Football's Best High School Fundraiser

Almost every high school football program has a booster club that raises funds to support their team on and off the field. One of the annual events to bolster the coffers is the obligatory summer golf outing to get people from around the community to donate and participate in the program.

This week I want to tell you a story about a different type of fund-raiser. This one certainly ranks as one of the more unique fund-raisers ever held by a high school football program, but one that certainly reflects the character of its community.

In the summer of 2008 defending state champions Cardinal Mooney High School in Youngstown, Ohio boasted multiple big-time college football recruits including rising seniors and juniors who would end up at Ohio State, Notre Dame, Penn State and Oklahoma. As impressive as that list was this storied program at that time boasted three head football coaches in the Power-5 conferences with Bob Stoops at Oklahoma, Mike Stoops at Arizona and Bo Pelini at Nebraska.

For Cardinal Mooney’s fund-raiser they opted for an all-day Bocce Tournament that raised tens of thousands of dollars and brought out an amazing array of people.

That summer the list of participants included Bob Stoops, Bo Pelini and Ohio State Head Coach Jim Tressel. The top 2 ESPN College Football analysts Kirk Herbstreit and Todd Blackledge were there as well. I was one of the assistant coaches who was invited along with Stanford’s DJ Durkin (Maryland’s current Head Coach) and Mark Stoops (Kentucky’s current Head Coach). The event also drew local politicians including US Congressman Tim Ryan.

The event was hosted at a family-run Italian place near the Youngstown State Campus called The MVR (The Mahoning Valley Restaurant). It is legendary in Youngstown lore for great homemade food and for their outdoor Bocce courts.

The games started late morning and all day there was food, beer and fun for everyone on hand. Each team was guaranteed a number of games with a playoff in the evening that lasted until well past 10 p.m.

What was unique in this event was the social element. In a golf outing most of your interaction is limited to the people in your group. With the Bocce tournament you meet and compete against all kinds of people.

As the playoffs started to narrow the field, they asked the visiting coaches and ESPN guys to play in one game. So there I found myself in a Bocce game with Bo Pelini and Todd Blackledge as teammates looking across at Jim Tressel, Bob Stoops and Kirk Herbstreit on the other side.

Ron Stoops who was an assistant coach at Cardinal Mooney and the organizer of the event was on their team with an occasional throw from home-court ringer/restaurant owner Carm Cassese (he was pretty darn good). Penn State Alum, long-time NFL player and Mooney assistant Coach Michael Zordich (now a Michigan assistant coach) was on our team.

In early July the Big 12 Rivalry between Oklahoma (Bob Stoops) and Nebraska (Bo Pelini) was being played out not on the gridiron, but on a crushed cinder, finely groomed Bocce Court in Youngstown, Ohio. There was a Penn State-Ohio State element as well with Jim Tressel and Kirk Herbstreit facing off against Todd Blackledge, Michael Zordich and me.

While the score is lost to memory, the laughs, good-natured trash talking remain along with the line of the night from one of the locals. When someone took out a tape measure to see who had the closest shot one of the old-timers said:

“You young guys with your tape measure….true dagos take off their belt to measure the distance.”

At the end of the game Carm and his family fed all of us plates of pasta, sausage, sauces and meatballs. If any of us had been wearing belts we would have definitely had to have loosened them several notches.

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