Leading the “Men of Steel”

Players from Fenwick’s 1962 undefeated (10-0) football team share fond memories of their coaches/mentors.

Introduction by Mark Vruno

Tree leaves from 60 autumns have fallen since the mighty Fenwick football team of 1962 went undefeated and claimed the City of Chicago’s “Prep Bowl” title. With 10 wins and zero losses that season, the Friars outscored their opponents 313 to 32 — quite a dominant margin of victory! The Chicago Sun-Times named Fenwick as the No. 1 football team in the area that year.

All-Illinois offensive guard Joe Marsico, Sr. ’63 (5’11”, 205 lbs.) , carrying the coveted “Daley Bowl” trophy at City Hall, and All-American fullback Jim DiLullo ’63 (right) went on to play at the University of Notre Dame under Head Coach Ara Parseghian. (Marsico roomed with collegiate All-American DT Alan Page!)

Readers may remember that this was in the era before Illinois instituted the state-playoff system for high schools, so the parochial-school champion squaring off against the public-school champ was a big deal in the city. How big? The Chicago Tribune day-after headline read: “91,328 See Fenwick Rout Schurz, 40-0.” A staggering 15 players from that team went on to play Division 1 college football.

Sixty seasons later, 11 team members woke up some echoes from the past and share memories of their five coaches:

  • John Jardine (head coach)
  • Rudy Gaddini ’53 (backfield coach)
  • Future Hall of Famer Jack Lewis (line coach)
  • Tony Lawless (then the school’s athletic director)
  • Dan O’Brien ’34 (freshman football coach and athletic trainer).

The Coaching Staff

After Fenwick, John Jardine (1935-1990) served as the head football coach at the University of Wisconsin–Madison from 1970 to 1977, compiling a record of 37-47-3. Jardine’s best season came in 1974, when his Badgers went 7-4 and placed fourth in the Big Ten Conference. Noteworthy was the Badgers’ 21-20 victory over the perennial powerhouse Nebraska during the second week of the season.

Coach Jardine at Wisconsin

Jardine was a graduate of Purdue, where he was a starting guard in 1956 and ’57. He began his coaching career at Central Catholic High School in Lafayette, IN, in 1958, then moved to the head coaching job at Fenwick HS. His five teams at Fenwick produced an overall 51-6-1 record and the Friars played in the Chicago Catholic League title game in 1959, 1961 and 1962.

Jardine left the prep ranks following the 1963 season, returning to Purdue as an offensive line coach under Jack Mollenkopf. He coached the guards and centers and recruited the Chicago area. He then served as offensive line coach under Tommy Prothro at UCLA from 1965 to 1969. He became Wisconsin’s head football coach in December 1969. (Source: Wikipedia)

A more recent photo of Gaddini.

Post-Fenwick, Rudy Gaddini ’53 served as the head football coach at the now defunct Milton College in Milton, WI, from 1970-81, compiling a record of 61-43-5. (The college closed in 1982.) A native of Chicago, Gaddini attended Fenwick, where he was an All-State fullback. He moved on to Michigan State University, where he played college football for the Spartans in 1955 and ’56. (Source: Wikipedia)

Jack Lewis in 1964.

The late Jack Lewis ’40, a U.S. Marine who served in the South Pacific during World War II, was known for his discipline, according to his 2000 obituary in the Chicago Tribune. After coaching at his high school alma mater in Oak Park, Lewis took control of a struggling football program at Immaculate Conception Catholic High School in Elmhurst, IL, in 1967. Over the course of 25 years, he built a powerhouse that earned respect statewide. Coach Lewis was inducted into the Illinois High School Hall of Fame in 1987. Two years later, he was named to the Chicago Catholic League Hall of Fame and, in 1992, was awarded the Notre Dame Club of Chicago’s Frank Leahy Prep Coach Award.

Dan O’Brien ’34

The late Dan O’Brien ’34 was part of Tony Lawless’s football coaching staff for 34 years. His Fenwick freshman teams compiled 20 undefeated seasons in the rumbling, tumbling Chicago Catholic League (CCL). Ever versatile, O’Brien also was Fenwick’s head swimming and diving coach – a title he kept for 23 years. In the pool during that time, the Friars won 23 consecutive CCL titles under “the Dobber’s” leadership. His teams were undefeated in dual meets: 325-0. They lost only one invitational (64-1).

Coach/AD Lawless

Much has been written about Fenwick sports legend Anthony R. “Tony” Lawless, who was the first layperson hired by the Dominican friars in 1929 to direct the athletics’ program at then-new (all-boys) Fenwick High School in Oak Park, IL. Lawless graduated from Spalding Institute in Peoria, IL, in 1924. He played on the Fighting Irish’s national Catholic high school championship basketball team that year, before moving to Chicago to attend college at Loyola University. He later was inducted into Loyola’s Hall of Fame for both basketball and football. On the gridiron, Lawless played running back when Loyola and DePaul still had football teams.

