my friend. We thought they’d never end.”
We, who were around back in the day, have those memories on which to reflect before we pass on. But it is gratifying to have played a role in it.
Ron Brocato can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.