By Brian Hasset ’58
Playing football for Coach Pat Malley ’49 was like being a warrior in fealty to a resourceful and determined Celtic chieftain. Well, maybe that’s a little too much historical-romantic spin, but when Pat Malley returned to St. Ignatius in 1956, where his father had coached and he had been team captain, he brought a code and style that probably did derive from such roots. It was a good fit.
He was tough but imaginative. Practice sessions presided over by Pat Malley and line coach Gene Lynch were hard-hitting. When you were called to jump into the tackling circle, runners came at you from every direction, helmets lowered and knees pounding. Your job was to tackle one, then spin around and get the next and the next. It was no picnic, but there was also an element of play in those practices that brought out the best in us. Gordie Lau, who would later argue in the Supreme Court about equal educational opportunity, would let out a shout with each tackle, which Coach Malley played up to add a note of levity. Wind sprints sometimes became a game where first the Italians lined up and ran shouting down the field, and then the Irish, and then an ethnic assortment known as “the rest of you guys.” Off the practice field, Mr. Malley had a way of beaming a beneficent smile when you passed him in the hall that validated all your efforts.
Our offense was nicely balanced. Mick Doherty and Ron Tocchini were a running tandem that pounded defenses until they broke, and Ron Calcagno at quarterback could air out 30- and 40-yard passes to a talented corps of receivers, including Pete Ackenheil, who doubled as kicker of field goals, PATs (points after touchdown) and booming kickoffs. It was a team deep in athletic talent on which every player had honed his skills to fill a need.
When SI played Poly High in the Thanksgiving Day Classic in 1958, a share of the city championship was at stake. Poly, coached by old-time Santa Clara Bronco Milt Axt, had dominated the city league for years, and we had lost to them in the regular season 9–6. Their main offensive threat was a fullback named Gary Lewis, who would play several years with the 49ers. Like us, they were hard-hitting and seasoned. Their offense wasn’t as multi-dimensional as ours, but they were tough on defense and Lewis, a speedster at 6-feet, 3-inches and 220, was a dimension unto himself when he arced off tackle and headed downfield.
Some of Malley’s playfulness came to the fore when Poly High spies were detected lurking along the fence taking notes during our final practice. He called a team huddle, concocted four or five off-the-wall plays, and had us run through them, surely flummoxing the spies and very possibly setting up the confusion that Poly experienced in the game two days later. Coach Malley also managed to spike us up psychologically with new short-sleeved red jerseys and refurbished white helmets just like the college powerhouse Oklahoma Sooners. When we ran onto the field before 22,000 fans at Kezar Stadium, we felt sharp and cohesive, especially when we saw the Poly players doing jumping jacks in inexpertly washed uniforms on which red from the numerals had bled pink across the white jerseys. Score a subtle advantage for the Wildcats.
At this late date I can’t do a play-by-play description of the game. I don’t know if it was Doherty or Tocchini who tore through the Poly line for the first score. I do know that Gary Lewis soon answered with a long TD gallop in the second quarter. In the third, Coach Malley sent in a newly-installed trick play called Helter Skelter in which the entire line pulled left and Ron Calcagno seemed to be following the flow on a roll out. But then Ron planted his feet and reeled off a long cross field pass to Ed Nevin, who had run left with everyone else, but then cut back into the open flat for a touchdown.
It was a hot Indian summer day. Malley substituted freely, which kept our legs fresh. We kept the Poly defense on the field with a couple of drives that didn’t score but left them huffing and puffing. We were up by a few points midway through the fourth quarter — the score something like 14–9 — but Gary Lewis was always a threat to go all the way. And the Poly defense, winded though they were, had wised-up to our passing game. They were yelling, “Watch for Helter Skelter!” when we broke from the huddle in passing situations. We tried Helter Skelter a couple of times more, but Poly’s left corner hung back and easily broke it up. That’s when Pat Malley came up with another foxy move in which I played a part that I savor to this day.
I was standing on the sidelines, hoping we could hold the line, when Pat Malley called my name. I ran to his side where Ron Calcagno was standing. Our defense had pushed Poly back around their own 30. Our offense was about to take the field. Coach Malley fixed us with his fierce blue eyes and quickly mapped out a variation on Helter Skelter in which I, at right end, continued across the field, rather than cutting back against the student body left flow.
I hadn’t caught a pass all season. The good thing about my sudden insertion into the lineup was that I didn’t have time to get too nervous. Calcagno leaned over center Dave Favro, who would go on to play at UC Berkeley, and called the count. The play unfolded in basic high anxiety slow motion. Never fleet of foot, I pounded across the field on a diagonal, head down. At the point when Nevin had earlier cut back, I fired off whatever afterburners I could muster and looked back to where Calcagno had pulled up from his roll out and let fly with a somewhat wobbly pass. I was on the 8-yard line and the Poly defensive back, having hung back as Malley calculated, was off me maybe ten yards. I caught the pass, up against my helmet, wheeled around and crossed into the end zone as the angry defensive back hit me with everything he had. I felt nothing but unadulterated bliss.
Time running out, the Poly Parrots, in their sweaty, vaguely pink jerseys, were starting to wear that dazed look teams get in the final minutes of a losing effort. The sequence of scoring is a little blurred in memory, but at some point Pete Ackenheil kicked a long field goal to put the score somewhere around 23–9. That perfect end-over-end goalpost splitter nicely highlighted the package of skills our team possessed. We won that game with a beautifully balanced team effort, but also high on the list of positive factors was the craftiness of Pat Malley, who spontaneously responded to the game as it unfolded before him with one brilliant surprise after another. I have had many splendid Thanksgivings in the intervening years, but never have I floated 10 feet off the ground as I, and the rest of our band of warriors, did that day.