Nearly 45 years have passed since Mr. Lawless died. For nearly half a century, the man worked for the students of Fenwick and the school since its inception. In addition to the old gymnasium bearing his name, Coach Lawless also has Chicago Catholic League annual awards named in his honor. (See the links below to read about his athletics/coaching prowess at Fenwick.)

Voices still echo in their minds

Memories of John Jardine from lineman George Vrechek ’63: “Even though Coach Jardine was only 24 years old when he arrived at Fenwick in 1959, he earned our respect quickly. If he said to do something on the football field, that’s what we tried to do. He was fair, tough and competitive, and he also had a sense of humor that surfaced on rare occasions. It got so that if he had a crew cut, we thought a crew cut was the way to go. If he had his hands a certain way coming back from communion, that’s the way we thought you should do it.

The No. 1-ranked, 1962 undefeated Friars (10-0).

“During my senior year, the Chicago Sun-Times quoted Coach Jardine saying something surprisingly flattering about my blocking and tackling abilities. I saw him in school the next day, and he quietly told me with a very slight smile, ‘Don’t believe everything you read in the newspapers.’

For many years, George Vrechek ’63 volunteered as a part-time journalism teacher at Mount Carmel High School in Chicago.

“Coach Gaddini has been great attending our prior 1962 team reunions, staying in touch with the players and returning to Fenwick for the Golden Friars gatherings. Somehow, we have gotten closer in age. The winged-T offense he installed confused our opponents. Guys came at you from every direction. Not knowing any other offenses, we didn’t fully appreciate whatever those guys were doing in the backfield at the time. We enjoyed running the ball.”

Jim DiLullo ‘63, All-American fullback and Chicago Sun-Times “Prep Player of the Year” in 1962: “I was always envious of Coach Jardine’s ability to whistle so loudly. He didn’t use a coach’s whistle.

“As a running back goes, Coach Gaddini handled our drills. One enlightened expression has made me smile all these 60 years — Rudy: ‘I don’t mind, and you don’t matter.’ So many times, I used this in life experiences.

“Tony Lawless was properly named. Everything he did and said was his law — and not a veritable concept, such as boxing selections. I always loved the December 1 news photo of the start of my 97-yard sprint. His arms and hands went up to convey a prayer that no one throw a block or clip any longer because, if I didn’t trip, no one could catch me.

Pigskin-carrying fullback DiLullo (at right, from Lombard, IL) would be named an All-American and go down in history as one of the best prep runners of all time. His first season of playing organized football was his freshman year at Fenwick in 1959!

“Jack Lewis was a special kind of individual experience. Once while talking to my father and me, he mentioned that ‘I WAS SUPPOSED TO RUN THE PLAY AS DRAWN ON PAPER WITH Os AND Xs.’ I smiled and kind of told him that running plays generate their own ‘field of possibilities.’ Sometimes the opportunities just appear. He definitely was a ‘lineman coach’ who rode a driving sled. I was very relieved that Rudy was my coach. Every play in our book was [designed] to SCORE A TOUCHDOWN … NO MATTER WHAT.

“No one person could be more caring than Dan O’Brien. He watched our health and well-being. One August night after summer practice, he called my parents to see if I was eating ‘OK’ because weighing out and in I had lost over 10 pounds of water weight. Yikes! Another hot day at practice. He cared!”

Tim Wengierski ’63, All-State halfback, shares some thoughts about Gaddini, Lawless and O’Brien: “A few days after we won the Prep Bowl, he walked up to the gym open microphone.  After a long pause, Rudy said, ‘I can only express the crescendo in my heart.’ There was instant jubilation in the packed gym! Coach Rudy was a terrific person in many ways, always a gentleman.

“Coach Tony Lawless [was] a great athlete, mentor and athletic director. He was always ‘on duty’ and ran a tight ship. I can hear him say, ‘Please boys — move along,’ with his hand at the belly button level! 

“Coach Dan O’Brien was a great trainer and coach extraordinaire! While he was taping my ankle during the first few weeks of school, he asked my name. I answered Tim Wengierski. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘if you are half as good an athlete as your Dad, Ray, or Uncle Julius, we are very glad to have you at Fenwick!’”

Ken Hayes ’65 was a sophomore at the time: “I spent a couple summers working at Fenwick for Carl, our maintenance manager, and Tony Lawless. A nice place to work, but the pay was only $1.00 an hour. One weekend Tony invited myself and John Stapleton to his summer house on the Fox River to paint his home. As you might expect, it was fairly difficult to say no to Tony — if we wanted to continue our football career.

