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Turkey Bowl at 100: Enduring lessons from coach Brune

You never forget your first Turkey Bowl.It helps if it’s a classic, and comes with a particularly vivid reminder of how sports can both develop character, and reveal it.

In the summer of 1983, I became the prep editor of The Evening Sun, which had already distinguished itself as the best place to find features on high school sports in Baltimore (The Sun’s Athlete of the Year Awards began in the 1960s with the Evening paper, which also went beyond football and basketball on the All-Metro front long before its stodgier newsroom rival). It would be my last holiday season as a single man, the Loyola High team was a pretty good story, so off I went Thanksgiving morning to Memorial Stadium.

The place on 33rd Street was home of the newly-minted World Champion Baltimore Orioles (once upon a time, they were real good) and for just a few more months, the Colts, whom some of us still refer to as the NFL team that plays in Indianapolis. It was Loyola’s turn to use the Colts’ locker room, on the third-base side of the Stadium. I remember, because what happened after the game sticks with me, 36 years later.

The Dons’ roster included some landmark athletes. Pat Welsh would be one of the guys we selected for The Evening Sun Athlete of the Year honor that school year, and go on to help North Carolina to the NCAA lacrosse championship in 1986. Their underclassmen included Bruce McGonnigal, who played tight end for Virginia when it reached No. 1 in the college football polls.

At a time when the Maryland Scholastic Association A Conference included a Poly powerhouse, Loyola rolled through its schedule and entered the Turkey Bowl looking to complete its first perfect record since 1960. It took a 14-8 lead with less than two minutes remaining, on a short pass from Ed Burchell to Kevin Haus (another lacrosse name), but the Dons’ dreams collapsed on the ensuing kickoff.

Calvert Hall called for a reverse handoff involving Shawn Lyles and Gerrick McPhearson, who was finally dragged down at the Loyola 4-yard-line. With 25 seconds left, the Cardinals posted the tying touchdown and winning extra point, handing Loyola a bitter 15-14 defeat.

Some 45 minutes later, the door to the Loyola locker room opened. Out came coach Joe Brune, who saw a gaggle of reporters waiting. His players were devastated, and the last thing 17-year-olds wanted to do was recount their defeat. Without missing a beat, Brune gave one final direction to his senior captains: “They’ve been good to you all year. You need to talk.” They fielded uncomfortable questions, as did their coach.

Brune began accompanying his father to the Turkey Bowl when he was “6 or 7,” as he explained to me in a 2010 feature for the Review. He was in the Loyola class of 1952, six months after he had played tackle in the Dons’ 19-0 pasting of Calvert Hall. He played for Bucknell University, served in the U.S. Army, and in the late 1960s returned to Loyola, to teach, and coach the varsity football team for 35 years.

The year after the 1983 disaster, Loyola lost again to Calvert Hall, which won for a record seventh straight time. Over the next 15 Turkey Bowls, however, Brune’s guys lost just once, winning a record 11 straight from 1989 to 1999. In retirement, Brune returned to help the Loyola J.V., and spent his mornings teaching English and public speaking at St. Ignatius Loyola Academy.

Under the auspices of the Jesuits, Brune taught several generations of young men the value of doing the right thing, doggedness, loyalty, patience and dozens of other seemingly passé traits.

Not all of his students were wearing a school blazer or football uniform.

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Email Paul McMullen at pmcmullen@CatholicReview.org