A young Tony Lawless.

“We got to see the other side of Tony: a family man who loved playing with his grandchild, went swimming and was truly relaxing — and getting a great deal on his house painting! We finished early on Sunday and Tony lined us up with a neighbor to take us water skiing. There was a ski jump on the river, and his neighbor gave me instructions on how navigate the jump, since this was my first time. I made the jump, just barely! However, I did not see Tony screaming on the pier, ‘Hayes, you better not try the jump and break your leg! Football practice starts in a week.’ I did get another lecture from Tony later, but I was so happy I cleared the jump; it truly was worth it!”

John Gorman ’63, quarterback: “John (Jardine) was way ahead of the curve in 1961-63. We had a scouting department (Norris, Maddox and Shannon). They would break down film, and I would meet with them on one night during the week. Senior year, he allowed me to change plays, on occasion, on offense, and more so, on defense, where they had plotted certain schemes, for situations, especially against St. Rita.

“We prepared the way colleges were preparing, and with John being 26 and most of us just turning 18, we became friends. When I graduated, John got me a screen test in Hollywood, when he was an assistant at UCLA, under Tommy Protho. I wasn’t discovered, so back to Chicago, to prepare for the draft … not football, but the Army, but it never happened.

Coach Jardine signaling a play (1962 season).

“John was the assistant basketball coach, under Bill Shay, and when we played Loyola, they would play a suffocating man-to-man, and Colleran, a great defender, would be my biggest challenge, all year. John would cover me in practice, all week, beat the cr*p out of me, to help us prepare for the game.

“A mentor, a friend, a great coach, and a wonderful man, who left us way too early! He allowed me, as a kid, to have an opinion, that occasionally was put into action, which was a great confidence builder, that allowed me to work hard, and not be afraid to fail. John Jardine was a winner, a man of high character, and his footprint, is all over our championship season! 

“Dan O’Brien was our freshman football coach, and Sitz [future U.S. Olympic gold medalist Ken Sitzberger ’63] showed up, on day one, and wanted to be a quarterback. He wasn’t about to let the best diver in the nation waste his time and get hurt, while he coached the swimming team. He was told that he could show up every day, but he would never play one minute! 

Gaddini in his playing days!

“Rudy (Gaddini) was a terrific athlete and expected things to come easily as it did for him. He would push you, to reach your capability, in a manner that was quiet, supportive, but always efficient. He was big on stay calm, preserve your energy, and don’t over-think, but react! A great role model, coach and friend! 

On the Friday, before the Prep Bowl, I was in the training room, getting taped by Dan, and talking to Rudy. In walks Tony, and remember, everyone would get very quiet, when Tony Lawless, entered a room — out of respect and some amount of fear. Tony says to Rudy, ‘Hey boy, who sent Gorman to that interview, on television?’ Rudy said, ‘Coach, you’ll have to talk to John.’ In walks Jardine, who gets the same question. John’s answer was the show asked to interview the quarterbacks from both teams! Tony was not happy, and said, ‘Next time, send a lineman!’ However, he looked at me, and said, ‘Go do your job tomorrow!’

“How fortunate we were to have such wonderful role models.”

Matt Hayes ’63, lineman: “During the middle of our football season, the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred. Not only were we talking about our football season but also about the future of our country. One day after practice, Coach Jardine advised us that Coach Gaddini was called up by the reserves for active duty. We were all shook up by that news. We now knew someone close to us that was actually involved in the crisis. Fortunately, the crisis passed and Coach Gaddini returned to coach our football team and help us win the Prep Bowl. Coach was proud to coach our team and proud to serve his country. Thank you, Coach Gaddini!”

Jim Daniels ’63: “John Jardine was always slow with a compliment when we were out on the field. He completely surprised me in the hallway, the day after we finished the senior play (Fenwick’s first musical). ‘Didn’t know you could do that,’ he said, ‘Good job.’

“I found out later, he sought me out, rather than a chance meeting.

“Jack Lewis was always gruff and had a tough visage. My sophomore year in college, he took over a local family bar and became head football coach at Immaculate Conception High. He learned I was playing football at Brown and invited me: a) to a come to the evening workouts of his team and run with the punt teams and b) drop in and ask for advice/company whenever I was near his place. It turned out to be a pleasure to do both.”

Denny DeLarco ’63: “During a practice, Coach Jardine had me running halfback plays and ran me about six consecutive times. (I was totally gassed.) Needless to say, I was getting rather slow and Coach Jardine said to me, ‘You’re running like an elephant backwards. Pick it the hell up.’ So, I dug down deeper than deep. My number was called, and I sped through the ‘D’ all the way. Coach J. said, ‘Guess you got it … just need a little goose.’ What a motivator!

Dick Ambrosino ’64 is in Northern Michigan U’s Hall of Fame. He was an All-American player and captain of the Wildcats’ undefeated 1967 football team who later coached at Fenwick!

 Richard Ambrosino ’64: “Coach Gaddini and I reconnected when I was the head football coach at DC Everest HS in Schofield, Wisconsin. My star QB Dave Krieg played QB for coach at Milton College. Dave ended up playing for [NFL teams] Seattle, Arizona, Detroit, Chicago and Tennessee for a total of 19 years. At the same time, I reconnected with Coach Jardine when he was the head coach at Wisconsin and sent him my All-State players. Thanks, coaches!”

Mike Barry ’64: “John (Jardine) was bigger than life. I was in awe of him. I wanted to be a football coach after my sophomore year. Years later I got a call from Coach congratulating me on being the 1990 National Champions at Colorado. We laughed and remembered Fenwick years. Then the following March, his heart transplant rejected.” [Editor’s note: NFL coach Joe Barry, Mike’s son, is the Green Bay Packers’ defensive coordinator.]

Dan Dinello ’64, halfback: “John Jardine elicited my respect as well as fear, especially when I was an insecure junior on the 1962 varsity team. He epitomized the sign on his office wall: ‘When the going gets tough, the tough get going.’ His gruff-voiced criticism of my blocking in spring practice really stung. Later, he held the blocking dummy and coached me after practice. He worked hard to make me better. 

“As a junior, I was grateful for the attention. It made me work harder to improve and to earn his approval. Coach Jardine also knew my financial situation: The only reason I could afford to attend Fenwick was because my mother, Mary, worked as a cleaning person in the sophomore section, so I attended tuition-free. He also knew I didn’t own spiked football shoes. He sent me out to buy a pair and paid for them. This showed that he cared about me. Coach Jardine used clichés like, ‘Play with reckless abandon,’ so I wanted to do that and impress him. Despite the tough exterior, Coach Jardine cared about all his players. He demanded good grades as fiercely as he demanded good blocking.”

Some of the team at an early-1980s’ reunion.

Fr. Richard LaPata, O.P. ’50: “I was privileged to be the main celebrant at Dan O’Brien’s funeral Mass at Ascension Church in Oak Park. Standing at the altar, I watched his coffin being carried in by eight Fenwick students, boys and girls wearing Fenwick letter sweaters. I must admit that I choked up a bit before I could start the Mass: a fitting tribute to a man who loved the school and its students his whole life to the end.”

Walter McCarty ’63: “I was a swimmer. Dan O’Brien was the swim coach and trainer. Somehow, I was roped into filming the games. We had a meeting with Jardine at the beginning of the season. Coach was very adamant that he wanted Gherke and me to ‘follow the ball!’

“After the first game, we were summoned to the coaches’ office. Jardine was apoplectic. He ran the first kick off on the screen. 

“’Who took this?’ he asked me. ‘What are you doing here?’ as he pointed to the screen!

“‘Just following the ball like you asked ….’ I had followed the football alright, up in the air!

“One of the things not everyone knew about O’Brien, was that every season he would invite the freshman swimming team from the University of Illinois to swim against us at a private meet at Fenwick. Every year they would arrive ready to kick our [butts]. And every year we would send them home with their tails between their legs. I asked Mr. O’Brien why their coach kept coming back? 

“O’B said it was because he needed to show his All-American prospects they could be beaten. When we left Fenwick, the swimming team hadn’t lost a dual meet in some 30 years!

That was Dan O’ Brien …”

NEWSPAPER HEADLINES & PHOTO GALLERY

Before (above) and after (below) city newspaper cartoons leading up to and following the Friars’ BIG game against the Schurz Bulldogs on Saturday, December 1, 1962!

Some gridiron shots from the Blackfriars 1962-63 Yearbook:

Weighing in at 195 pounds and standing 6’1″ tall, DiLullo could be an imposing force with the ball. His five touchdowns scored and 224 rushing yards on only 12 carries in his final game as a Friar was, arguably, the greatest performance in Chicago Prep Bowl history. The undefeated Friars crushed Schurz 40-0 in front of 91,328 fans at Soldier Field!
All-State halfback Wengierski was the other “workhorse” in the backfield.
Gorman, the field general, under center.
DiLullo (from left), Marsico and Wengierski.
QB Gorman
Big tackle Jim Gatziolis helped anchor the line. He later would play briefly with the Chicago Bears in the NFL.
Head Coach John Jardine.
Clipping from an old Chicago Catholic League scrapbook.
An actual ticket stub from the big game on December 1, 1962!

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